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?