Pub Rants

Any Yahoo Can Do This Job

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STATUS: Concluded a deal today that I’m pretty excited about. Look for the announcement tomorrow on Deal Lunch.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED LOVE by Queen

I got an email a couple of weeks ago from a guy who wrote to me to say that he was pretty business savvy, liked to read, had good taste, so might want to become a literary agent since it might be a lucrative venture and could I tell him if his yearly income estimates were accurate.

Which he then listed in a little chart.

His email was actually rather thought out and savvy (unlike other inquiries I’ve received) so I did send a nice general this-is-like-starting-any-new-business reply but I’m sure you could hear my mental sigh out there in blog world. I don’t think, with zero background or experience, that I would email, let’s say a mortgage broker, about becoming one because hey, I’m good at numbers.

What is it about this job that there is a perception that hey, any Yahoo could do it? All you got to do is be a good reader, pick some winners, and boom you’re on easy street. The money just rolls in.

Folks, I’m here to tell you that agenting is not a good, get-rich-quick scheme. It’s years of careful business management, budgeting, planning, great contacts, having solid sales, excellent royalties on the back list to really make it viable. Not to mention there is such a thing called talent in this biz. Some agents have it (I’d like to consider myself in that group) and lots of people have good intentions but not the T (hence, marginal agents with tiny sales records over many, many years not to mention folks who turn to just outright scamming or charging fees to make money). There are also a whole slew of people who actually had the background, started or worked for an agency, and then backed out after less than five years because it was just too tough. They couldn’t go the distance.

And there is so much more to this job then simply being a good reader who can spot a marketable project and sell it. In fact, that’s only 10% of what we actually do. What about author career planning? Negotiation? The deal as well as the contract. Cover issues. Tracking payments. Legal issues. And the list goes on.

You don’t want an “agent” who became one because gee, I’m a good reader. If there truly is an interest in this job, go and get some valuable experience by either working at an agency or at a publishing house to see if you do, indeed, have what it takes to handle all facets of this job because maybe you do. Lots of current, really terrific agents came to this career from different, interesting paths, and they have varied educational backgrounds as well as varied prior experience.

But ultimately, like any job, the talent aspect can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t.

That’s my soapbox for the day.

14 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    So what happens with backlist commissions if your agent decides to leave the agenting biz. Do they get their 15% for life or how does that work?

  2. ORION said:

    This is such a great post.
    I feel the same way when I read posts on writers’ message boards which say how unnecessary an agent really is and bemoaning the fact that they get 15% of an author’s hard earned money.
    These are usually people without agents.
    My agent is priceless. She has been supportive, excited about my novel and has been a terrific editor.
    She has not received a dime yet.
    She will when my book gets sold.
    Every one of my appendages is crossed.
    I don’t know any other profession that puts in that much time for no up front money.
    Three cheers for agents.
    Hip Hip

  3. katiesandwich said:

    Miss Snark had someone send her an email like this a couple months ago, if I remember right. It still amazes me. I could never be an agent. You guys do the most amazing things.

  4. Simon Haynes said:

    Writers and agents are like icebergs, in that your average onlooker only sees the 10% floating around above water.
    With authors it’s book signings, reviews and awards ceremonies. With agents it’s long lunches and 15% of every bestseller. Easy, right? Anyone could do that.

    Here’s a message to the deluded everywhere: It’s the 90% lurking out of sight you don’t have a clue about. Being an author or agent is a bunch of hard, lonely work hidden away from public view.

  5. December Quinn said:

    You guys beat me to it. I was going to say, everybody thinks they can just sit down at a computer and write a book, too, and it will be a bestseller.

    What they don’t think is that they have to actually read some books first, or study grammar and spelling, or master show vs. tell, or any of the other stuff that makes writing so difficult–and rewarding.

  6. JDuncan said:

    And extra kudos to agents like you, Kristen, who go out of their way and somehow make the extra time to run blogs like this to help educate people about writing and publishing. I swear you must run on one of those weird 30 hour days. I know I couldn’t be an agent if my life depended on it. At least I know I have a decent shot at being a writer.

  7. RyanBruner said:

    This is something authors can relate to. Everyone and their brother thinks that they can be an author. (Me included!)

    “Oh, I like to write.”


    “I have this idea for a book…”

    Yeah. Stand in line. It’s a lot of work and learning involved.

    So, I imagine that’s similar.

    As for me? Well, I figure if this writing thing doesn’t work out, I’ll try my hand at becoming an agent…

    Just kidding.

  8. Anonymous said:

    Interesting sidebar to this–people think the same thing about singers. 🙂

    Long, long ago in high school, my choir teacher wanted to teach a Vocal Techniques class for some of us, and he went to the academic powers that were to ask that it be included as an official high-school credit class.

    The answer? “You’ve got to be kidding. Credit for vocal techniques? What’s that about? You don’t need to be taught how to sing. You just open your mouth and do it.”

    He was dumbfounded, since he’d gone to all that “trouble” of actually learning music at the University of Illinois. 🙂 So were we, but we took the class anyway, for no credit whatsoever, during what would normally be a study hall.

    Unfortunately, while this was more years ago that I care to admit, and was an unusually ignorant attitude even then, I’m still amazed at the number of people who think much the same thing about singing. They’re wrong, of course, as anyone who’s been to a wedding in which a well-meaning but hopelessly untalented family member proceeds to attempt a solo or two…

    So I can feel your pain, Kristin. Singers and literary agents rarely get the respect we deserve. 🙂
    That doesn’t mean our training and talents mean nothing, but it does occasionally get inquiries like this that make one want to bang one’s head against one’s desk–or music stand.

    Hang in there! The clueless will always be with us, but good agents are still worth that 15% and more.


  9. a nolan said:

    I think there are plenty of professions people think would be really easy until they try them.
    Selling Real Estate is a good example. (it’s another profession where people put in tons of time and may never make a cent.) I used to sell RE and had lots of people tell me they thought it would be an easy part-time job. (It is neither easy nor part-time.)

    My mil decided to start a nursery (complete with greenhouses) because she had success growing a couple houseplants. (how hard could it be?)

    Then again, she decided to start a restaurant because she made good waffles, so maybe it’s just her.

    People rarely appreciate the difficulties of an occupation until they’ve tried it.