Thursday, May 13, 2010

Literary Agents: The Gatekeepers to Publishing

A recent college graduate asked me if I could clarify agenting, as I have mentioned that might be a better match for most people who think they want to be an Editor, so here goes!

Agenting is what’s most like editing, although the job flies below most people’s radar. You find the author, edit, send it out to the right editors, hopefully get a sales, and then you’ve helped launch an author’s career.

Agents edit manuscripts at an earlier stage, and they have a lifetime relationship with authors. Unlike editors, their loyalties are never torn as they help new authors navigate the complicated publishing process. They hunt for new writers, and are the ultimate match-makers, trying to pair the right author with the right editor. If the idea of discovering new writers thrills you, and nurturing a career and a relationship over time, then agenting may be your thing. Agents scour obscure literary journals, go to writers' conventions, contact guests from TV and radio shows, and read manuscripts including slush. They meet with editors (editors pay!) for lunch or drinks and take notes. They need to know which editor are acquired and what they want to buy. They also do their research on publishing houses so you know which houses publish what types of books well. Those houses will have more and better contacts to publicize books in those fields than if they publish a one-off. They will get to know editors and know which are hands-on and like to edit with a fine-toothed comb, as opposed to editors who are all about the hunt and never do any editing. Obviously, some manuscripts will need more work than others, and so when submitting the personality of an editor matters as well, as does their position in the house and their influence to get promotion and publicity notice for their books.

They edit the manuscript multiple times. Just like you'd never send your first draft of a resume out in a job search, also an agent wouldn't submit a manuscript until it's as near perfect as they and the author can get it. Agents negotiate contracts. That shouldn't scare you; publishers don't play hardball, and larger agencies have boilerplate templates on file at the large publishing houses. But this is an area where an agent does help their author get a good deal; a much better deal than the author could get on his own. Often the agent will request to retain certain rights such as theatrical or foreign. Sometimes those rights can make an enormous amount of money. Who would have thought that a musical based around a retelling of an old fairy-tale would end up raking in millions? Selling off the subsidiary rights can help to promote the book in the case of first and second serial (printing of an excerpt in a magazine or newspaper), and can also make the publishing house put more money and oomph behind the promotion of a book when they see that it's been sold in 14 countries. Those sales can really be your author's bread and butter and allow him/her the freedom to keep writing and pay the rent.

Agents hold the author's hand. They explain the whole publishing process, what to expect and when, so the author sets aside time for certain tasks like checking over the copyedited manuscript and reviewing the jacket copy. They run interference for the author when an unsatisfactory cover or publicity plans are presented. They help prep them for appearances, and try to place short pieces in magazines to publish around the same time as the book.

Once the book is out, they get royalty checks and pay them out to the authors. They work with authors on their next book ideas. They negotiate to get the paperback rights back if the initial publisher declines to put out a paperback edition. They remind authors of upcoming contract deadlines. And they are always looking for new clients, which means reading query letters, manuscripts, and writing tons of rejection letters.

Typically publishing house employees move every three years. If you are an editor, your authors stay with the house. You have to leave them behind when you pursue a new job. But as an agent, (for the most part; there are always some exceptions), you get to take authors with you if you change agencies or branch out on your own. Eventually, you can move away from NYC if you’d like. Most agents end up working for themselves. It can be much more flexible.

Agencies, like publishers, also range in size from small, four-person offices such as the Joy Harris Literary Agency or Writer’s Representatives, to the massive behemoths of William Morris and ICM. And generally agencies share the same advantages and disadvantages of size as large and small publishers.

I mentioned LMP in my last post about editorial, and it's crucial with looking at agencies. Any agency that charges fees instead of (or in addition to) a royalty is generally considered a scam within the industry and reputable publishing houses won't deal with them. Preditors & Editors is a good source of info on which to avoid. Yes, it is geared towards authors, but job seekers should absolutely stay away too.

Everyone Who's Anyone has a comprehensive list of literary agents with contact info. For more info on what agents do daily, Miss Snark had a wonderful blog, that is sadly no more but all the archives are still available. BookEnds and Nathan Bransford have great blogs. Look for A Day In The Life posts. Most everything from my last post about job hunting for editors also applies to agenting, so be sure to check that one out if you missed it.


Priya Parmar said...

it is amazing how profoundly an agent shapes an author's career. my agent is my first phonecall when i have either a publishing or a plot question. she translates the publishing process into a language i can understand. it is wonderful to know that in every situation she is on my team and has my best interests at heart. i lucked out with tamar rydzinski at laura dail. i did not take personality into account during the querying process but it is so important!

bibliophiliac said...

Thanks for an interesting inside look at what an agent does. I think I would have been good at that! I guess I'll have to be a writer instead;)

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