Pub Rants

Agent Stages

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STATUS: Feeling pretty good about what I accomplished today.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FEVER by Michael Bublé

I’m in a philosophical mood tonight. I’ve been thinking about agents and the different places we can be in our careers. I’ve been chatting with agent friends who are starting to build their lists. I’m chatting with agent friends who have been around for 25 years. I’ve been chatting with agent friends who are in what I would call mid-career—right around 10 to 15 years.

And what’s clear to me is that there are agent stages.

Stage 1: The new agent who is building his or her list. What’s most important to this person are these things: a) finding projects that will sell, b) establishing one’s taste, c) teaching editors that one’s opinion can be trusted.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned in this stage. After all, every agent I know has a story of an author they took on but probably shouldn’t have. We also have a story of the author we sold for little money and then the client exploded and did well.

Stage 2: The building agent. This is an agent with a few years under his or her belt. Some success. Is really building into a player. Now this to me is the most interesting stage to contemplate. Everything is crucial in this phase of the agent’s career.

And nothing strikes me as more crucial than an understanding of how many clients a given agent can take on and represent well. This number will obviously vary for different people and for different reasons.

For me, I’ve always been careful (and pretty picky) about what I’ve taken on but I can feel a shift happening. I have 30 clients currently. I’m not convinced that I’m “full” per se. There is always room for that project that just sweeps me off my feet and I’m really excited about. Or there’s room for a project in a field I’m looking to continue building my reputation in (such as SF&F which has been a slow build at my agency).

But there’s not room for just any project I know that will sell. It really has to blow me away to have me contemplate taking on a new writer because I know that the time I give to this new writer must balance with the time given to current clients.

So what’s interesting to me as of late is that I’m passing on a lot of projects that when I respond to the writer, I tell them I’m pretty sure this is going to sell but I’m not going to be the agent doing that sale. And a bit about why.

Is there a point to this entry? Not sure actually. The point might be that newer (and often times younger) agents have lists to build. Your odds of landing an agent as a debut author might be a little higher when an agent is hungry.

But let me tell you, even established agents, agents with “full” client lists love the day when they read a full manuscript they can’t live without. That feeling, that discovery desire, never goes away. There’s always room for that magic project—which is why writers shouldn’t give up on established agents either.

More about a couple of other stages tomorrow.

12 Responses

  1. Wavemancali said:

    Hi there, long time reader infrequent commenter 🙂

    I’m curious, if you find yourself seeing projects worth taking on, but think you won’t have time for why wouldn’t you bring on a junior partner and direct things you think are worthwhile to them?

  2. Amy Nathan said:

    I think writers go through stages too.

    Stage 1 is a novice or green writer. Can still be a great writer, but something without a lot of experience or years under his or her belt. This writer makes a lot of mistakes that embarrass them later. The best ones ask a lot of questions and do a lot of research.

    Stage 2 is the mid-stage writer. Either someone with a lot of writing or publishing experience but looking to change what they do (ie: writing essays to writiing novels). Stage 2 can also be someone who has never published but is seasoned and informed.

    Stage 3 is the professional author. I’m not saying this is always a good thing – I’m sure there are many authors who are a pain to work with – but this stage allows the author some leeway with pitching ideas as he or she may have a following. There is a method to this writers warranted madness as he or she can write multiple novels that sell.

    Of course there is Stage Right or Stage Left — where writers appear and disappear from the literary scene with and without publishing. Some should go and some should not.

    Now that I think about it – there are stages for everything!!!

  3. Anonymous said:

    “every agent I know has a story of an author they took on but probably shouldn’t have”

    What would be some examples of this? Thanks!

  4. HopeDarby said:

    I think it’s wonderful that you are honest with the writers when you decline to represent their work. Rejection always stings a bit, but rejection with a reason, with a light, with a nudge, is different.

    Constructive rejection. Any writer can appreciate that.

    (Oh! And hello 🙂 I hope you don’t mind if I play in your blog-yard for a while.)

  5. Debs said:

    Thanks, this is great to know.

    As a new writer, finding out that getting an agent is rather akin to finding hens with teeth (they don’t have them, do they?) is rather alarming.

    Mind you, it only makes me more determined.

  6. Kimber An said:

    “Or there’s room for a project in a field I’m looking to continue building my reputation in (such as SF&F which has been a slow build at my agency).”

    Well, it’s just too bad you’re not a Steampunk agent, but I guess it’s not selling well enough for anyone to take it on much. Too bad too, because we’ve been buzzing like crazy about it. We’d love to see more of it. I’d love to write about it one day too, but first I need to learn more about it and then I’m going to wait and see if it gets hot first. I’m through polishing up novels which don’t stand a chance because they don’t fit neatly into an established, selling genre. That won’t stop me from creating them in my head though.

  7. Anonymous said:

    This is interesting, and I’m a little curious about how agents change with the times as they go through these stages. Speaking as a writer for fifteen years, I’ve had to change and move forward many times; often against my will, so to speak…even recently had to change my thinking about something that has never been taken very seriously until this past year, and now it’s supposed to be the new trend. And I know agents who have been in the business for longer than I’ve been writing have had to change their attitudes too.

    So if you do get into other stages, I’d be curious about how changing markets, technology and other vital aspects affect career decisions.

  8. Joanne said:

    Interesting that this is another qualification we writers can consider when making our agent list to query. I agree with Amy too about the writers’ stages. I guess the secret is meshing the two – writer & agent!

  9. Thomas said:

    I think there’s that same progression in any profession. I know that, right now, I’m at that second stage as a film maker.

    There’s a learning curve, an early phase where you have to test the thickness of the ice across the body of the industry to find the best path to tread. Eventually you find your way confidently. Ultimately, a path across the lake gets named after you.

    I would argue that anyone who doesn’t find this arc in their career should probably do something else.

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