How Many Hats Does a Literary Agent Wear?

blogger: Cynthia Ruchti

How many hats does a literary agent wear? And why would I want an agent on my side?

Among the many questions agents field at writers conference where newcomers to the industry are in attendance are these: What’s a literary agent? What’s an agent do? Why do I need one? Is a literary agent sort of like an insurance agent, real estate agent, secret agent…but for books?

agent hat treeAt a recent writers guild event, I attempted to answer some of those questions with this list of responsibilities and roles agents play. Every agent is an individual with stronger gifts in one or more of these areas, and with boundaries about how many of these hats they choose to wear.

Many good literary agents serve as:

Advocate

Book doctor and brainstormer

Counselor and Career coach/manager

Defender—of the author, his or her project, the worth of their work

Editor—who already cares about you as a person

 Fan—including sharing publishing or industry successes

Grunt—doing the heavy lifting with numbers, contracts, royalty statements, behind-the-scenes at pub houses

Heart attack preventer

 Instructor/Educator

 Jill (or Jack)-of-all-trades

Knowledge banker—collecting not only information about the author, but what matters to the author, as well as careful data collection on the author’s behalf agent hat casual

List-keeper—timelines, deadlines, where projects currently stand

Matchmaker—matching an author to a project, a project to a publisher

Negotiator—advance, marketing efforts, high volume discounts, rights, royalty percentages, differences of opinion between the author and editors; and buffer between author and publisher

Opinion filter—helping authors know which reviews deserve their attention, which editorial comments or cover art choices are worth further discussion

Agents also wear the hats of:

Proposal shaper and polisher—one of the most time-consuming of all an agent’s roles

Questioner—What are you working on? Why? When do we need to shift priorities? Where do you need to invest more effort or time? What’s going on at home that may affect your deadlines, the quality of your writing, your sanity? Is that the best title for your book?

Researcher—who’s publishing what; who’s reading what; who’s looking for what the author is producing? Keeping abreast of industry news; which editors have changed houses, changed focus, changed careers;

Sifter of ideas—Book ideas are measured in trillions; shelf space for books is measured in inches

hats for agentsTalent Scout—Always on the lookout for a strong idea written by a strong writer with a strong platform and a strong chance of attracting a publisher’s attention

Umbrella of Protection from the harsh rays of publishing reality

Visionary—helping authors envision, plan for, and become equipped for their futures

Wisdom-Dispenser—daily, from “You might want to consider deleting that Facebook post,” to “Your family needs you right now. I’ll talk to your publisher about an extension.”

eXcellence Midwife—Caring about and tending to the excellence growing within an author

Yes Nurturer—working hard to find and grow the best yes; LOOKS for the yes, but learns to live with many a no

Zigger—when the industry is zagging

Agents wear many hats…sometimes all on the same day.

How do I know I’m ready–and my work is ready–for an agent of many hats to take a look?

Stay tuned for the Books & Such blogpost right here on April 26, 2018.

Until then, what hat that agents wear most appeals to you?

P.S. Ending this post with a picture of my personal favorite. What hat would I, a Books & Such agent, most appreciate wearing? This one: agent hat

41 Responses

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  1. The hat with the roses is lovely, Cynthia. But surely there’s a hard hat somewhere in your collection.
    * T – talent scout and TEACHER, because I’ve learned from the best on this website (yes, I know you included “instructor,” but to me that word lacks the loving spirit of the agents who post here). Thank you, Books & Such teachers.

  2. Cynthia, I love your A-Z list of an agent’s hats (and I love the pictures of the hat rack and your personal favorite). So much of what an agent does is behind-the-scenes, crucial work. You all are change-agents in people’s lives, for publishers. Agents do so much relationally.
    *My favorite “Hat” you wear is Knowledge Banker. This role pours into so many aspects of the agent-author (and publisher) relationship. But all the roles are pretty amazing.
    *Have a beautiful day!

  3. Twenty-six hats tossed in the air;
    which, today, finds agent’s swede?
    Wise guide, or perhaps a fan to dare
    me meet readers’ unknown need?
    Will the hat be gay, good news to share
    or a bowler dour; “You’ve mouths to feed,
    so hew to this deadline, don’t be a bear
    in winter’s cave, too dull to heed
    realities for which you’re paid to care!”
    All of these so vital; and thus indeed
    they form a vision of Mad Hatter’s lair
    awash in felt and feathers; but d’you concede
    that if the rule of twenty-six perchance bend,
    I might add an F, and value a friend?

  4. Carol Ashby says:

    Wisdom-dispenser-we can all use that. I had to flip a Facebook post private because someone marked the video as excessive gore and graphic violence. It wasn’t. It was only a video of an Indian python swallowing an already-dead antelope in an Indian zoo while the keepers looked on. I thought it the perfect illustration of taking one bite at a time. It was amazing how the snake just opened its mouth wide and slipped over the entire carcass in less than 15 seconds.
    The problem wasn’t the video but someone marking a Christian author’s post as gore and violence so someone had to click to see it. Who knows what people thought was hidden there?

  5. Cynthia, at one time or another my agent has worn most of these hats. They change as the writer matures and goes through changes of his/her own, but the one thing that doesn’t change is the hat of Counselor. And I’m grateful for the many times she’s worn that one for me.

  6. I love that hat, Cynthia, and I love your post. All the hats are lovely and so necessary for writers. But I especially love book doctor, editor, visionary. I probably love knowledge banker the most, because I see so much love and concern in this place. You all take notice not only of successful authors but also of those who comment here, when we usually don’t feel very notice-worthy, and that means the world to me.

  7. There are so many hats ya’ll wear that it can be downright intimidating. I don’t know how you do it all. Thank you for doing all of that. I am split between in regards to what is most appealing. Grunt appeals because that end of the world is such a mystery to me and it is incredibly intimidating to me. Counselor and Editor especially appeal to me because of the relationship factor. When you have a good relationship with your agent it makes swallowing those hard pills easier. My dream agent would be someone who pray with me through my career and be willing to call me out when they see me heading down a wrong path for my career and God’s calling. I don’t know if that makes sense or I am expecting too much, but that is the kind of agent I have been praying for.

    Thank you for wearing all those hats. What you do is incredible and blows my mind. Have a blessed day.

  8. Cynthia, this is the most compelling post I’ve read yet for why writers need an agent. And the reason I love best was an easy choice for me because I have had the experience of being under the care of an excellent midwife for my third baby.
    What a treasure midwives are. And recently my midwife helped in the care of my first grandchild. 🙂 Oh, happy day!
    Like my mother, I’m a hat lady too. Yes, please–but make my bow green.
    I will only consider birthing book projects on my own that haven’t caught the attention of a midwife but have an eager family gathering in the waiting room. It takes a community to raise a book or child well.
    Blessings ~ Wendy Mac

  9. Excellence Midwife! There have been so many bits of advice and critique from writers, agents, and editors that have moved my craft forward. This hat is so vital!

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      I often tell my speaking audiences that if they take away ONE vital point from each book, talk, podcast, seminar, workshop, they will have accumulated a wealth of information they need to know. 🙂

  10. Mary Kay Moody says:

    You had me at Advocate & Book doctor & brainstormer. All the hats are impressive, and I resonate with Visionary and eXcellence Midwife. And, of course, that gorgeous Royal Ascot-worthy chapeau. Thanks, Cynthia, for the reminder and encouragement.

  11. You’ve captured the essence of being an agent and, well, the joy of living and giving because you want to and because you should. Love it! Very nice.

  12. A fun post, Cynthia! Agents do wear a lot of hats, and every single one is appreciated.

    I would add Industry Preserver to that list. Agents are a huge part of keeping the book industry alive, and keeping it excellent. Between helping authors and publishers produce excellent material, negotiating contracts so the authors can afford to do so, brainstorming marketing ideas so the publishers will continue to produce them, you’re role in preserving literary excellence is huge.

  13. I so much appreciate my agent–whose name also begins with W!–as a Wisdom Dispenser. She always has such amazing insight that I just don’t have on my own. And also an Encourager, though I know that wasn’t E on this list! 🙂
    This post again makes me so appreciate and respect all of you for the MYRIAD of hats you wear. Thank you, Cynthia, and all the wonderful ladies at Books & Such!

  14. How about a helmet wearing rock climber who rappels down to talk a client off the proverbial ledge? AKA the therapist?

  15. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    How ’bout Dan’l Boone’s coonskin cap? For a hunter of the best stories, and defender of new writers who have just settled on the frontier of publishing?
    Cynthia, can you clarify what you meant by “matching an author to a project, a project to a publisher”? Thanks!

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      We know that not every project is right for every publishing house. All have their specialties and a publishing bent toward certain kinds of projects. So finding the perfect fit of project to publisher is part of our job.

      Authors may come to us with their memoir that would be better told as fiction, or their fiction that would find greater acceptance if turned into narrative nonfiction, or their 365-day devotional that would lie in a slush pile because of its similarities to others but would work well as a series of separate seasonal devotionals. We find projects our clients are suited for, but also hone their projects into a perfect match for their talents and reader needs,

  16. PLEASE, prayers.

    Bleeding.

    I am so damned scared.

    Get me out of here.

    • Pat Iacuzzi says:

      Sorry I am so late…but you are COVERED Andrew! Will pray the entire evening…May the Lord strengthen and preserve you.

    • Mary Kay Moody says:

      Prayers, Andrew. God, you are our tower of refuge, but Andrew cannot run. Please lean close, cover him, and be his PEACE.

  17. Coming in late, but so glad I have made time to go back and hit some of the posts I have missed.

    Cynthia, now I know you asked us what one hat do we like best, BUT I just can’t pick one, I can’t. So you have heard the sayings, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” and “There is more than one way to skin a cat.” So, I’m sure there must be some legs on that hat stand in the photo with all those wonderful hats on. I have been able to get things in my car or Honda CRV no one thought would fit. So, I am just going to have to find some way to get that entire collection of hats on that stand, because SERIOUSLY, I need them all. I am overflowing with creativity and imagination, and loads of information on health, etc, etc (so fiction and nonfiction) but I need the REALIST who can do all those things you mentioned.

    If I can’t take the hat rack, I will go get some cute hat boxes and load them up, and I KNOW those will fit in my SUV. 🙂