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…)
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 😉
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:
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.
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 🙂 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 🙂