At a recent conference, an author and an agent presented a case study about how they met at a writer’s conference, signed an agreement and the agent then shepherded the writer through the publication process. At one point, the writer made an offhand comment advising authors not to expect much in terms of marketing support from their publisher.
The comment set off an audience member, who began questioning the agent. He wanted to know why she didn’t help with marketing. Wasn’t that her job? The questioner became increasingly belligerent as the agent tried calmly to explain that marketing is not the agent’s job. I felt bad for the agent, though she handled the questions in a professional manner without getting ruffled.
The exchange reflected false perceptions some unpublished writers may harbor about the role of an agent. The agent explained her role was to advocate for the author. She championed the author’s work by contacting publishers and pitching the author’s manuscript. She negotiated the contract with the publisher and pushed for the most favorable terms for the author.
In this case, the author’s editor left the publishing house in the middle of the project and it stalled. The agent used her knowledge to locate the person at the publishing house who had the authority to assign a new editor and got the project back on track.
So what is the role of an agent? Here’s a simplified version:
- Represent the writer.
- Shop the writer’s manuscript to editors at publishing houses.
- Secure and negotiate a contract with a publisher on behalf of the writer
- Track the publication process with the writer
- Troubleshoot any problems that arise
- Negotiate subsidiary rights to the writer’s work.
Many agents will offer strategic advice to the writer. Some will sit down with the writer at the outset of the relationship and discuss the author’s long-term goals and then work to help the author achieve these goals.
For a more detailed description of what agents do, read this blog post by former agent and author Nathan Bransford.
Another great resource is literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog. Rachelle blogs daily about agenting, writing, and publishing, and never fails to give mature, sensible advice.
In this super-competitive field, where publishing contracts are hard to come by, a lot of frustrated writers vent their fury at agents. I don’t doubt there are rude agents, just as there are bad apples in every profession. I have to say I have had nothing but positive experiences with agents, and this is coming from a writer who has been rejected every time. Agents know good writing. They know writing that sells. They appreciate writers who take the time to read their submission guidelines, submit appropriate work and take the time to write a decent query letter.
I’ve had one-on-one interviews with agents. One resulted in a submission. Though it was rejected, the agent gave me some advice on the opening chapter that resulted in revisions that saved the manuscript. I thanked her when I saw her the next year at the same conference.
It’s easy to blame an agent for a writer’s lack of success. They’re the gatekeepers. Do they make mistakes? Do they reject bestsellers? Sure they do, but we all make mistakes. I’ve got a couple of manuscripts somewhere that I hope never see the light of day.
Some critics say agents are tied too closely to the publishing industry and are quick to defend everything publishers do. That’s valid, but it’s a little like saying lawyers are tied too closely to the court system. That’s their bread-and-butter.
At the same writer’s conference, I had the good fortune at lunch to sit next to a New York-based agent. I had nothing to pitch, so I was relaxed and we had a nice chat about writing, publishing and the changes in the industry.
Let’s remember agents have a job to do and play an important role in the publishing process.
What are your experiences with agents?