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Literary Agents: How to Be a Publishing Gatekeeper

uczcew030 December 2015

After clearing up misconceptions in the last post about what an editor does, I think it is important to take one step backwards in the publishing process and start with the gatekeepers: literary agents.

Literary agents are a relatively new addition to the publishing industry, only starting to appear in the 1880’s. As the book market began to flourish and authors had less face-to-face interaction with publishers, writers with no connections found it harder to get their books published and sold. Authors needed a liaison to help them, especially those who knew nothing about the publishing process. Thus the position of literary agent was born to fulfil that need.

I’ll admit that out of all the positions in publishing, this career is the one that intrigues me the most. It is close to the literary action and it is the position closest to the authors. However, there are a few things you have to know to be a successful agent.

  1.     You have to know your own taste: If you cannot answer what your favourite book or genre is, you have to figure that out. For authors to find an agent and submit their work, they need to know who will be interested in reading it and who has connections to publishers who would interested in publishing the book. If you say you like, “everything,” you will get everything. And if you are not passionate about what you are receiving, you will have a hard time selling your works. So be picky!
  2.     You have to be diplomatic: If you hate being stuck in the middle, literary agency would be hell. Editors will want to make changes to the book that authors would sooner die than submit to and authors will want to know why the marketing team isn’t renting a Good Year blimp to advertise their book. The job is much more people-oriented than it appears, and if you are not efficient at diffusing tense situations, you might want to consider a different part of the industry. 
  3.   You have to be social: This is probably the hardest part of the job for naturally introverted book lovers. Not all of your books will come to you through emails. If you want to be successful you have to woo authors and discover rising stars that you can add to your clientele, and that involves going to writing events and booking coffee dates. Publishers also rarely approach agents first. You have to seek them out, pitching books you know they won’t buy just so that in the future they might remember you and ask what you have new. It really is a lot of social legwork and networking.
  4.     You have to care about money: Your main job is not only to get your authors published, but to get the most financial benefits for your author from that publication. The margins are not that great for book sales, so publishers will do anything they can to keep as much of the money for themselves. Your authors, especially those who have little experience with publishing, will depend on you to get them a fair deal. So you will, at times, have to play hardball. You will also have to encourage friendly competition during book auctions or even turn down deals from big-name publishers who aren’t taking your author seriously enough. If you don’t care about the deal as much as the book, you won’t get very far as a literary agent.

 

Don’t get discouraged if you aren’t inherently a social butterfly or have a few things to learn about negotiating. You will likely start as an assistant anyways, so you’ll have time to practice.

If the job just doesn’t quite sound like your cup of tea, however, tune in next month, when I will be talking about moving from the words on the page to the actual book in the exciting world of production!