So You Want to Be an Agent? Here’s Five Reasons You Might Want to Rethink That Decision

Dear Literary/Agency Interns,

I feel it is my divine duty, as the self-appointed patron saint of interns (I’ve done twelve internships and counting, holla!) to pass on some of the things I’ve learned in my recent transition to the agent world:

  1. Don’t believe the hype. Whenever I attend a conference, I always have this moment where I feel like Molly Ringwald walking into the prom. People notice agents, and treat us with a certain level of respect–even reverence–based solely on our status. However, it’s important to remember how little status is actually worth in the grand scheme. (Much like high school popularity.) Being an agent is awesome, but it’s not about feeling better than anyone else. (Or at least, it shouldn’t be.) I’ve met and worked with many fellow agents and editors over these past few months, and the one thing that has impressed me most of all is that those who talk the biggest game and act “so above it all” are much less likely to be effective advocates for their clients. Why? Because they’re too busy making it about them. You know that old saying about “all talk, no action?” I’m not saying you can’t talk trash and still back it up, but why bother when you could just kick a** all day? On the other hand, acting successful agents (like Marisa Corvisiero and Janet Reid, for example) use their popularity for good, in a way that is both helpful and awesome. By extension, many people admire–and ideally, respect–them. But they don’t do it for the popularity. Neither should you.
  1. Helping your clients and/or fellow agents become successful is a double-edged sword. Publishing monogamy is becoming more rare with each passing year, and that’s both sad and natural. Some agents leave agencies to start their own agencies, and some authors leave agencies for other agencies–or to become self-published. This is not a new thing, by any means. But it’s something to think about, as you start to form ideas of what kind of agents you want to be–that is, if you decide you actually want to be an agent. It’s not just about signing clients who have written good books anymore. With all the free advice on the internet, and more and more “publishing partner” sites like Book Baby offering to do the work of an editor/publisher (or at least, what they think we do) for a flat rate, it’s logical for authors to feel like they can go it alone. Especially once they’ve tasted publishing success in a more traditional way. They feel their fans will follow them into self-publishing, and in many cases, they’re not wrong. As someone who is a die-hard advocate of the “teach a man to fish” school, I believe in empowering those we teach to learn, experiment and discover on their own. Sometimes, because of human nature, this means they’ll eventually get to a point where they feel like they don’t need us anymore. Even though I also believe that true partnerships are based on choice and mutual respect–instead of codependency–it’s not an attitude everyone shares. I respect that too, and don’t judge those who decide to strike out in search of independent success.
  1. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to help. For agents who take the time to research the market, past and present trends, and build their skill sets to include more than just finding good books and pitching them to editors, I truly believe there is a very promising future ahead. Instead of paying a fairly impersonalized service to help launch each book, writers want someone who will help them make decisions about their career. Maybe they’re not writing in the best genre for them, or they need ideas on how to smartly and profitably make a book into a series. Maybe they’re not comfortable with self-marketing and need help figuring out how to tailor available social media and advertising models to their own comfort level. For that, they need an agent. Correction: they need an agent who is willing to spend their time learning how to make a career in publishing as successful as possible for each individual client.
  1. We don’t get paid very fairly; but that’s not the agency’s–or the author’s–fault. The problem with any kind of industry-standardized salary structure is that there will always be people taking advantage (i.e. just doing the bare minimum in order to scrape along) and other people being taken advantage of (i.e. working their tails off, spending sleepless nights trying to figure out how to improve, and still getting paid exactly the same as that other a-hole who does practically nothing.) I imagine you’re probably thinking “oh, but if you take on more clients and work harder, you’ll sell more books and make more money.” But that’s only true if you can depend on certain outcomes…which in publishing, you really, really can’t. Clients/authors are not golden geese, but complex people who must leap over the same hurdles of life we all face (brain fog, laziness, Netflix-addiction, children, day jobs, etc.). Writing or discovering the best book in the world doesn’t automatically mean it’ll impress an editor, score a publishing deal, or hit any bestseller lists. Half-assed books get published all the time, and miracles of literary genius get rejected every day. I’m not saying there isn’t a formula, but I am saying it’s kind of like horticulture…for magic beanstalks. However, I like to think it’s still better than more reliable alternatives. Because hey, rescuing (or stealing, depending on your perspective) magic harps and slaying (murdering?) giants for a living is way more badass than selling cars or formatting spreadsheets.
  1. Being an agent is hard, pretty much never-ending, work. When you get it right, you’ll probably never get the full credit you deserve. When you get it wrong, it sucks, because there will be a lot of people watching, depending on you, even hoping for you to fail…and when you do, it will feel similar to falling off a giant beanstalk. OUCH. (And Jesus, could we please chop this metaphor down, already?)

Now, I apologize for the impromptu lecture, interns. I realize none of you asked for my opinion. I say this out of love, and fueled by many years of my own mistakes, because for a long time I didn’t really know how I fit into this industry. I mean, let’s get real here. A lot of you probably started interning as a way to figure out how to get your own book(s) published. (No judgment, we’ve all been there.) Everyone secretly (or not so secretly) wants to be a successful author, with fame and fortune and the freedom to do and write whatever they want. A lot of people think being an agent is the next best thing, because we don’t even have to write the books. We just read them, make some suggestions, sell them, and profit forever. Right?…right? (Hahaha I’m laughing and crying as I write this, because NO.) But the thing is, the best things in life are NEVER easy. The harder you try, the more you learn, the better you are at life in general. But it still takes a certain kind of person to choose growth over security (or…magic beans over milk money–whoops, I slipped) and I realize not everyone can afford to do this.

The important thing to remember is, nobody can make you a good agent, but you. You choose this life, because you LOVE it. If you don’t love it, that’s cool–just go do something else.