What do agents do all day?

8 February, 2012

What do agents do all day? 

The answer is, well, complicated.  We think of agents as wheeler dealers, power brokers, talking tough and extracting large sums of money from publishers on behalf of their clients.  There are occasional moments like this, and they can be fun.  But the truth is that agents–at least effective ones–are incredibly hard workers who spend a great deal of time behind-the-scenes, greasing the wheels of an exhaustive process.  We are the middlemen and women, who seek to discover and nurture talent and ideas, something hard to grasp, and even harder to measure.  Would that perfect proposals and manuscripts arrived each day in our inbox and that all we had to do is put them out there and voila, the offers come pouring in.  A far cry from the reality for most of us.

Instead, we spend countless hours coming up with ideas and trying to find the right person to execute them, or reviewing hundreds and thousands of pages of query letters, proposal drafts and manuscripts which may or may not hold promise. We offer editorial suggestions for improving and polishing the projects we do take on, and sometimes after doing so, we don’t win the client and receive little thanks for our  time.  I have spent as much as a year in development of a project, perhaps pairing an expert and a writer, finding the book that resides within that expert, honing the pitch, developing the strategy.  We build relationships with publishers, keeping up with scores of editors and publishers, getting to know not only their areas of interest and responsibility, but also who they are as people.  This can be relevant.  A mother of small children may love a new perspective on child development.  An editor whose loved one was recently diagnosed with mental illness may buy a memoir about that same illness. We also invest time getting to know our clients: What makes them tick? What makes them anxious? How can we best support them?  What is their style?  (For example, some writers do best left alone while others like/need a lot of interaction.)

Once a project is ready, we go into pitch mode, and as we do so, we learn immediately if the pitch is working or falling on deaf ears.  It may need to be rethought.  Should we send the project to a few select editors or more broadly to a long list of editors? Is this a project that calls for meetings with editors (given how limited their time is)?  Should it be auctioned?  Is there a better way to make the right sale, getting the writer paired with the best fit publisher?

We negotiate the deal, and sometimes that also means rewriting or attempting to revise a contract that may run from 5 to 25 pages, in excruciating detail. This means we have to keep up with industry standards, and increasingly today, the rapid pace of change which results in constant revision of industry practice.  This is not fun (at least for me) and takes countless hours.  Then we chase the publisher for the fully executed contract and payment.  More and more, publishers think of every trick in the book for delaying payment–“a glitch in the system,” “checks go out from a different office and we have no influence on when they go out,” “computer is down”, “accounting is on vacation/maternity leave” and so on.

Sometimes the relationship between the author and publisher is smooth sailing, but more often than not, there are hurdles.  The editor may not be returning the author’s emails and calls.  The author has writer’s block or may not meet deadlines. The author hates the cover. The publisher doesn’t have a marketing plan in place and expects the author to do everything (or so it seems to the author).  My job is to facilitate this relationship if need be, smoothing things over, facilitating, keeping things in perspective, explaining the unexplainable.  This is excellent training for negotiating peace in the Middle East.

Once the book is published, a new set of anxieties may arise.  The book isn’t selling. The book isn’t at Barnes & Noble.  Amazon is out of stock. The book is out-of-date and needs revision and reinvention.  The publisher decides not to bring out a paperback.  The e-book isn’t available.  The e-book is available but it is priced ridiculously high.  The author doesn’t understand (understandably enough!) her royalty statement,  and even if the book is not earning out its advance and never will, we owe it to the client to answer these questions.

An agency is a business, and as such, there is a great deal of administration involved, just as in any business.  It’s not just about publishing.  It’s also about making sure we have the right business owner’s insurance policy in place, pay our taxes on time, issue accurate earnings statements to clients, cut and mail checks, wire funds to the author in Australia, analyze overhead costs, etc.  Not all agents worry about this, but owners of agencies do, and it takes time.

And of course, in between, agents tweet, blog, update websites. That’s why I am writing this blog post at 5:00 a.m.

But here’s the bottom line, at least for me. My top priority is the authors and their work.  As long as there is life in the book, or in today’s parlance, in the content, I’m thinking about it.  How do we keep the pulse going?  What more can the author and publisher be doing?  How do we reach more readers?  And overall: how do we help the author to build his or her presence, develop his career, become more successful?  Can we make dreams come true?  (Sometimes, and when we can help that to happen, it feels great.)

As far as I can see, my job is never done.

–Joelle Delbourgo