By Loryn Stone
Gatekeepers. Mercenaries. Guardians of the Book. Genies of Publishing.
These words describe the way prospective writers view Literary Agents. Once a new writer has projected enough (hopefully) cohesive words in the form of a book onto a Word document and feels it’s in ship-shape for the rest of the universe to peek at (because remember, to every new writer, their book is the next smash hit/movie trilogy/CW series/…Netflix series…the world didn’t know it wanted) said writer will crack open their fresh, crisp copy of Guide to Literary Agents. Said writer will scour the book, highlighting the name of every person who is goodly enough to take a peek at your fairy tale rehash a with zombie assassins epic. The writer will craft the perfect query/pitch letter, power-blast it out into the ether, and sit back/refresh their email every five minutes, waiting for those rejection and/or let me read more letters to start trickling in.
Every writer reading this will know exactly what I’m talking about. Everyone else might be a little confused. But take a moment to think about it- do you even know how a book becomes a book? Do you think a writer knocks on Scholastic’s door with a stack of papers and start chanting “Buy my book!” like Jay Sherman from The Critic? With the exception of vanity or boutique publishers who take submissions direct from writers, the big guys won’t give you the time of day unless you’re escorted in by a Literary Agent. Agent representation is something most writers dream of. It’s the singular proof that says “My writing is awesome, and now I have someone trying to sell my book on my behalf.”
But to those outside the writing/publishing niche, the response to the job title Literary Agent seems to be met with raised eyebrows and a “Wow! That’s so cool…what do you…do?” and to answer that question, I reached out to four agents (Jennifer Chen Tran of Bradford Literary, Laura Zats of Red Sofa Literary, Erik Hane of Red Sofa Literary, and L.H. of an undisclosed agency) whose careers and strong personalities I greatly respect to help shed some light on a niche line of work that many people don’t even know is a job.
6) What do Literary Agents Do?
Jennifer Chen Tran, a literary agent from Bradford Literary tries to use analogies from real life to help people understand what she does. “I say, ‘think of a real estate agent but I do the same for books. I represent the author and sell their book (the house) to the buyer, the publisher.” It’s not a perfect analogy but it helps them conceptualize my role better. And to be honest, a lot of people don’t know that being a literary agent is an actual occupation.”
Laura Zats and Erik Hane, literary agents at Red Sofa Literary agree and add, “It’s one of those jobs that seems somewhat “glamorous,” and so people who know about it want to hear all about it. And people who don’t know anything about it also want to hear all about it. It’s weird when you meet someone new who happens to be a writer. You’re having a perfectly normal conversation, you drop the agent bomb, and then all of a sudden, the conversation totally changes. You get pitched books in all sorts of weird and inappropriate places. Funerals, bathroom stalls, etc.”
But in spite of its glamorous reputation, the role of Literary Agent is still a sales-based job. And like many (if not most) sales based-careers, agenting is a commission-only job. Both Jennifer and Agent L.H. (who didn’t want their full name or agency published) agree that the drop-off rate for new agents is high. L.H. describes being a Literary Agent as an “Extremely demanding job and at the salaried level, when you’re an assistant, the pay is low, and if you’re commissioned the pay is super uncertain (and often low). It’s a lot of work that gets you, often for years, very little return.”
Jennifer agrees and elaborates, “It’s very tough. I only have anecdotal evidence but I would say the first five years are critical to an agent’s success and they have to make some sales within a certain window to seem legitimate as agents. Because it’s a commission-based payment structure, attrition is high. A lot of people just can’t afford to be agents or they have more than one paying job to help pay for expenses while establishing themselves as agents. I wouldn’t be surprised if the drop off rate was as high as 30% or more.”
5) Agents must choose their client list carefully
Unlike a Travel Agent or Real Estate Agent where you’ll take any client that calls/emails/requires your services, Literary Agents are painstakingly selective about what manuscripts they’ll add to their list. These are people who not only know what books they love to read, which is an easy given, but which are entering the market and what sort of trends/hot books are demanded by publishers. If that’s the case, can a Literary Agent be a sniper and just collect the books they know will easily sell and make a mad fortune in their industry? While agents’ goals is to sell books because that’s where their paychecks come from, they don’t craft their client lists based off trends.
In the case of L.H., their want-list is fortunately very commercial, “Honestly for me, it’s pretty much all the stuff I love. Partly because a lot of what I love is super readable, fun, sci-fi/fantasy stuff or young adult books, that kind of thing. But also, I don’t meet a lot of agents who do rep things they’re not interested in just because they’ll sell. It’s kind of hard to go to bat for creative work you don’t care about just to get paid. A lot of the job is just hoping that your personal taste is marketable.”
Laura and Erik agree and add, “We only sign books we really love. If you had to read a book a dozen times, you’d make sure you loved it too! That being said, there are a lot more books we love as readers than books we’ll rep. It comes down to the industry knowledge and experience within specific categories. When you read a book and love it, that’s all you need. As an agent though, you need to understand the genre and the people who work in it, and who reads it. You need to know if there’s a hole you’re filling, and how you’re filling it. You also need to make sure that the book fits in with your brand, or the type of books editors have come to expect from you. That’s a lot of knowledge to be accountable for, so we keep our lists narrowed down.”
It comes down to a surprisingly simple enough premise; if the agent doesn’t love the genre, they won’t love the book. And if the agent doesn’t love the book, they won’t be able to sell it.
Jennifer states, “I’m a heart person. I don’t pay too much attention to ‘genres that sell well,’ though I am aware of the market and what editors want (most agents are). I have to love the project/ author in order to make an offer a representation so it’s never going to be a situation where I take on something halfheartedly just because I know it will sell like hotcakes. I’m not mercenary like that, though maybe I should be, haha! I do represent a wide variety of genres and types of books, so the challenge for me is to figure out why I’m taking something on whether I’m confident that it will sell.”
4) Writing and publishing trends are still unavoidable
Just like when every eighteen-year-old girl in the year 2002 was convinced she needed a tattoo stamped on the skin above her tush, there are trends that come and go with publishing. What is it about certain stories in media that make all writers think they need to write a specific flavor of story now? Media mimics itself in all flavors. Finding Nemo comes out, Shark Tale comes out. Finding Dory is released, Deep shortly follows. It’s not an unfamiliar trend in movie making, or even television where there are multiple shows in the same genre showing up to the party at the same time. (I wasn’t kidding early when I made that remark about the fantasy-assassin stories). But do these trends bother agents, and what publishing/writing trends are they just sick of seeing?
Jennifer says, “For fiction, I’m tired of narratives that are not original or of novels where non-minority writers try to write minority or marginalized characters without doing the proper legwork first (that means it shows that you didn’t study the background the characters first). I’m not saying that non-minority writers can’t write such characters, but make sure you actually do your homework about those characters so they are fully-formed and somewhat realistic. As for writing, there are patterns I see in queries that are troublesome; for instance, comparing your book to Bestseller X when it’s nothing like Bestseller X or making too many claims about how because famous author Y blurbed your book which means that it’s an easy sell. I’m also tired of queries that try to be overly clever or different–I once got a query in iambic pentameter. It’s not cute and it’s not going to make me give you special treatment. Just be yourself and write your query plainly but honestly. The biggest mistake a writer can make during the query process is to constantly hound the agent and repeatedly e-mail (or even call, just don’t do it) to ask: have you read my query? I got over 800 queries in the last 2.5 months last year and I didn’t make an offer of rep (yet) on any of them.”
But the same as with the books they read, the books they’re sick of vary just the same. L.H. jokingly states that they’re sick of seeing vast sums of money paid for literary fiction books. “But that’s just me being a sci-fi/fantasy geek and not getting the appeal. Unless a trend is a real juggernaut like dystopian or zombies were at one point, they rarely stick around in a dominant way long enough for me to get tired of them. A lot of what I’m tired of seeing boils down to stuff I’ve already seen before. Chosen one stories, medieval Europe-esque high fantasy, YA books where the main character discovers they’re secretly from a hidden magical community (and probably pretty high up in the ranks). When you read as much as people in publishing do, the similarities from book to book really start to stand out. The problem, of course, is that a lot of people only read two books a year, and if you want a book to be a huge bestseller that’s the market you have to tap into. And those people could easily not be tired of the stuff I’m tired of. But probably the worst thing you can do (among many) when querying an agent is brag and be full of unearned confidence. I get stuff like “this book is going to sell more copies than the Bible and Harry Potter combined!”, and “This is a multi-million dollar movie deal in the making”. The best thing an author can do is be calm, level-headed, and follow query and submission guidelines. Do things by the book, no pun intended.”
Erik and Laura have their own list where their genre-fatigue kicks in. Erik says “I’m pretty tired of seeing novels that feel like they’re trying to mirror current events too obviously. It’s just lazy to have a thinly veiled Trump in your nuclear war novel.” As for Laura, “I’m tired of Chosen One narratives, devils/angels/gods, Tolkien redux, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland retellings, fantasies about dream powers, and romance novels with vague billionaires who love BDSM. In terms of Worst Things You Can Do [when trying to get agent representation], there are always horror stories. We’ve been called in the middle of the night by strangers, sent hate mail, been complained about to our boss, our even sent nude photos! The best thing to do as a writer, honestly, is just to be patient and follow the guidelines. It’s a business partnership; acting professional is key.
“But we say this all the time on Print Run [Laura and Erik’s podcast about agent life and publishing]: we’re tired of publishers sticking with big, established name-brand authors at the expense of new voices. Publishers can be risk averse to a degree that really shuts out that brilliant novelist that no one has heard of yet, or that book that doesn’t cleanly fit within standard categories. It’s a money thing, so we get it, but an Ideas Industry has to be willing to take a few more chances than it currently is willing to take.”
3) However, being super careful can have its drawbacks
Sometimes, in the midst of being picky, books that become smash hits slip through their fingers. However, every agent has their own thoughts on what edits should be made to a manuscript before it gets pitched to a publisher. Therefore, two agents might read the same book, each request to represent it (and the author) but have separate ideas about what aspects of the book need to be cut/boosted/fixed, etc.
Laura explains, “Most of the time it comes down to the fact that a certain book, while right for someone else, wouldn’t have been right for us. Sure, it became a bestseller or whatever (WHATEVER, UGH), but maybe it wouldn’t have with one of us at the helm. We might have given different editing advice, sold it to the wrong publishers, etc. Same with our books: we believe we’re the best person for the job, that we see potential that no other agent sees. So, it’s highly subjective. It’s part of what makes things fun.”
L.H. on the other hand shares an experience that sums up agents’ feelings about not being the agent an author goes with when they have multiple offers of representation, “One of the most frustrating missed opportunities I with Margaret Rogerson who wrote An Enchantment of Ravens (it spent some time on the NYT best seller list). I’d requested her manuscript and she got an offer from another agent, which gave me something like 1-2 weeks to make my own offer. I read almost the entire manuscript and absolutely LOVED it, when she got back to me to say that she’d realized the offering agent was just the perfect fit for her so she had to go with them. I still regret not reading that manuscript earlier. But as far as stuff I passed on that went on to hit it big, there have been some sales, but no best sellers. I’m sure there will be some in the future though. It’s a liability of the job.”
Jennifer shares her own experience, “Yes, it happens. I’ve also lost beauty contests before (that’s when the author gets more than one offer of rep and the agents duke it out). Though now that I’ve been agenting for about five years, I lose less of those contests, it still happens. I do try to keep track of ‘the ones that got away.’ A lot of them end up getting published and some are bigger hits than others. It happens. It’s just part of the game of publishing. I still support those authors regardless–after all, great minds think alike and obviously have similar taste. I have to say though, one of the beauty contests I lost a few years ago, the author came back to me after the previous agent couldn’t sell the book and I ended up selling it.”
Erik sums it up like this, “What hurts the most is when we’re one of several agents offering on a manuscript and the author chooses someone else to work with. Then it feels like you’re the only kid not asked to dance at prom when you KNOW you have great moves. You just didn’t get the chance to prove it.”
2) Forgoing the Agent via Self-Publishing isn’t for the faint of heart
Many writers, after submitting their query/pitch letter to agents and being rejected enough times often decide to take matters into their own hands and self-publish. While self-publishing is a great avenue for someone with a preexisting readership/platform (IE people they know will buy their book), it doesn’t work out for everyone. There are more articles and guides about being successful in self-publishing than one person could read in a lifetime. But according to our agents, instant riches and instant notoriety isn’t the reason to go into self-publishing without some sort of marketing plan.
L.H. says, “A lot of authors just want to see their book out in the world where people can read it, maybe enjoy it, and pay a little money for it. For these people, self-publishing is totally worth it. On the other hand, if this is something you’re looking to make a paying career out of, self-publishing…well, it’s exhausting, I’ll say that much. A client of mine was self-pubbed pretty successively until recently when we sold his book, and you pretty much have to do the work of every different department in a publisher by yourself. I’m talking marketing, publicity, editorial, etc. and you have to do it all without alienating your potential fans by trying to get them to buy your book too much. Self-publishing successfully in a way that pays real money is incredibly difficult and exhausting. Having a platform helps, but it’s still straight up work, and that being the case it is not for everyone.”
Laura and Erik elaborate, “Twenty years ago, self-publishing was just for people who weren’t good enough to be published. Now, technology has made it a viable alternative. Self-publishing is a great option for authors who need or want more control over their publishing process, or people who are really excellent at selling on their own, have a marketing mind, and are self-starters.
People in publishing talk about a platform like it’s this magical key to success. Really, it just means consistent visibility. You don’t need it to publish a book, but you do need it to sell one. If you won’t work towards being discoverable, no type of publishing is good for you.”
Jennifer adds, “Self-publishing is a viable option for some writers. If your book is very niche or a family memoir that only a few individuals might be interested in, then perhaps self-publishing makes more sense. It’s always helpful to have a substantial platform, even if you are self-publishing. You have to factor in the costs of self-publishing to see if it’s worth it. I think for fiction, you might be more successful self-publishing. I don’t look down on it. It’s just another path to publication.”
1) At the end of the day, the job has its satisfactions and rewards
As many people in creative industries can tell you, the road to publication is a lot of planting seeds. Whether you manage to go the traditional publishing route via Literary Agent, you build a platform and self-publish, or you’re a writer on the internet who sells/writes articles for any outlet good enough to take it, it’s a lot of baby steps. You’re constantly reaching out, befriending other writers, carving out time to write, writing things outside of your scope of interest to try to get more eyes on your work, starting your book, scraping your book, starting over, getting feedback, crying, sweating, failing, succeeding. This is the natural order of the creative process. Nothing happens overnight, and for those fortunate/skilled enough to have a book published, they can tell you it’s the best part of their job. For the agents we interviewed, they can tell you it’s the best part for them, too.
L.H. agrees about the best part of their job, “I mean it’s gotta be letting the author know when we get an offer, no contest. Getting to tell people that their book is going to be published and that someone wants to pay them, hopefully, a nice chunk of change for it? That’s hard to beat.”
Jennifer states, “Making someone’s dream come true. Being part of the creative process and journey. Celebrating the highs and being there for the lows. Being an author’s friend and business partner. I just realized I named four different things but that’s because I love so many aspects of my job.”
Erik and Laura feel the same way, “Seeing an author open up a box of their newly printed books. Before, the book exists, but there’s something about turning an idea in your head into a tangible product that feels really special. We spend so much time thinking about books as an abstract object requiring another step of work that when it’s done, that tactile moment is very special and surreal.”
Loryn is on Twitter! She also has a personal blog. Her debut novel My Starlight, a young adult contemporary book about anime, fandom, cosplaying, sexuality, loss, love, and friendship will be released August 3rd, 2018 but Affinity Rainbow Publications. Pre-Sales will start in July.