Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Agents long have known that clients wish an agent had only one client–that writer. But the truth of the matter is that the agent must sustain a healthy list of clients to make a living. Unless your agent happens to represent the likes of Nora Roberts and Nicholas Sparks, the reality is said agent is juggling many authors’ careers simultaneously. Still, clients can be prone to have an image of the agent lounging about, taking naps, or running out for a Starbucks to break the mid-afternoon monotony.
Just in case you had a picture of that sort in your head, let me offer three wrong assumptions about agents.
1. Your agent isn’t sitting with his feet up on the desk waiting for you to send him your proposal/manuscript.
Your agent is more likely to have a running list of clients’ proposal and manuscripts that need to be worked on or read. Not every agent performs these tasks, but we do at Books & Such. We don’t receive a client’s proposal, pop our contact info on it, and dash it off to a trillion-and-a-half editors. Instead, we meticulously comb through your material, always with an eye to whether it’s ready to showcase. If not, we’ll either reconfigure it to highlight the strong aspects and shade the less compelling ones, or we’ll send it back to you, with feedback and a request you take another look. Either way, we pour time into the document. We understand there’s only one opportunity to get a yes, and we want everything in tip-top shape when we ask a publisher, “Wouldn’t you like to offer a contract for this work?”
That means we will not:
- Send it out the day we receive it
- Read it the minute it arrives
- Assume it’s fabulous and email it out unviewed
2. Your agent isn’t charmed when you decide to do your proposal your way.
Our agency created a template for our proposals so that, when editors receive one from us, they know what the format will be and where to look to find certain information. We want our proposals to be easy to quickly look over for key information, and also to say, “Hey, this is from Books & Such. They send stuff that’s ready to be published.” We want to bank on our reputation, even through subtle aspects of a submission such as a uniform look.
If a client decides a creative idea deserves a creative look, unless the agent has agreed to such a plan ahead of time, please don’t surprise your agent this way.
Also, if said agent looks over your proposal and tells you ways in which it needs to be dressed up, use the revised proposal the agent sends you. He or she probably has spent a number of hours changing passive sentences into active ones; rearranging your bio to put the most relevant items at the beginning; making sure the hook and project description are top-notch, etc.
If your agent asks you to make your changes using track changes, don’t decide to rewrite the manuscript sans track changes. Recently I spent an additional four hours on a proposal because a client did just that.
3. Your agent doesn’t live for the day you send her 15 long emails.
Sometimes communication is intense between an agent and client. This past week I exchanged a raft full of emails with a client as we discussed how the direction for her cover went from strong to having no relation to the novel. We eventually added the editor into our communication, which multiplied the emails.
But other times a client, often in the middle of the night, decides his career is going down the tubes. While everyone else blissfully snoozes through the wee morning hours, the client is tapping out long, panicked emails to his agent.
How much more productive to wait until the agent’s office opens in the morning, email the agent and ask if she is available for a phone call, and set up a time to talk about the crisis. The agent is likely to shed light on the situation and help the author to see publishing and career realities from a different perspective.
We sometimes get stuck in writing emails back and forth when it would make communication clearer and more efficient if a phone call took place. But, when emails are the norm, we don’t always break free from that modus operandi.
Now that I’ve hopefully shed a bit of light on how we at Books & Such work, I’d like to hear from you: What wrong assumptions do you think agents have about clients? about writers?
3 wrong assumptions about literary agents. Click to tweet.
An inside look at a literary agent’s day. Click to tweet.
What literary agents wish writers knew. Click to tweet.
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I always enjoy reading your blog, and thanks for another good one. I’m curious, how many client’s does a good quality agent usually have on their roster? I would imagine many.
Also, I agree with you about emails (and texting), a phone call is much more valuable and productive when you can hear the tone of someone’s voice and get right to the point of their subject matter. So much of the world’s communication today is electronic, and I feel we’re losing the “human” touch especially when relationships are dependent on working together.
Really good point about losing the human touch. One thing I really dislike is the omission of salutations in emails. It’s gracious to say “Dear Janet…’, but it would feel downright ungentlemanly to omit the “Dear”, and I don’t see why we tolerate it. (Clearly, it’s a different story when exchanging multiple emails through the day, but should not the first one, at least, open on a civilized note?)
The number of clients varies considerably from agent-to-agent, depending on several variables: how many significant (recognizable name) authors does the agent have? how many debut writers? how hands-on is the agent (editing proposals, giving feedback on manuscripts)? The significant authors take a lot of time because so many career decisions need to be made, and opportunities to exercise subsidiary rights are considerable. The debut writer takes lots of time because the agent is teaching them how to function in the publishing world and how to create a great proposal, etc. Mid-level authors tend to be the least time-consuming because they know the ropes, but there aren’t many chances to exploit subsidiary rights.
I always figured that the “feet on desk” position included chocolates.
Where I would guess agents make incorrect assumptions about writers is in the area of assessing the basic mainspring, the grounded motivation that truly drives a writing career. Not surprising, because I’ll bet that most writers don’t fully understand what drives them. Certainly, I don’t.
It may not be an important question for an agent, and it may not even be that vital a ‘know thyself’ point for a writer.
As long as the writer writes, and the agent ‘agents’, well, I guess the world rolls on.
Well, Andrew, I think most agents understand–at least to some degree– what drives each client. Some care most about the ministry; some need to make a certain amount of money per year; others enjoy the writing; still others enjoy being published. Grasping those fundamental motivations of each client (not that each client is motivated by only one of these) is imperative in the decisions the author and agent must make about what to publish next, whom to publish with, etc.
I appreciate how you expanded on this, Janet.
Yeah, good points. My brain must have been in neutral when I wrote that comment. It stands to reason that both agent and writer should know at least some of the motivation. Otherwise the business and personal relationship would be a walk in the fog…on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
“What wrong assumptions do you think agents have about clients? about writers?”
-that we will, at some point, grow up.
I just turned 52 on Thursday, and the “grown-up gene” has yet to kick in.
-that we sit through church paying attention to the sermon, like, EVERY week.
Hmmmmm, not entirely. My pastor’s wife knows that if she sees me taking fast and furious notes, that it’s about my writing. Hey now! Calm yourselves, I do have arthritis in my hands. So bad that I do not perform the actual physical act of writing unless I absolutely have to. Or I’m making a grocery list.
-that we can behave for huge chunks of time.
Seriously, anyone who’s met me knows I tap out at a solid ten minutes. I was at a posh thing with grown-ups in October where I actually sat on my hands and bit my lip to remain all grown-up-y looking.
-we live on caffeinated beverages
Define “live on”?
And it was only 13 emails.
Happy Birthday, Jennifer!
I’m with you, Jennifer. When those characters in my head begin a great argument while my pastor is praying? I’m going to be writing it down . . . 😉
And grocery lists? Those are important writing. 😉
I take notes just about everywhere I go, I suppose. 🙂 Church, movies, Disney …. And if I can’t (like if jotting a note would somehow be disrespectful or disobeying orders or something), I work real hard to remember the idea in my mind until I can reach the car or a restroom or any private place and jot it down in my phone, etc. 🙂
Thanks for helping us to set realistic expectations, Jennifer. And happy b-day!
Lol, Jennifer, I think you and I would get along perfectly!
I want an agent busy enough to have all the right connections and with the hustle to use them on my behalf. And I think a good email or text asks, “when can we connect to discuss this?”
I have a rule about meetings: never surprise the chairman. If my future includes an agent, I can tweak my rule: never surprise your agent.
Shirlee, you make a good point: If said agent is sitting with feet on the desk, popping bon-bons, as Andrew suggested, that person isn’t hustling on behalf of clients.
Agents are, in essence, salespeople. We always have more we can do to find new markets; enhance what we’re selling; offer helps to our clients to be more effective. Our work, truly, is never done, if we’re doing it well.
In reflecting on this, I think agents may overestimate the ‘artistic’ self-image of writers; we may be prima donnas, but some come to that exalted position from the land of craftsmanship rather than creativity.
That’s an interesting perspective, Andrew. I’m not enthusiastic about representing prima donnas. They take too much time. Just give me a writer willing to put in the hours at the computer. An entitled author is one of the least effective people you’ll find in all of Publishing Land.
I don’t know if I’m a prima donna or not – that’s a judgment for those who know me – but I sure knew a lot of them in the academic world. Hated to work with them, because they wanted ALL the attention and credit. (Which I deserved, after all…)
Andrew, right, let the spotlight shine on the deserving…that would be you, right? 🙂
Great post, Janet. I appreciate your points. One thing I think writers email rather than call is that they don’t want to bother their agent. I agree, sometimes a phone call is what’s needed to clear up misunderstandings. Sometimes, we would rather email so as not to interrupt the agent, and let them get back to us when it’s a good time for them.
But I admit, 13 emails in a short period of time . . . well that’s definitely more than “not wanting to bother the agent.” 🙂
Thanks for the reminder that it’s okay—good—to call the agent when your mind is really knotted up. 🙂
Jeanne, every agent functions differently in organizing his or her day. Some agents are happy to take impromptu phone calls; others want to schedule phone calls so they can order their day more tightly.
But in an emergency, every writer should answer this question the same way: Who you gonna call when you have a publishing emergency? Your agent. That’s always the best place to start–not your best friend; not an online writing group; and most certainly not your editor.
This makes perfect sense, Janet. I know my first thought is usually, “I don’t want to be a bother to _____.” Sometimes, as in a publishing emergency, that’s not the right first thought. We need to make sure we maintain/restore an accurate perspective. and your words about calling the agent first make sense to me. 🙂
I’m not sure what sort of misconceptions agents have about writers, but I know some of those that people I come into contact with are laboring under, and they may be similar.
1) Writers are dying to talk about their works in progress.
NOPE. I may occasionally want to talk about what I’m writing with the people I’m closest to, but I’m sure I’m not the only one whose toes curl when an acquaintance asks “Hey, what’s your book about?”
This is something we need to overcome in order to actually market our books, but I think it’s fairly justifiable. We are, after all, going to the trouble of writing at least 50 thousand words in order to answer the question “what’s your book about?”
2) Writers are “artsy.”
This would follow along with what Andrew said about agents viewing writers as artistic, in the sense of being governed by inspiration and creative impulse rather than self-discipline. Writing a book, as we all know, is hard and unglamorous. If you wait for inspiration to strike, you’ll never finish anything.
3) Writers are all dying to be published.
There are things (indeed novels) I’ve written that I have no desire to let anyone read, let alone submit to an industry professional. Sometimes we write for ourselves or our close friends and family, and that’s enough.
Laura, thanks for exorcising some commonly held myths about writers. That’s very helpful.
Duly noted! In other words, your agent has a life outside your work. Shocking, but true. 🙂
Yup, we do. 🙂
The Lord knows us so well and understands us because he became the God-man, having experienced all we endure, from pain to emotion. Well, I have a feeling agents know writers pretty good, too. After all, most agents seem to be writers, as well, with published works. And who better to represent us writers? Someone who knows, has been there, and understands.
Oh, Shelli, you are so right. Most agents have suffered through the same agonies. When a client calls and bemoans an overly-zealous edit, yeah, I’m remembering the time just such an edit put me in bed for two days. It was debilitating.
Lack of marketing? Oh, yeah, been there, experienced that. My publisher even told me that I should prepare myself for a deluge of sales on my book. That might have happened if it had been marketed…
Kristen Joy Wilks
After reading agency blogs so long, perhaps my misconception is that agents are so busy I should be super careful about taking up unnecessary time. Should I reply to thank them if an agent e-mails me but does not ask for a reply??? I tend to lean toward not making more e-mail work for them. Of course since I am not an agent I have no idea if all agents are this busy or not, but they seem incredibly busy whenever a post reveals how much e-mail they actually have to go through. I would not want hundreds of e-mails in my inbox, ever!
Kristen, I think as a general rule, we shouldn’t send each other thank-you emails unless we’re doing so to acknowledge we received an item that person sent us. It adds to the clog of emails without really adding to the conversation. And we do process hundreds of emails per day; the task of going through them all is daunting–and unending.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Awesome! I was right not to reply then. This is good to know. Thanks so much Janet.
This is a great article. Thank you for the tips. I am currently working on finding a literary agent for my picture books and young adult books so your website has been a tremendous help in my research and getting ready to query.
Keep the great blogs coming.
I don’t know that I’m qualified to offer any wrong assumptions agents have about writers but I’m encouraged to see your comments that agents recognize writers have different motivations for why they write. I’m often intimidated by writers who can push out several books a year because I could never meet that quota—I don’t even want to try. My life is full right now with family responsibilities and ministry commitments that doesn’t allow for FT writing, but I do feel called to write and can fit in a fair amount of writing if I stay disciplined with my time. So I’m thankful to know agents don’t have the same expectations for every writer’s motivation because that affects how we’re driven in regards to quota.
Thank you for your post Janet – helpful as always.
Gayla, one of the questions I tend to ask potential clients is how many books they plan to write per year. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to that for me; it just helps me to set realistic expectations, if I choose to represent that person. We agents have family lives as well, and we understand how dramatically that can affect productivity, which is exactly how it should be.
A wrong assumption that an agent might have about a client is that they’re thinking big picture when it comes to their writing career.
When the industry moves as slow as it does, it’s hard to focus outside the present tense. Things like social media numbers, saving for a content edit or conference, or setting self-imposed deadlines when you’re not under ‘real’ ones.
It helps to define the incremental rewards. Building connections with your future readers, acquiring editing tools for prospective manuscripts even if the first set of content edit notes were overwhelming (understatement), and being a part of a critique group who expects a chapter every few weeks. These are incentives for me. I’m so grateful for an agent who has an experienced view of the publishing process and compassion for her clients.
Jenni, thanks for that input. Because we agents see the big picture regularly, we don’t always remember that the writer can get lost in the minutiae of getting ready to submit. And we don’t always stop to offer encouragement, which I’m sure would be a balm to the author.
Janet Ann Collins
Before attending my first writers’ conference I had a very wrong assumption about agents. I thought you were all angelic-like beings who glowed in the dark and were nearly omniscient. It was a relief to discover you’re real human beings like the rest of us and don’t all like or agree about the same things.
Janet, I kind of like that first impression…
It’s interesting how industries differ. In my engineering position, I’m more or less in your shoes: the expert who takes on clients and helps them achieve some goal, perhaps a new building, or a road, or a flood control project, by applying expertise, experience, and energy to their need. Except in my business it’s a buyer’s market. I have ten or more competitors trying to sell their services for every project I go after, and keeping clients is a primary concern. So when that lengthy e-mail comes in, I have to drop everything I’m doing and address it. If I don’t, I won’t keep that client.
Publishing, on the other hand, is a seller’s market. You have 100 clients hoping you’ll be their consultant. I’m not finding fault; just making an observation. The different between a seller’s market and a buyer’s market. We could never make this kind of post on our website today and expect to have clients tomorrow.
So true, David. Each industry has its own push-and-pull. I value my clients, but I’m juggling multiple careers simultaneously so I’m always trying to figure out my priorities. In publishing, agents are trying to sell in a buyer’s market; so we know the opposite side of the coin as well.
Loved this professional post. Now here’s the truth: So your process to publish doesn’t go from “strong” to “wrong” trust your agent.
Thanks for another great post.
Yes, phone calls can be clearer and quicker than an ongoing email thread. However, emails make a record of what was said, while our memory (at least mine) of phone call details can shift over time.
Very true, Peter. Each can serve unique purposes. I’ve observed that once we start out in email we often don’t shift to the phone as soon as we should. Getting on the phone can resolve issues in the matter of minutes while email could take a lot of tapping on keys before we get there.
Interesting article, thanks. It’s always great to get a peek behind the scenes. I have a lot of respect for agents and the work they do, and the more I learn the more that respect grows.
I never see an agent mention in their listing that they could really use an author who can sell the daylights out of books and who is also a good soldier who trusts the pros like you as well as a publisher. Is there some way that we could get that across in the query, especially if we are already published and have a positive track record with a publisher? I realize that the query and then the full ms. essentially seals the deal, but would including the publisher as a reference make any kind of difference? In short, I see no way the current system prevents an ugly surprise in the form of a client who looked good at first.
Dave, that’s a great question. I don’t know about other agents, but I always try to have a phone call with a writer before I offer representation. It helps both parties to have a much fuller sense of who the other person is. The actual writing, the idea for the book, and the person’s marketing sense all are conveyed in the proposal. And those are the elements that lead to a phone call. During the conversation an author could naturally bring up his awareness of how important it is for him to be able to connect the book with its readers and express his willingness to let the pros drive the publishing process.