23 April, 2010

It is sometimes said that it is harder to find an agent than it is to find a publisher!  And there’s some truth to it.

For would-be authors, though, representation is a must these days. For one thing, publishers count on agents to screen submissions for them.  If they dealt directly with authors on a regular basis, they’d never have time to publish the books on their list.  Publishers cultivate relationships with the agents whose taste and business practices they trust.  And agents, in turn, cultivate relationships with editors who acquire in those categories or types of books they are most likely to represent.  Even in the age of email and voicemail, publishing remains a relational business.  Authors hire agents in part for their rolodexes.

But there is much more to representation than an agent’s contacts.  An effective agent keeps up with industry changes, which these days are rapid-fire.  As companies merge and purge, redirect their lists, develop new strategies and policies, succeed and fail at publishing the books on their list, the agents who deal with them keep abreast of the chaotic landscape and what it means for their authors.

Literary representation is not just about selling a single work by an author.  It is about having an overall plan that you, the client, and the agent are committed to.  When you agree to work with an agent, you want to be sure that that agent understands and cares about who you are, what you are writing, where your writing falls in the spectrum of your overall identity and goals, and what you hope to achieve in the future.  You want to work in partnership with an agent to articulate a strategy to establish you and your work, and to grow the audiences for it.

I often tell clients that literary representation means exactly that:  I will “represent” you, which is to say speak for you.  I will advocate for you and your work every step of the way through a complex process. Sometimes that starts with the seed of an idea for a book, or the beginning of a plot line.  We will shape the material together.  I will share with you how I plan to approach publishers and who those publishers are.  I’ll keep you informed throughout the selling process until we hopefully find the right publishing partner for you and make a sale.  I will work through the contract negotiation literally line by line through what are increasingly complex documents, watching out for your interests every step of the way.  Once the book is sold, the relationship shifts somewhat to a bond between the author and the editor. But a good agent is always ready on the sidelines to advise, problem-solve and move the project forward when challenges arise, as they almost inevitably do.  In fact, I often tell clients that you may have a hard time getting rid of me, as I will care about your book through its hopefully long life.

An agent today also has to think abou the author’s “brand”–a much overused term. Even fiction writers to some extent can potentially have a brand.  In other words, it is important to know where your work fits in to the arc of everything a writer does, and to help make those connections clear.  Each book says something about the writer, his work and his audience. That is why it is sometimes confusing when an author decides to switch genres or messages.

What do agents want?  The answer differs for every agent, of course, but speaking for myself, I want clients who represent me. Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  But think about it. Every time I send an editor a proposal or manuscript for consideration, I am telling that person that I think this material is worthy, something of quality, something to pay attention to.  If I abuse the trust that an editor puts in me to identify the right potential books for that editor, I may use up my capital with that editor.  I believe most agents would agree with me that we are proud of the books we represent and feel that we are making a contribution above and beyond just selling another book.  I’m excited when I can help to midwife a new idea that enters the culture or bring a rich reading experience to thousands of readers.  If I were just a pure seller, I might as well sell high fashion at Bloomingdale’s–something I’ve considered!

As an agent, I seek out clients who are professional, respectful, who do their homework.  My favorite clients tend to be hardworking, gracious, articulate, kind, and appreciative of the hard work that the agency does for them.  These clients research the agency before ever sending us anything to review.  They send us polished work.  One memoirist, for example, spent thirteen years writing her manuscript and then hired a top editor to rework it before it ever hit my desk.  I took her on and asked her to work with yet another editor before sending it out to publishers. The good news is that the book sold, and part of the reason it did was because of the blood, sweat and tears that went into it–and it showed!

I also look for work that is unique.  A distinctive point of view, an arresting voice, a unique plot twist, cutting-edge research:  these are some of the things that make me look up and pay attention.

I always suggest to authors that they work hard on their cover letters. These create a first impression that can make the difference between getting noticed and a form rejection.  Check out an agent’s website. Find out if what genres that agent represents, whether the agent prefers to be contacted by email, letter or phone.  The little things count!

Finally, remember that agents, even busy ones, are looking for you.  We do want to find you and we are thrilled when the right potential clients find us!