Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley, California Office
We talk a lot about what it takes to be a successful published author, but have you ever wondered what it takes to be a successful agent? As each new agent hangs out a shingle, it’s an important question, especially if you are in the market for an agent. Is knowledge of the publishing industry enough? How about if one has been a successful editor or marketing professional? These are just some of the questions we can ask. We agents spend so much time analyzing writers and writing, don’t you think turnabout is fair play?
Since I’m not brave enough to dissect my own job performance we’ll take a look at John Q. Agent, our fictional composite, for our specimen. Let’s examine his agent-appropriate anatomy, part by part, starting at the top.
Every agent needs a good head on his shoulders. John Q is no exception.
Before I became an agent I had been president of my own company for a quarter of a century. At one point we had 35 employees and over a hundred distributors. We met payroll, worked with lawyers, accountants and agencies like OSHA. But do you know what? I’ve never had as complicated a job as literary agent. It’s because of the sheer volume of clients, projects and publishers. Instead of one product line, an agent manages the “product lines” of all his clients with corresponding details and deadlines. It requires an ability to handle multiple, many layered projects running concurrently. The complexity keeps me on my toes. It never grows old.
Our John Q comes from publishing where he was a senior editor.He’s used to dealing with a number of writers and a number of projects but so far he’s only dealt with one publisher. He needs to add a whole layer of relationships and information as he now deals with multiple publishers and their teams. Sometimes it feels like he’s trying to herd cats.
John Q discovered he has to be able to handle a massive amount of unconnected information and have it at his fingertips. When an editor calls with a question about a client, he needs to have the answer. This requires a good memory and even better systems. We’ll talk more about managing the data on Thursday but suffice it to say, it takes a good head to ride herd on all the details. I’ve learned to rely on retrieval systems, lists and workflow management. I’m a systems junkie, always believing the perfect tool is just around the corner. John Q. is working to develop his own systems because he’s discovered he can’t possibly remember everything and he can’t afford the least bit of disorganization.
John Q needs a good dose of old fashion business savvy. While books are the centerpiece of what we do, agents spend much of our time dealing with the business aspects of our clients’ careers— contracts, marketing plans, sales figures and royalty statements. Many agents come from a literary/publishing background but a strong business background can be a valuable pre-requisite. The agent needs to be detail oriented. For instance, he may need to read the same entire contract—word for word—a number of times. I call it “jot and tittle” work. John Q finds he also needs to understand marketplace economics so he understand the challenges the various publishers face.
John Q will need good analytical skills. A big part of our job is examining options. So, here’s our checklist to determine if John Q has the head to be an agent, does he possess:
- A sharp intellect
- Business/accounting savvy
- A good memory— either instant recall or great systems
- Detail orientation
- Excellent analytical skills
Throughout the week we’ll continue our anatomy lessons. Tomorrow we’ll examine the agent’s eyes, Wednesday we’ll consider his nose, Thursday his hands and Friday—the most important part of the anatomy—his heart.
Your turn. If you were constructing the perfect agent, what sort of head would you want on his shoulders?
I wanted all of the things you just mentioned, Wendy, with the prerequisite being someone who walks with God. I struck gold.
I would want an agent that not only knew the market but also knew how to handle people. Let’s face it, being an agent requires the person to be a “people person”. I would want someone that was friendly and approachable. That would guide me through the steps and give their opinion without being overbearing or rude. I would want a “friend” in the industry.
Wow…it sounds like a description of a “super” human being…which a good agent would be!
Would imagination or the ability to comprehend a stated “vision” be useful, or would this confuse business decisions?
I like Cynthia’s addition too…with such a complicated job, it seems relying on God would be a necessity.
Thanks for sharing an intriguing post.
I couldn’t agree more.
And there is one thing I know for CERTAIN. I am NOT supposed to be an agent. 🙂
Great post. Your list combined with Cynthia’s addition, and a deep love of history, that would be the perfect agent for me.
This is a fabulous post. I love this line, “Sometimes it feels like he’s trying to herd cats.”
Like Salena, I want an agent who is a people person; someone who nutures relationships with publishers and authors and learns how to deal with them as individuals. Everyone has his or her own motivations, desires, and needs. It requires being a good listener, but I feel it’s very important.
As Cynthia mentions, the right agent for me will be someone who walks with God.
I look forward to more of these posts this week.
I love this list you have, Wendy – the only things I could think to add would be drive and passion (though I suspect that comes more from the heart than head).
I might be jumping ahead, but anatomy was never a subject I excelled in! 🙂
Thank you for this series – I’m already really excited about it and fascinated to see more!
Having watched a few agents in action over the course of the last couple of years, I would have liked to see something else at the top of the agent prerequisite list, namely: a good agent is one who knows that by nurturing his/her authors, s/he will be successful. There seem to be a lot of agents out there who think that if they can just sign enough authors, one of them will make it really big and they’ll be able to retire on their share of the author’s income. I think this is a deluded approach. It’s also extremely unfair to what should be a stable of authors, all of whom should be treated equally. But perhaps later posts will tackle this issue.
You’ve drawn a clear picture of a complex job. I rely on systems too (I’m a OneNote junkie!). With all of the information I alone have to keep track of, I can’t imagine how hard it must be to keep track of multiple clients’ info.
My agent is the perfect fit for me. She has the right balance of business/encourager. I couldn’t ask for more.
I’d add the heart of a teacher. While knowing the business and having the contracts is crucial, I also want someone who is generous with their knowledge. Not just with their clients, but with writers in general. That’s why I love this blog as well as Rachelle Gardner’s. You guys are fantastic about sharing and teaching.
Like others have mentioned, this “head” list is pretty comprehensive. The other characteristics I’d like to see are ones I’m sure we’ll see later in the week, especially on the heart post.
When I’ve read about how many clients just one agent serves at a time (though I know those clients are at various stages in their publishing careers), I can only imagine how busy you all are. Thank you for this glimpse into an agent’s career this week.
Michael K. Reynolds
Uhhh…my head is spinning. I’m going to go back to writing pretty words.
I would add creativity and the ability to think outside the box.
I’m with Michael. Not quitting my day job any time soon.
If I had read your description four years ago, I’d NEVER have become an agent. And you still have four more posts. Oy.
I think along with industry and business savvy trust is one of the most important for me. I want an agent who understands both mine and the industry’s needs and who I trust to do their best for me and my long-term career. I cannot read contracts so I’d rely on my agent to do that for me; I’d like someone who can find a good fit for me in all aspects of my writing career as well!
I’d be a terrible agent! I’m so glad I’m a writer!! You agents are so talented in so many ways, both in the arts and in the sciences.
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