Can't Anyone Be An Agent?
I’m involved in several online groups and yesterday one of the participants wondered about becoming an agent. This person hadn’t published books or worked as an editor—which is how many agents get their starts and information about how the inside of the book publishing business works. Because this writer was reviewing and promoting books, they were speculating whether they could become an agent.
Because you have to be a member of that particular group to read my answer, I thought I’d rework it slightly and post it on my entry about the Writing Life. It will hopefully give you some insight about the role of an agent. Let me preface this entry saying there are some excellent agents in the world of publishing. You need to follow this link and heed the advice to find a good one. Not every great agent is a member of the AAR but these agents have to follow the rules of the organization (which means not charging reading fees, etc.) plus they have to be in good standing to continue in the group. I encourage you to ask around—who are your published friends using as agents? Are those agents open to considering new clients? Every agent that I know is looking for new clients—but they have to be the right clients for them.
The question about whether anyone can become an agent was interesting. Anyone can hang out an agent shingle and become an agent. Someone who reviews books does have relationships with publishers. Because I’ve also reviewed books for many years, I know for a fact your relationships are not with the editors at the publishing house—but with the publicity and the marketing people. To be an agent, you must have a relationship with the editors and editorial directors of the publisher.
Where do you get your clients? If you are going to set up your agency properly, you have to choose carefully—choose clients who you will be able to sell to the publisher—because in general—that’s how you make your money as an agent—from that 15% when you sell it to a publisher. And if you think the deals are slow as an author—wait until you see how they work for the agent. I know several new agents who have sold thousands of dollars of contract—and on the books look like they are making money. Yet in reality, because of the nature of this business, they have yet to get into the black. To learn about the scamming agents, I highly recommend Ten Percent of Nothing, the Literary Agent From Hell by Jim Fisher. It reads like a novel and is excellent.
Agents do many different functions with their clients. Some agents just sell the proposal to a particular publisher. The good agents often function as an editor for their clients—and return the proposal with all sorts of suggestions about how to reshape it better for the market. Agents have to be able to understand contract law and how to negotiate with the editor (on behalf of their client). Then when the royalty statements are issued from the publisher—the agent looks it over—and sees if it is correct (see the level of professionalism that you have to have in order to handle this function properly). Also agents negotiate other rights for their clients beyond the basic book deal—foreign rights, film and TV rights, audio rights, etc. Other agents do career counseling with their writer clients and help guide their long-term strategy in the market.
Many agents are former book editors. They understand the details of a P & L statement (the profit and loss statement or the actual book financials which the author never sees). These editors-turned-agents have sat inside the publishing house and seen what it takes to produce a bestseller and the types of pressures and struggles inside a publisher for excellence. And when there is a problem in the writing process or with the manuscript or any number of other things in the process of working with an author? If there is an agent, the editor turns to the agent. It’s their client and the agent becomes a problem-solver role for the project.
That’s just the beginning of what an agent does for their clients. If you want to get a clearer picture, I recommend Richard Curtis’ book, How To Be Your Own Literary Agent. I met Richard several years ago—he’s a top NY agent and his book is easy to read. Whether you plan to be an agent or want to learn how to work with an agent, I recommend this book. It will help you understand more of the ins and outs of publishing. It’s all part of the education process.
Sure, hang out that shingle and become an agent. Some writers will be thrilled to have you represent them—but 99.9% of them will be unpublished and you will have to do a lot of work to be able to sell their manuscripts. You see every time an agent sends out a project to a publisher—that submission is representative of their client but also of the agent (and their quality control work on the submission). If it’s not good, after a few tries, the editors will not take your submissions seriously.
I’ve watched many good people “try” and become an agent—then give up after a few years. It’s hard work and takes a lot of experience in the publishing world to accomplish it with effectiveness.