Agenting explained, part one: An overview

Today is #AgentsDay on Twitter. In honor of the occasion (and in honor of the fact that a lot of writers have asked me this question lately), I wanted to write my What I Do All Day post.

When I tell people I’m a literary agent, the ones who know what I do immediately start telling me about the novel they’re working on. The ones who don’t ask me what I do all day, and here’s how I explain it: I work in book futures. Agents are not salaried; we live on money paid out from the 15% our agencies take from our clients’ earnings. When we sign a client, we do so because we believe that we will make a return (money) on our initial investment (time and energy and phone calls to editors) in their property (their book). We believe that our investment will pay off because our clients have a product we love. We invest because we believe their product has a bright future. Sometimes we’re right and an editor buys a book. Sometimes we’re crazy right and the editor buys the book that turns out to be The Next Big Thing. Sometimes we’re wrong and we can’t sell a book.

Being wrong is the reason I tell people I represent authors, not books. Maybe I can’t sell a client’s first book, but the second one hits big. When I sign a client, I do so with the intent of representing them as they pursue a long career as a writer. I am not interested in representing one-hit wonders, unless maybe those one-hit wonders are Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell. I have faith in the talents of all my clients, even though they write across a huge range of genres, for all different ages. When I interview a potential client, I always ask what they’re working on right now. A potential client who hasn’t started a second book after finishing the first book isn’t a good fit for me.

I was at a writers conference recently, and during a lecture by an author, an audience member asked, “How do I get an agent?” My response was, “Write a great book.” It sounds like a joke, but writing a great book is really ninety-seven percent of the battle. The other three percent is composed of things like a good social media presence, your vision of your career as an author, how you handle yourself as a writing professional, and whether you’ve queried the agents who are right for your book. (You could send me the best cookbook on the planet, but I’d still pass on it because I don’t represent cookbooks. I don’t even know where my kitchen is; you don’t want me representing your cookbook.)

Agents are in the business of long-term career management and adding value to writers’ careers. In addition to selling books, we can add that value by advising authors on their brands, editing, selling rights, and managing finances. Future posts on these subjects to come.