Literary Agents: Good or Evil? (Either Way, You Need One)

by : Lisa Silverman

I spent about five years of my life as an agent, representing both screenwriters and book authors. I wasn’t a scumsucking bottom-feeder. Then again, I ultimately decided I wasn’t cut out to be an agent.

Agents, especially in today’s book business, are essentially salesmen. Therefore, many of them are, to varying degrees, sleazy, slippery, or even unethical. On the other hand, most do what they do because they love books. People you’ll come across in this business, whatever their faults, aren’t in it for any other reason. One doesn’t choose a career in the book industry to become rich.

Still, though many agents are literary types with excellent taste--and these days, many are former editors–business realities dictate that their choice of client isn’t always merit-based. They can read great books in their spare time; during business hours, they need to make money. Most successful agents strike a balance between labor-of-love projects and bring-home-the-bacon projects, with that balance being about 15% to 85%. So if you’re an unpublished writer, without serious connections at a publishing house, you need to take commercial issues into consideration when approaching agents.

You also need to take personal issues into consideration. Look at things from the agent’s perspective: Who’s their ideal client? A writer who:

* Is personable and easy to work with. You’re entering into a partnership, and you’ll be spending lots of time on the phone or in person discussing the vision you (we hope) share for your work and career. Neither of you wants to spend that time with someone not on your wavelength.

* Has some understanding of the business, or at least shows a willingness to learn. Unless you’ve got a bestseller or a National Book Award under your belt, “I am an arteest who will make no compromises" will get you nowhere but in agents’ and editors’ circular files.

* Is willing to self-promote. These days, for publishing houses, selling a book is largely about selling its author… and they’d rather not use their own marketing budget to do so. Create a blog. Get on a radio show. Find an outlet–or, as publishing types call it, a platform. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction--if you write nonfiction, you need both a platform and strong credentials. Sorry, you just do. So pick a topic you’re qualified to write about.

* Is willing to rewrite. Editors at publishing houses will often respond to a manuscript with a query along the lines of, “This is great, but could she make it about quilting?" (I swear, this happened to me.)

* Doesn’t need to rewrite. Forget what I said in the previous bullet point: your best chance at getting an agent and a book deal is having a polished manuscript in hand before you even write your first query letter. Agents are businesspeople who don’t have the time to be your editor, and editors work for publishing conglomerates who don’t allow them leeway to acquire manuscripts that “need work." In future posts, I’ll provide some tips on how to make your manuscript into one that doesn’t “need work."

By the way, I did have a few successes as an agent, including a mystery series by a wonderful and previously unpublished writer. It can happen to you, too . . .