Um…What’s An Agent?

It turns out blogging isn’t easy as I initially thought it would be. I started with the grand idea of blogging twice a week, then twice a month, and then, well, life got in the way. I may have neglected my little blog here, but I haven’t forgotten it. I’ve been so caught up with revising my manuscript that every time I’ve thought about a blog post my brain has rebelled. “No!” the cells holler. “We can’t think of anything else! Our limited supply of witty and clever and interesting things has been used up. We’re a dry inkwell, leave us be!!”

Well, today I gave those brain cells a what-for and returned to my dear blog. Take that brain!

So, yeah, I’ve been immersed in revising my manuscript, which inevitably comes up any time someone (usually Hubby) mentions my writing. The conversation usually goes like this:

Hubby: “I can’t wait for Sarah to finish her revisions and get a big book deal so I can quit work and play golf all day.”

Me: “Yeah, that’s not how it works.”

Friend: “Revisions, what for?”

Hubby: “Her agent wanted her to rework some things.”

Friend: “Agent, what’s that?”

Since I’ve signed with a literary agent (still not old, squeeee!!), that last question is the one I encounter second-most. (The first being, “what’s your book about?”) Friends, family, people I don’t even know that Hubby mentions my writing to (I know, I should be glad he’s proud of me, but quiet, mousy Sarah usually just wants to stand against the wall and not be noticed, so Hubby bringing up my writing induces an “eek! hide!” response. I’m working on it.) none of them know exactly what an agent is or what one does. Now, I could talk at length about what a good agent does, especially my agent, who is fabulous beyond words, but with the average attention span growing shorter and shorter, I find myself with a one to two sentence window to break it down for them.

“It’s kind of like a real estate agent, except they choose you, and it’s really competitive. They’ve got all the industry contacts and shop your book around to the right publisher.”

This answer usually gets the “Oh, you’re getting published!” response. People hear publisher and run with it, despite my, admittedly quiet and soft-spoken, protests of “No, not yet, but hopefully” before letting it go. (I can’t help it, I just don’t have a loud voice and I’m easy to talk over. At work when I pass someone in the hall and they say “hey,” I always end up doing this embarrassing thing where I say “hey” back, but no sound comes out, so I’m really just making some weird mouth movement).

I’ve tried a different approach. “It’s like a sports agent.” Which brings blank stares from people who don’t know how a sports agent works, or nods and smiles from those who are pretending. Honestly, I’m not surprised the sports comparison doesn’t turn on cartoon light bulbs. The closest most people have come to a sports agent is Jerry Maguire which, let’s face it, doesn’t really compare to the literary world that much. (I’ve yet to hear my agent yell “Show me the money!” Although, I have to admit, it would be kind of cool).

I’ve even tried “It’s sort of like Greek mythology. Publishers would be the gods on Olympus, writers–mortals–can’t get to them, so they need agents–demi-gods–to act as intermediaries. The agents get lots of requests, though, and can only represent a small number of mortals.” That’s not so great either, though.

Frustrated with my lack of a good response, I asked some *writer peeps. “What is an agent?” Here are some of their responses (with their permission of course):

“A substance that can bring about a chemical reaction or a biological effect.”

Hmm, perhaps I should have been more specific.

“They pick you based on talent and represent you because they have connections and the publishing companies don’t have time to deal with loads of peons. A talent agent gets you gigs and a literary agent gets you publishing deals.”

Closer, but let’s go deeper.

“They’re sales people (to publishing houses), lawyers (contracts), editors (self-explanatory), psychics (predicting market trends), accountants (fees and royalties), marketing assistants (this will sell/this won’t sell/this will this more palatable), translators (the editor means this…the contract means this…) and babysitters. As well as gods/goddesses.”

Yes, yes, yes to all of this. Agents wear many, many hats and roll sevearl jobs into one. I think it’s hard to wrap your mind around how much they do if you’re not neck-deep in the publishing world. How to break this down more simply, though?

“An agent is definitely a middle man. But I kind of think of mine as a representative.”

I love the word “representative.” I think it combines a lot of those hats into one big, ten gallon Stetson. Someone else used the term “advocate.” Love it.

There were a lot of excellent responses, but I think these capture an agent best.

A literary agent is someone who spots a talented writer with a great story, takes what the writer created and shows the writer what needs to be done to make their book the best they can write, what needs to be done to make it marketable, and pushes the writer in that direction. Then the agent takes that best book to the publishers and tries to show them the beauty they saw in the work. If things go well, the agent negotiates the resulting publishing contract, then sees the writer along through their career.

Of course, this varies slightly from agent to agent. Some are more hands on, they like to be involved in the writing and editing process. Some are only interested in one book, or one series, not the writer’s whole career. Some don’t do much at all (I recommend staying away from these–See Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors when you’re looking for agents). A writer has to decide what they want in an agent, what sort of relationship they’re looking for, and seek out the agents who fits them best.

If I have to boil it down to future people Hubby may blather about me to (he means well and I love him for it, even if I may want to sink into the furniture at the time) I think I’ll say this: agents are advocates, who believe in the writers the choose to take on as clients enough to devote their time and effort into helping those writers succeed. They have the publishing experience and contacts the writers lack and represent the writers to the publishers to sell their books.

It’s not some jazzy dressed up metaphor, but I think it conveys the gist of what an agent does. If the person I’m talking to is interested enough, I’ll keep going and explain all the hats the agent can wear, in particular my agent.

What do you think? How do you see an agent?

For some common misconceptions about agents, check out Literary Agent Carly Watters blog post on the subject.

*Special thanks to the writers at AW who contributed their thoughts, especially “SomethingOrOther,” “Maramoser,” “The Ink Goddess,” and “missesdash.”

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4 thoughts on “Um…What’s An Agent?

  1. My husband says things like this all the time! Plus he adds in that there should be an amusement park like Harry Potter World in the mix.

    I really like the way you’ve described this. I used to have the same kind of issues describing what I did working at a PR agency, but in some ways it’s similar. I was the middle man for my clients, working to get them in the newspaper or on TV or in a trade magazine, because I had the contacts and had been trained to do it the right way. Sure, you could skip the middle man and get lucky, but it’s nice to have someone in your corner who knows what they’re doing.

    And I’m sure having an agent won’t get old for a long time!!

    • Hahaha, I’m glad I’m not alone! Although the amusement park idea sounds fun. : )

      I love how you put it “you could skip the middle man and get lucky, but it’s nice to have someone in your corner.” Perfect!

  2. Pingback: Traditional Vs. Self, Which One Did You Choose? « The Ranting Papizilla

  3. Pingback: Let’s Talk Career Direction | Word (en)Count(ers)

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