The Changing Role of the Literary Agent
When you think of a literary agent, what do you picture?
Before I started working at an agency, I had an image of a Very Important Person sitting in an office, reading through manuscripts until they found that diamond in the rough. Then they would (almost immediately) sell that gem off in a heated, cleverly negotiated publishing deal, closing out the phone call with “I want that contract on my desk in the morning!” *slams phone* And that’s where the agent’s role ends.
Oh, Younger Joanna. You poor, naïve little chickadee.
I later learned that the job also included revising and editing said diamonds, going on submission and waiting (oh god, the waiting), sometimes going on more than one round of submissions, negotiating said deal (not heated, or clever…more straight to the point), acting as liaison between author and publisher, reading and negotiating contracts, keeping on top of schedules for said diamond-writing client (production, publicity, etc), and some general client management. And of course, there’s just the general office work, all the while looking for other diamonds and starting the process over again and again. Oh! And networking. Lots and lots of networking.
And while that’s a lot, I think it’s lovely, because it’s the best job in the world (in my humble opinion).
But the world is changing, and the role of the literary agent is changing right along with it.
Sidenote: the role of most professionals is changing, but in the case of this post, let’s just stick with literary agents, or my head might explode.
In fact, the role of the literary agent is changing so much, that I’ve found that I have less time for some of the old responsibilities and have to rely more and more on my assistant (who is—to quote Janet Reid—a GODSEND), and the post-business day work hours.
So what are some of these changes?
Well, I’m going to stick to the top 3 things (though there are plenty more), and I would like to note now that while I am talking about the “role of the literary agent” in general, I am only speaking from my own personal experience and what I’ve learned from a handful of colleagues.
We advise more on public image. Back in the day, no one really knew who the elusive Author was...writers had almost total anonymity unless they were appearing at an event. Even big best sellers were often just a name and maybe a photo. Once in a while one of the biggies would appear on TV. But today we have endless possibilities to get to know authors because of the internet.
Now you may be saying “But Joanna, you’re fairly young…the internet has been around for much longer than you’ve been in publishing!”
And you’re right. But how the internet is USED in publishing has changed so drastically over the past few years that this evolution is still fairly new, and I’ve watched it happen. So before an author’s book launches, agents must help to plan out the public image they want to portray (via website, blog, tumblr, goodreads, twitter, facebook, etc). Which leads me to….
We have taken on a public relations management type role. Pre-internet, it would have literally been impossible for authors to round up all of their book reviews, or even a quarter of them. And aside from fan letters and the occasional event (if any), they didn’t really interact directly with their readers either. But now…authors are exposed to EVERY. SINGLE. REVIEW. And because anyone can have a searchable blog now, not only do they see every single professional review, but they get to see every single personal review of their book, too (well, every one posted at least, which is a lot).
This is not necessarily a bad thing, because it also creates a space for authors to interact with readers directly. Which is pretty freaking cool. (What I would have given to post a comment on Madeleine L’Engle’s blog and have her respond to me when I was little!)
BUT…this leads to a new role for agents. Because the internet is posting things every single minute of every day, authors are put in situations that require a lot more judgment calls on a regular basis in terms of both interacting with their readers and the kind of public image they want to present in order to support their work, which means that agents have to help them make these calls all the time, which is almost a full-time job in itself. (That’s a lot of whichs—bad agent!)
We not only edit…we develop, package, and oh yeah, we still edit a lot. When an editor brings a book to an acquisitions meeting (the meeting where the publisher decides whether or not to buy a book), they are not only meeting with other editors and the publisher—sales, marketing, school & library marketing, publicity…depending on the publishing house, any one of these or all of these departments are present in some way. They all weigh in. And in general, they’re looking for the whole package when acquiring a book: well-written, well-executed plot, commercial hook, possible platform to build-on or create based on the project/author, is it ripe for the market?, etc.
So we have to get our diamond as close to the whole package as possible before sending it off. Which means…well, development, sometimes even packaging talent…and lots and lots of editing.
Confession: we’re still trying to figure out how these important changes fit in our day-to-day in a balanced way. So not only are we expected to have a good eye for a projects, be able to revise, pitch and sell them, negotiate and navigate contracts, liaison between publisher and author...now we're also expected to act as a publicity, marketing and sales consultant, and be able to interpret data (ie-Bookscan numbers, Amazon rankings, etc) as well as the landscape of different review mediums, we're supposed be able to explain to authors what publishers are and aren't doing for their book and why, and the list can go on depending on the book, the author, the publisher and the situation.
Change isn’t a bad thing though. I still think it’s the best job in the world.
And what I should point out before I close is that everything the agent is working on, the author is, too (and more, because they’re the ones writing the wonderful stories). So really, this post should be called the Changing Role of Authors…And How Said Changes Affect Agents.
I’m happy to answer questions in the comments!