How Literary Agents Work – This article reveals how book agents work. Do they make decisions about which authors they represent, based, in part, on personal taste—or, based solely on whether the books they’re considering are marketable? Scroll below to find out. You can also click here to see our Guide to Literary Agents and here to Find a Literary Agent.
Personal Taste or Profitability? – How Literary Agents Work
This article was inspired by an who author recently said, “I’m sometimes baffled by agents who complain that a submission failed to ‘interest’ them or didn’t ‘hold them’, as if personal taste curved their judgement instead or the marketable or literary value of a piece. I have been a teacher/professor for a very long time. If I graded a paper based on whether it ‘interested’ me, my students would be outraged. They expect objectivity. So it should be with agency, not matters of taste but whether the work is any good, is publishable, and can be sold.”
What do you think?
Is it fair for literary agents to let their personal preferences affect their decision to represent—or not represent—an author? And, how many agents make decisions that way?
The best story I have about how literary agents work when it comes to personal preferences is, well, a personal one. It took place at a writers’ conference where I was speaking. I think it was in Jacksonville, Florida. The event coordinators for bigger, more successful writers’ conferences, like the one I just mentioned, often fly literary agents to the event and put them up at the hotel where the conference is taking place.
In exchange, the agents give keynote presentations, seminars, and/or lead workshops. They also frequently participate in “pitch sessions”, usually 5-20 minutes each, during which, authors can meet 1-on-1 with agents to present their project(s). It’s like speed dating, and there’s usually a fee for the author to participate in the pitch sessions (in addition to the conference fee). Much or most of that fee goes to the conference, with part of it often going to the agents who participate. Sometimes, the agents look at authors’ pitch materials and/or sample pages during (or, prior to) the pitch session. Usually not. Typically, you simply get to give your best verbal pitch. Then, if the agent is interested, the author if invited to follow up and forward material after the event. Usually via email.
At the Jacksonville conference I referenced above, I met with many authors. More than I can remember. However, one author was unforgettable. For all the wrong reasons. Long story short, he had a nonfiction book about golf. He was uncomfortably intense and unusually animated as he told me about his book… with an incredible amount of projected confidence and conviction. I just listened. To be candid, I didn’t really have a choice. It seemed like he’d rehearsed the pitch to a fault and I would’ve thrown him completely off his game if I interrupted.
When he was done, he looked satisfied.
As though it should have been obvious to me—and everyone else within earshot—that he and his book were God’s gift to publishing (the way Tiger Woods was to the game of golf at the time).
I told the gentleman, very politely,
his book wasn’t for me.
He looked at me like I’d gotten his
14-year-old daughter pregnant.
He turned red, stood up abruptly out of his chair, and took a step toward me. I wondered if he was going to try and hit me. He waved his arms wildly, raised his voice, and started shout-pitching me about how stupid I was not to offer to represent his book. “Golf is hot right now!” He screamed. “My book is sure to be a bestseller!!!”
I took a deep breath.
“That may be,” I said. “And, I certainly hope your book is successful. It’s just not for me. I’ve played golf, but I’m not interested in golf enough to take on your book.” I straightened my jacket and stood up so I’d no longer be in a defensive position; and, to, hopefully, hasten his departure. Even if I had been the right agent to represent his book, I certainly wasn’t the agent to represent him.
“What you like shouldn’t matter,” the stupefied author huffed as he stormed off. “The only important thing should be whether you think you can sell the book!”
Think about it for a moment.
What’s required for a literary agent to sell a book?
“A marketable manuscript,” you say?
Absolutely… but that’s not all.
You also need an agent who’s enthusiastic about your book.
And, where does that enthusiasm come from?
Four possible sources…
How Literary Agents Work – Four Factors that Affect Representation
#1 – Profitability – How Literary Agents Work
Sure, I’ve said it many times myself: Publishing is an industry. That means literary agencies and publishers are businesses and, as a result, their main focus is, and should be, staying profitable. That way, they can stay in business. So, yes, literary agents and publishers should almost always consider the potential financial return of every book they consider representing (with the exception of, perhaps, a rare passion project). That’s especially true for new agents and/or those literary agents struggling financially. Since the future of those agents is less certain, they should only focus on projects they believe have the most market potential. But, that’s not the only thing agents consider.
#2 – Personal Knowledge – How Literary Agents Work
Personal knowledge (or lack thereof) related to a certain topic or book genre (like golf) can greatly enhance (or hinder) an agent’s ability to improve and/or sell a manuscript. Great literary agents, editors, publishers, and coaches (such as myself) sometimes shy away from topics or categories they’re not knowledgeable enough about. That’s because being savvy about a topic or category lets publishing professionals determine if an author’s writing is accurate, unique. Does it bring something new and valuable to the category? Being knowledgeable about a topic or category also allows literary agents to help improve the books and/or marketing material associated with those books, so the projects stand out and it’s clear they deserve to be published.
#3 – Publishing Connections – How Literary Agents Work
New literary agents don’t have many (or any) connections with editors at major publishing houses; established agents do, but they only have connections in certain areas. No literary agent on the planet represents every type of book and knows every acquiring editor. So, who do you think is the best literary agent for a nonfiction golf book like the one I told you about a moment ago? An agent who’s already sold books about golf, who knows which editors are interested in books about golf, who has relationships with those editors? Or, an agent who hasn’t done that and doesn’t have a clue which editors and publishers might be interested?
#4 – Personal Interest – How Literary Agents Work
Obviously, new literary agents don’t need many (or any) connections, to sell books; otherwise they couldn’t be agents. They simply need to research which editors and publishers are interested in the types of books they’re representing; and, of course, they need the courage to contact those editors and publishers by phone (preferred) or email (for agents who don’t have big enough cojones) to introduce themselves, the projects they’re pitching, and (hopefully) get permission to send those projects along for consideration.
In other words, being a literary agent is matchmaking—attempting to pair an available author with the most desirable publisher. Meaning, you don’t need to be an expert about the genre or topic you’re pitching. And, you don’t need to be passionate about it. But, you’re obviously more likely to succeed pitching a book if you’re knowledgeable and passionate about the topic and genre. How else are you going to convince publishers it’s any good and make them care?
I’ve been in sales, speaking, and marketing positions all my life… but I’ve never really felt like I was “selling” anything. That’s because I’ve always been an ambassador or representative for businesses, people, and projects I like, love, and/or respect. And, when it comes to books, in particular, I’ve always worked with authors whose projects I’ve been able to understand and/or relate to in some way.
Otherwise, I’ve said I’m not the best fit.
Like I did with the golf guy.
If/when something like that happens
to you, please… be happy.
The world is filled with people who’ll try to convince you they know more than they do about something(s), and they’ll waste your precious time.
Instead, move on to the next person
who might be a better fit.
Personal interest in a topic or genre isn’t everything—but it’s important. If you had a golf book, would you want an agent who loves golf, one who’s indifferent to golf, or one who hates golf? An agent who plays golf, one who used to play golf, or one who’s never played golf? An agent actively seeking books about golf to represent, one who isn’t sure, or one who doesn’t want a golf book? You can try to convert an agent who isn’t knowledgeable or passionate about your book; but, by now (hopefully), you have a better sense of how that story would likely end.
Let’s revisit the comment that inspired this article, posted by the author who said: “I have been a teacher/professor for a very long time. If I graded a paper based on whether it ‘interested’ me, my students would be outraged. They expect objectivity. So it should be with agency, not matters of taste but whether the work is any good, is publishable, and can be sold.”
I understand, to an extent…
The difference is that teachers are employees, required to read every paper a student writes. It’s part of the job description. Literary agents have the liberty of choosing what they want to read and represent—and their future depends on their choices. When agents don’t sell enough of the books they take on, they find themselves out of a job (if they’re employees); and (if they’re entrepreneurs) they find themselves out of business.
Remember, literary agents work for authors—for free—until if/when they’re able sell to their authors’ books. I say that gives them the right to represent (or not represent) whatever they want… the same way that you, as a reader, want the right to read whatever you want.
Question or Comment About How Literary Agents Work – or Anything Else?
Click here to see The 50 Questions Authors Ask Most (along with answers to the questions) and/or post your question or comment. Click here to see our Guide to Literary Agents. And, click here to see some of our best tips to help you Find a Literary Agent and/or Get a Literary Agent.
Want help to make your pitch materials for literary agents as good as they can be? Click here to learn how you can get 1-on-1 feedback to improve your pitch material and/or first fifty pages during an Introductory Coaching Call.
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