Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Hard Wired For Conflict Equanimity?

STATUS: I’m feeling this strange desire to belt out Men At Work songs. Wait, that’s because I’m jet lagged and actually in Australia!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK by Sting

Last Thursday, Angie and I got a chance to do informational interviews at the Denver Publishing Institute. As 2002 grads (and I can’t believe it’s been that long!), we were happy to give back by chatting with the graduating students looking for careers in publishing and specifically those who were interested in agenting.

I did about 15 interviews and during the day, I have to say that something completely crystalized for me.

Q: What does it take to be a good literary agent?

A: The ability to handle conflict.

Q: What does it take be a happy literary agent?

A: The ability to be sanguine about all the conflict you deal with on a daily basis.

I know. This should have been obvious but I had never boiled it down to the above. Ninety percent of agenting is troubleshooting and doing conflict resolution.

And I’m not exaggerating.

An agent’s job is to be the author’s advocate. Plain and simple. And that means it’s the agent’s job to sometimes be the “bad guy” so the author can have a warm and fuzzy relationship with his/her editor and publisher.

The agent is the person who says the tough things when they need to be said.

So if you are by nature, a conflict avoider, then being a literary agent is not going to be a happy job for you. It’s not like anyone loves conflict (or maybe some folks do!) but some folks are more hard wired to deal with it with equanimity.

Definitely something to keep in mind if you want to pursue this particular career.

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16 Responses

  1. Imelda said:

    yes, Kristin is here for the RWAust conference and we are all happy dancing to have her!!!

  2. Anna Banks said:

    Yes, this is a great point. It still amazes me how ambitious my agent is, how up-front, direct, and non-fluffy she is when she needs to be. She protects me and I lubs her. I, on the other hand, am Ms. Thank-You-Sir-May-I-Have-Another.

    You agents rock. *sniffles*

  3. Tamara said:

    Huzzuh! Welcome to Oz.

    I know you had a post in there somewhere too, but… you know. Australia. We don’t get a lot of spiffy visitors, especially of the publishing world variety. Have fun!

  4. Giles Hash said:

    What about conflict with clients? I’d hope that it wouldn’t come up very often, but if you work with confrontational clients, I imagine interactions get heated at times. How do you handle those clients?

  5. Cassandra said:

    See also Rachelle Gardner’s kindly tough-talking post today on agenting as a career choice.

  6. Angela Brown said:

    Agents have to wear many hats. Conflict seems like a clear-cut deal breaker for anyone interested in diving into being a literary agent as a career.

  7. Rachelle said:

    This is SO TRUE and, like you, I’d never crystalized the job in quite this way before. I’ve linked to this post on my blog today, which is also about the requirements for being a literary agent!

  8. Kristin Laughtin said:

    Good points. I think a lot of people think agenting must be this glowing, happy-type job because you get to represent books you love. But the deals don’t happen by magic. They don’t realize that you’re salespeople who must have the ability to push and argue on our behalf. I can’t imagine you’d succeed if you were weak-willed or avoided conflict.

  9. twittertales said:

    I can see from the comments that I’m far from the only one who said, “Ooh! Australia! How exciting!”

    Melbourne is a great city – sorry about the rain 🙂 I was there for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last year and it was my habit of eavesdropping on public transport that made me realise how artsy it really is.

    Louise Curtis

  10. Lucy said:

    @ Jessie

    The question is answered from time to time on agent blogs, but it hasn’t come up for a while, so I’ll give you what I remember.

    You do not have to have a license, or a degree to become an agent–one of the reasons so many questionable/inexperienced/damaging agents exist is precisely because of the lack of regulation. I’m assuming you don’t want to be any of the above.

    Most people who go on to become reputable (and respected) agents follow a career track that either begins as an agency intern, or in an entry-level position in a publishing house. With the former, the would-be agent is mentored through the ranks, often moving through an assistant-ship into supervised agenting, and eventual partnership or at least working “on their own.” For those who take the publishing track, a corresponding rise through the editorial departments–preferably for a recognized, reputable publisher–is the most common, though experience in sales and marketing shouldn’t be overlooked.

    Many agents do not make enough sales to have agenting as their only job; those that do, tend to work what probably comes close to 80-hour weeks, if all the query/partial/full manuscript reading is included.

    Hope this helps! 🙂

  11. June G said:

    I never realized conflict was such a huge factor. I guess you have to be very skillful in being confrontational, but still remain likable so editors will want to work with you…lol…I met you at Backspace last year and you’re certainly pleasant so I know you’ve got that aspect down to a science 🙂

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