To a certain extent, agents deserve their reputations. Agents are middlemen. They don't create, they don't publish, they simply pass along the work of others. Agents don't have to understand the finer nuances of what you've written, or grasp the subtleties of your prose. They don't even have to like your work (although it helps). All an agent really has to do is sell your book to a publisher. In order to do that, he or she must convince a publisher that your book is the best thing since sliced bread.
This is where the writer and the agent often find themselves at loggerheads. Writers want to be appreciated by the person who represents them. We want them to love our talent, to wrangle the best possible contract out of megalith publishing houses, and we want them to ensure that lots and lots publicity and attention will be lavished on our work.
In short, we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want the agent to be both an admirer and a salesman.
Why we resent them
They don't call. They don't write. So, where's the love?
Like the increasingly fictitious publisher whose sole purpose in life is to nurture budding authors, the unconditional love of an agent is a pipe dream. In general, agents have even less appreciation for the written word – and for the people who write it – than publishers do. They are looking for a quick lucrative sale. God forbid you should write something that is not, as one agent put it, (referring to a manuscript I'd sent him), “a walk in the park.”
Michael Larsen, in his revealing book, How to Get a Literary Agent, says (quite often) that, “as a writer, you are the most important person in the publishing process, because you make it go.” This is quite true. However, if writers are like cars, then agents are the gas. (Or if agents are like cars, we are gas. Dumb analogies work in any order.) The point is that without an agent, we may as well not exist, as far as publishers are concerned.
Agents are aware of that fact. And that is why agents are harder to snare than a publisher. This is also why they insist on your writing a “perfect pitch.” The query letter, or “pitch,” is not just a brief summary of your work and credentials, it is the script for what your agent will tell an editor. And it is the script for what the editor will tell the publisher. If you feel as if you are doing their work for them, you are. But you are a writer, so man up.
Why we need them
Realistically speaking, agents aren't there to hold your hand. They are there to make a buck, which they can't do without you. The good news is that they know how to do that job a lot better than anybody else.
This is what agents can do for you:
- Secure a publishing house
- Negotiate a contract
- Teach you about the publishing business
Secondly, negotiating a contract is not something you want to do on your own, no matter how many books you have read on the subject. Publishing contracts are written by lawyers who are paid a lot of money to keep the best interests of the publishing company in mind. As a consequence, publishing contracts are designed to ensare, confuse, and bludgeon writers into submission. (Trust me, after reading 17 pages of legalese, you will want to run, screaming, back into obscurity.) Your agent, because he or she has done this before, will know which clauses to strike out, when to ask for more, and how to convince the publisher to comply with your best interests.
The last thing that agents do is teach you how the publishing business really works. This may be the most important thing agents have to offer. The entertainment business, of which publishing is a part, is based on mythology: Talent is “discovered,” hard work is rewarded, and stars are delivered by the stork. People who have not been exposed to the inner workings of the publishing world have no concept of how labyrinthine, how medieval, how disorganized, it actually is. Your agent knows, because chances are good that he or she was once an editor. This is a business that is run on daily memos, and that is dominated by people who understand how to juggle the system. Nobody understands that system better than an agent. If you pay attention, you can learn everything you need to know about publishing from an experienced agent. As a writer, that knowledge will prove, not just useful, but invaluable.
These three books will help you understand agents, and what they can do for you. I guarantee you will benefit from reading them.
Michael Larsen. How to Get a Literary Agent. (Sourcebooks, 2006)
Larsen's book is pure gold. Make sure you read every word before you contact an agent.
Jeff Herman, Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. (Sourcebooks, 2011)
Jeff Herman asked agents to describe the “client from hell.” Read these descriptions.
Chuck Sambuchino, ed. 2013 Guide to Literary Agents. (Writer's Digest Books, 2012)
Any year of this publication will do. Make sure you read the sections on advice to writers from agents.