“I Just Sit and Read All Day!” Said No Literary Agent Ever

Working at a literary agency is great. For someone like me whose life is basically run by books, it’s the dream. However, I do get a lot of assumptions about my job, which are basically this: “Don’t you just sit and read all day?”

Sadly, my friends, no.

(I also got this question when working as a bookseller. Even though you can go into any bookstore and see employees doing lots of things other than reading, but people have their ideas…)

Anyway!

There is a lot of reading involved in a literary agent’s job. But, there are a lot of other things involved as well. I wanted to write a bit about them to shed some light on what exactly we do all day. And for those of you waiting for responses on submissions, now instead of picturing the agent just ignoring your email (they are most likely not!), you can picture them wanting to get back to you but doing one of these things instead ūüėČ

Of course, every agent’s approach to work and every agency is different. I am a junior agent¬†at an agency that has been around for a long time, so my responsibilities are different from others. This is just a general idea of what a literary agent COULD be doing, not everyone’s job description.

Here we go:

RESEARCH
I constantly say that working in¬†publishing is basically training to be a detective (mostly because being a detective is my dream job and it sounds exciting). At the agency I work with, there is a lot of history to dig through as we’ve been around a long time. Someone may come calling about an old title we handled and we need to figure out if it’s still in print, if the proprietor (author or their descendants, usually) is around, if the rights are with the author or with the publisher, and what that publisher is today vs. 50 years ago when the book was published. This involves a lot of searching through records, reading old contracts, and doing online research. I have landed in many a Wikipedia-spiral because of these searches, reading lists of things like “50 Forgotten Science Fiction Magazines from the 1950s ” Fun!

Research can also involve things that are more “frontlist” oriented (frontlist meaning for current, active clients), like researching publishers for a project, reading up on potential editors, or reading up on current books being published to be familiar with the market. All of this goes in the agent’s knowledge bank so that when they take on a project, they have a great idea of where it fits in the market and what editor/publisher might be interested in it.

EDITORIAL WORK
The nature of publishing these days is that editors expect (and require) much more polished work than maybe ever before. This means that agenting has taken on more of an editorial role, so agents do a LOT of editorial feedback for their ¬†clients. Some agents are more hands on than others, but it’s an essential part of the job no matter what.

Agents typically edit for the “big picture” questions and issues of the manuscript (ex: the pacing is slow in this section, this character needs more development, etc) rather than nitty gritty editorial things like grammar and punctuation. In most cases, they¬†will do the bulk of content editing on the project. It’s totally normal to do several (what seem like endless) rounds of revision with an agent before they say it’s ready to submit. That means a lot of time spent working on editorial feedback as an agent in a¬†day, especially if they have many clients.

MAKING FRIENDS! AKA NETWORKING
Publishing is a relationship-based business. A huge part of an agent’s work life is networking with editors that they may want to submit a project to one day, knowing their interests, and establishing a relationship with them. This can start from something like an industry event (we have mixers – they are just as awkward as they sound, but still great), or from something like Twitter (in which I read an editor’s twitter, develop a professional crush* on them, and then reach out to introduce myself).

*Professional Crush: The feeling of finding a fellow publishing professional whose interests align with yours, has worked on projects you like, seems like they’d be great to work with, and who also seems like an all-around cool person that you want to get to know. (E.g. “I stalked Sally Editor’s¬†#MSWL feed on Twitter and now I have such a professional crush on her.”)

It’s great to meet in person with editors as much as possible.¬†Luckily, most people who work in publishing are downright lovely and totally fun to grab a cup of coffee or lunch with to talk about books and industry happenings. And agents do that a lot to build up their network and keep current on what editors are looking for, hoping one day to play matchmaker to an editor and your project!

NEOGTIATING CONTRACTS/HANDLING AGREEMENTS
This is a huge part of an agent’s day, at least an older, smaller agency like the one I work with. If you’re an author and you sell a book to a publisher, you and the publisher will have an agreement to outline the terms of how they are going to publish, how much you’re getting paid, etc. An agent’s job is to get the author the best deal possible. You all probably know that! But you may not know what that process actually looks like – whether it’s a back and forth with an editor/contracts associate, phone calls, redlining of the agreement, getting approval on changes, on and on to eliminate any doubt about what everyone’s responsible for in this arrangment.

Some larger agencies have their own contracts departments that will handle agreements, while in other cases, agents¬†draft their own contracts. Being an agent actually gets you a pretty decent primer in legal language ūüôā Contracts can be a lot of fun (if you’re a nerd and enjoy them like me), but they also take up a lot of time. Agents want to be thorough and make sure everyone is happy!

Another aspect of contracts you might not think about is that there are many different uses for a literary work. There are translation rights, audio rights, film/TV rights, performance rights, the list goes on. If someone wants to use just a selection from a book, they need to approach the rightsholder (often the author) to do so, which requires – you guessed it – a written agreement. As I’m sure you can imagine, written agreements are really the backbone of publishing and ensure that everything runs smoothly by letting everyone know to expect. So, they are definitely a huge part of an agent’s day to day.

There are TONS of other things an agent might do in a given day – corresponding with authors, managing social media, exploring new writing opportunities, managing/organizing things like files and sumbmissions, attending conferences and author events, etc. The exciting part about working at a literary agency is that every¬†day can be different! And yes, we do get to read a lot which is also exciting.¬†Hopefully this post gave you just a slightly more¬†in-depth glimpse at what an agent might be up to inbetween manuscripts ūüôā

So You Got an Offer of Rep…

So you’ve been querying your manuscript for what feels like forever, tirelessly researching agents, proofreading email drafts until your eyes bleed. And then you waited, and waited, and waited. Then maybe you revised, then you waited some more. And then finally! Someone said they want to represent you and your work! This is what you’ve been waiting for! Yay!

Now what?

I’ve been tweeting a few tips on offers of representation recently because I see a lot info out there about how to query, but not how to handle things¬†once you get the thing you’ve been working toward. There are definitely a few do’s and don’t’s for this part of the process, and ways to make the lives of the agents who have your project easier (which could lead to even MORE offers). Spring is a big season for agents to make offers, so you might find yourself there soon enough! Read on for some tips!

OMG AN AGENT OFFERED ME REPRESENTATION…

Yay! Don’t accept right away. While you’re probably very excited to receive an offer, this is the part where you need to put your business cap on and put aside your writerly joy. Play it cool, play it cool ūüėČ You are talking about the person who is going to represent and guide your career, so you want to make sure it’s the best fit, which might not always be the first person who said yes.¬†Be polite and respectful to the offering agent, tell them you’re excited, whatever, but tell them you will need time to make your decision. If an agent pressures you to decide too quickly, this might be a red flag. Standard turnaround time is 2 weeks or so (3 is probably more ideal), because now you need to close out your pending submissions and¬†give everyone who still has your query a chance to offer as well.

Remember: you set the decision deadline, not the offering agent.¬†Make sure you ask for enough¬†time, or you may have other interested agents pass on your project just because they didn’t have enough time to finish reading!¬†Don’t rush yourself or other agents by trying to figure it out in 5 days. A good agent will be flexible and understand that you need time!

Review your sub list for this project.¬†Ok, now you have your window to deal with your submission list. What agents did you send this¬†project to? If an agent has already passed, assume the pass is final. If they haven’t responded yet, they need to be notified that you received an offer.

Write an email to notify all agents with whom the submission is outstanding. It’s a courtesy (and an advantage for you) to let all the agents who have your project know that you received an offer. Don’t just say nothing or pull your submission without giving them a chance to throw their hat in the ring.¬†Even if you’re madly in love with the agent who offered, you’re doing yourself a disservice by closing out your options prematurely. Plus, in rare cases an agent might withdraw their offer. Rare, but it happens, so you definitely want to keep all your doors open until it’s time to decide.

WRITING THE NOTIFICATION EMAIL

Write and send this email in the same chain of correspondence as your original submission. Please do this! This is one of my biggest pet peeves that maybe other agents don’t care about, but for the sake of this blog I am making a stand.¬†It is very time consuming (and honestly annoying) to go back and find the original query, especially if it was sent months ago and your inbox search is as fussy as mine is.

Change the subject line of the email to say “OFFER OF REPRESENTATION: Title, Age Group/Genre of your project.”¬†This allows everything to be in the same chain while still showing the agent there’s an update. Many agents skim through their inboxes to look for these on a daily basis, so make sure it’s front and center in that subject line to get a faster response.

Make it easy for the agents who still have your project to get back to you. ¬†This is a matter of giving them all the material they need to decide and the time to review it (2 weeks, folks!).¬†Include your original query and synopsis below your email notifying of the offer (hence the advice on notifying in the same chain). If the agent has already requested a full or pages from you, be sure to re-attach them along with a synopsis so they’re right at the agent’s¬†fingertips.¬†This makes it more likely they’ll look at your project right away and get back to you faster, rather than getting distracted before they have a chance¬†to search for the full you sent them 3 months ago. If they ask you for the full once you notify, be sure to send it ASAP so they have more time to read.

Keep the text of the email brief – include a reminder of what the project was, when you submitted it, and the date you need a decision by. This is just nice to refresh the agent’s memory about the history of your submission. Your deadline is the most important part. It saves the agent from having to ask, and also allows you to give yourself time to decide. Set a deadline for interested agents to get back to you that is at least 2 days before you agreed to tell the original offerer your decision. That way you will have some time to review any competing offers of representation and decide what is best for you. Lastly, include your contact info so they can reach out!

SAMPLE “OFFER OF REP” Email:

From: Timmy McWriterman
Sent: Monday, May 02, 2016 3:19 PM
To: Sally McAgent
Subject: OFFER OF REPRESENTATION: WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG, YA Literary Mystery

Dear Sally,

I’m writing to let you know that I have received an offer of representation for my YA literary mystery, WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG, which I submitted to you in October. You asked for the full, which I am re-attaching here, in February. Please find the original query ¬†and synopsis below for your reference.

I am looking to¬†close out all pending submissions by end of business on Monday, May 16. If you are interested in the manuscript, please let me know by then and I’d be thrilled to discuss with you.

I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you again for your consideration!

All best,
Timmy
timmy@writerman.com
555-555-5555

Done! Now wait to hear back and keep track of responses as they come. On to the next phase:

OKAY, NO ONE ELSE OFFERED ON MY PROJECT. WHAT DO I DO?
That’s ok! You still have a choice.¬†You can either go with the original offering agent (assuming you like them/feel they are a good fit) or turn down the offer. Up to you!

or

MULTIPLE AGENTS HAVE OFFERED ON MY PROJECT I AM EXCITED BUT SCARED HALP
Multiple offers are great! If you don’t get multiple, it’s ok, but having them is certainly a nice position to be in. So, here’s what to do next:

Research¬†the agents who have offered again. You definitely did this before submitting because you’re an informed author who wants to put their best foot forward, right? But now you’re going in greater depth.¬†Read their bios, their blogs, their websites. Stalk their Twitter for a while. You want to get a sense of how they present themselves and what kind of personality/agenting style they might have. You also want to research the agency as a whole to see how they fit into the larger publishing world. This will give you some background going into the next phase which is:

Talk to the offering agents by phone. Now is the time to pick up the phone and have a chat with the offering agents. Believe me, you want to do this part – hearing someone’s voice in conversation can give you a¬†way better sense of them than reading their emails. On the call you want to ask about them – their history with their agency, what kind of project they typically deal with, their agenting style (hands on? hands off? editorial heavy?). You also want to ask them about you/your project – meaning, what vision do they have for the project? What publisher might they have in mind for it? Do they expect a revision? What do they think is working/needs work? You should get off the call with a clear sense of their enthusiasm for your work as well as how this person approaches their job. This will give you a better sense of whether or not you will mesh with them. Remember that it’s a professional relationship, but you also probably want an agent that you like as a person.

Note: be wary of agents who offer with the promise that they can sell your book for a million dollars, make it into a bestseller, whatever. No one can promise that. Also be wary of an agent who¬†says¬†your project doesn’t need¬†revision. Most do. You’re better off going with someone who loves your book enough to make it better and fight for it, but will be transparent¬†about the industry with you and help you manage your expectations.¬†

Talk to their clients. Ask each agent for the names/contact info of one or two clients who can speak to their experience working with them. This might seem invasive but is totally ok and normal! Most clients are happy to talk about their experiences with agents.

OKAY SO I CHOSE MY DREAM AGENT! YAY! ANYTHING ELSE?
Yep! First, let the agent know that you accept their offer, obviously. You’ll probably need to sign an agency agreement with them (perhaps I’ll do a post about these somewhere down the line).

Lastly, let any remaining offering agents know that you’ve decided to go with another agent. You don’t have to go into detail, just drop them a note in that same email chain thanking them for their consideration and time. While you may feel like this is unnecessary now that you have the agent¬†of your dreams, it’s never a bad career move to keep friendly communication open with¬†everyone you deal with. Publishing is a small world, and you never know who you’ll cross paths with again!

After that, it’s onto the next part of your publishing journey. This was just the beginning!