Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of posts in my feed either confused about agencies, not understanding what they do, or simply disparaging the industry practices. Some of these complaints are valid, but many of them are just a matter of understanding and setting realistic expectations for what a literary agent wants and can do.
First off, understand I am not an agent nor do I have one. However, my S.O. and I have a combined ten years in the entertainment industry and have dealt with them on many occasions and even have friends that are in the agency business. I also current work at that building above, which is the headquarters for Creative Artists Agency. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and talk with their people over the years.
Many people have dealt with agents, often without thinking about it. There are more than just literary or talent agents out there; an agent is simply someone who acts as a liason between a client and a prospective business opportunity. Insurance agents, real estate agents, talent agents – they all work off the same principle of taking on clients for commission of work, regardless of the industry they work in. Their goal is to find that perfect, happy medium where hopefully all parties involved (including themselves) can make the maximum amount of money for the trouble.
First off, just as a simple warning, one of the most important aspects of an agency is above: they work on commission. I won’t spend an hour explaining the ins-and-outs of state laws or industry practices, but if an agent is asking you to pay upfront, they are more than likely not legitimate. This is especially common in the film and television world where agents will ask you to “purchase headshots from their select photographer.” Please do not fall for that.
Anyway, there are plenty of blogs detailing the agency process, how to handle query letters, etc. so I won’t cover most of that. What I want to cover should address the dissatisfaction some writers have towards agencies or the process. Often, I read that an author was upset over a rejection letter they received or that the agents were asking them to do things they did not feel were relevant to writing. I remember one blog in the Freshly Pressed section complaining that an agent researched the author’s background and posts, only to determine they were not marketable. Usually, these same posts are complimented with “I’m self-publishing because I want control of my work.”
In the film industry, someone constantly mentioning “my vision” or “I need control over my work” is not someone you are likely to want to work with early in a career, and the same applies to writers. While there are many reasons self-publishing is taking off and becoming popular, it is important to understand that if you want to make it big in any industry, get your books out on shelves, and get those movie deals, your work is going to have to be a collaborative effort. If you cannot work well with others or listen to the advice of agencies and editors critical of your work, no one is going to want to sign you on. There is a reason screenwriters are often barred from sets, and that “desire for control” is a major one.
Agents are not out to be mean or disparaging. They are there to do a job, and in the art world that often means doling out honest feedback. If they do not think a book is good, they have no reason to sugarcoat those thoughts. On the flip side, however, the clients they do take on will require a fairly involved personal relationship just out of the sheer time involved with negotiating.
When an agent picks up a client, it is because they feel that the author has a manuscript that isn’t just a good work. Agents are looking for authors who are marketable and open to changes in the script and story that editors feel would make it sell better. They need someone they can work with, not someone who will make demands.
It’s not an easy job. Agents are often in the middle of all of the forces that bring a book to life. And they, too, are struggling to deal with the changing technologies available to the general public. If they seem harsh or difficult, it’s often because the margin for traditional publishing is extremely thin and dictated by factors out of the agent’s control; the editors want something based on the current market atmosphere and agents have to look for those books in order to make a sale.
However, a good book is still a good book, and if they find something from an author they like, they will fight for it as much as they can. That is their job, but it’s also a passion; no one gets into a difficult industry like publishing without having a drive to enjoy it.
Often, I hear excuses from authors saying “I tried traditional publishing but the editor/agency said it wasn’t what they were looking for or they didn’t have the right opening for it. I know this is a good book and traditional publishing is terrible so I’m going to Kindle instead!” It’s said as if, somehow, agents and editors aren’t spending 60+ hours a week involved with nothing but books and publishing.
Sorry, but if you’re having that much trouble finding an agent, then chances are your book just simply isn’t very good. Maybe you can go on Amazon and make a decent amount with royalties; it’s becoming more common, after all. But, it’s silly to blame an agent or editor for being openly honest with a writer. If you can’t take criticism, you probably won’t go very far in the industry, and those are exactly the kinds of client agencies are trying to avoid. Essentially, by complaining, you’ve proved their point: that you’re hard to work with.
Things are changing with self-publishing and so on. However, with the grand majority of books sold still being physical copies, understanding what agents are looking for and what they do is just as important as ever in a narrowing field to traditional publishing. Don’t get discouraged; stay open, listen to their feedback (however harsh), and understand that every agent is looking for something a little different based on their personal contacts.