What Agents Are (and Aren’t)

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Back when I did my “It Takes a Village” post on all the people who go into book publishing, I mentioned that defining any one of those jobs would take a blog unto itself.  Well, I don’t know enough to dedicate a post to each and every one of those positions, but I certainly know enough about agenting, so I’m pleased to present to you “What Agents Are and Aren’t.”  (I know, but all the catchy titles were taken.)

We Are:

Your business managers and career planners. Just as you would call your lawyer for legal aid and your accountant for financial planning, you would lean on your agent for business guidance and career advice.  Not just advice, of course, but action.  We should be available to discuss strategies and options and to initiate courses of action that are decided upon.  We’re also here to play bad cop.  If you have a problem with your publisher, you don’t blog, tweet or tell your friends about it, you call your agent.  We can handle things in a diplomatic way that gets the issue solved while still preserving your editorial relationships.

Your rolodex. What’s that?  Am I really acquainting an agent’s job with an outdated piece of paraphernalia?  Well, yes and no.  What I mean here is that it’s an agent’s job to maintain contacts, just like a rolodex.  We keep up-to-date on who’s buying what from whom, who’s out on vacation or maternity leave, what various editors like or dislike, where they are and how to reach them.  I suppose in that sense, we’re possibly more like private investigators.  Wait, I like that idea much more.  Totally justifies my fedora.

Your negotiators. Agents negotiate overall terms of a deal, then go over the contracts when they arrive with a fine-tooth comb, haggling out language and any issues that arise.

Your subsidiary rights managers. Any rights that we’ve retained on your behalf (i.e. not granted to the publisher), like translation rights, film and television, merchandising, audio, etc., we work either directly or through subagents in other countries/fields with whom we have a relationship to submit work and negotiate agreements.

Your sounding boards/editors. Not all agents work editorially with their authors, so it’s something you’ll want to find out about a representative (asking works really well) before signing on.  However, from my perspective, there’s too much competition out there not to take advantage of a professional’s expertise to hone ideas, synopses and partials before they’re ever seen by the publishing houses.


We’re Not:

Your Yes-men. If you want someone to tell you what you want to hear and reconfirm all of your thoughts and ideas, get a parrot or an apprentice, a la The Donald.  If you want someone to tell it like it is, hopefully in terms that make it easy to swallow, you get an agent.  They won’t always tell you what you want to hear, but they will tell it to you straight, or should anyway.

Your Publicists. We may have a publicity/promotions specialist at the company, as we do at The Knight Agency, but that specialist works with all of the authors at the agency and so won’t have the time to work on individual marketing plans or to set up signings for each author.  What the specialist may do is advise on plans that are in place, promote the authors collectively through the agency website, newsletter, Twitter account and other media, occasionally highlighting specific titles or authors.  However, you’ll be assigned a publicist at your house who will help to set up signings and arrange other types of promotion.  Again, they’ll be assigned a lot of other authors as well, so if you want personalized attention, you may want to consider hiring your own brand specialist, publicity/promotions person or virtual assistant.

Wow, I feel like there should be a whole host of other things that agents aren’t, but really, we do it all.  Oh, okay, we’re not runway models, therapists, skydivers, structural engineers or any number of other things…except when we are.



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12 comments to What Agents Are (and Aren’t)

  • Hi Lucienne. Thank you so much for taking my blog day last week. Soooooo. How’s ReVamped doing?

    Also —
    >>We’re also here to play bad cop. If you have a problem with your publisher, you don’t blog, tweet or tell your friends about it, you call your agent. We can handle things in a diplomatic way that gets the issue solved while still preserving your editorial relationships.

    This is still THE MOST important piece of advice, especially in this day of the instant messinging, texting, and fast emails. Writers get ticked off and shoot off a quick reply to something that gets under their skin and they ruin a relationship that could have been saved.

  • I really like how you lay that out, Lucienne.

  • Great list, Lucienne. I would add, though (and I’m sure Faith and Lynn and Di would agree) that if you’re really lucky (as I am), your agent will become not only all the things you list above, but also a reliable friend.

  • Lucienne Diver

    Aw, David, that right there is why I love my job.

  • Lucienne Diver

    Thanks, Moira! Faith, Revamped looks like its getting a bit of a slow start. Hope everyone will go forth and buy! (Sorry…shameless plug…hangs head in shame).

  • Shame and guilt are completely useless… except when used to control fictional characters… So stand up and shout, Lucienne… “Buy my book!”

  • Lucienne Diver

    Widdershins , I come from a die-hard Roman Catholic family. Without guilt and rationalizations, we’d cease to exist!

  • Thanks for a wonderful post.

    >> Your sounding boards/editors. Not all agents work editorially with their authors, so it’s something you’ll want to find out about a representative (asking works really well) before signing on.

    This one surprised me a little. While I realize that agents aren’t editors, I was under the impression that most still helped with editing prior to sending out to publishers to make sure that the manuscript is as perfect as it can be. In any case, when I get there, I’ll be sure to ask whether they’ll share their expertise!

    Also, to help with your shameless plugging, if I can make it home in time tonight (50/50 unfortunately, since I’m on the West Coast), I’m going to try to jump on the chat over at the TKA blog! 🙂

  • Lucienne Diver

    Thanks so much, Megan. I hope you can make it!

  • Thanks, Lucienne. Helpful material.

    Have you ever written about how you became an agent in the first place? That’s a story I’d be interested to hear.

  • Lynn Flewelling

    Great post! And something new writers don’t always know, especially the part about not badmouthing their publisher in public. Bad form. I remember when you first took me on, you said that the agent was the person who handled all the tough issues so the writer and editor could still have lunch together. Never forgot that!

  • Lucienne Diver

    Dear Edmund,

    Actually, my path to becoming an agent was pretty straightforward. I was an English/writing and anthropology double major in college. (And had enough credits for a drama minor, because I’m a workaholic.) When I graduated, I took some time off to finish a truly terrible novel that will never see the light of day and then applied to jobs in publishing and to graduate school for forensic anthropology. I always say that publishing got back to me first, which is more or less true. My dream college (I wanted to study with the famous William Bass at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville) kept sending notices that my application wasn’t absolutely complete. One of my advisors didn’t get his recommendation in, even after prodding. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if he had and I’d had a choice to make. I might have become Bones. Probably, though, I’d have chosen publishing. I absolutely love fiction, and always have. Plus, it rarely comes with multi-legged tagalongs (and I have an absurd insect phobia).