hate to sound like a bitch, though I’ll admit that I also hate not sounding like a bitch, as always acting like the nice girl usually makes for a boring, and phony, conversation. But recently my colleague Betsy Lerner wrote a post on her popular eponymous blog, asking simply what writers wanted from their agents, and it reminded me that most people have no idea what an agent is supposed to be for. Some of the responses in the comments were funny (“I would like to be able to find my agent”), some were annoyingly familiar (“I would like her to take less commission”) and some were surprising (“I’m looking for someone with a sense of humor” was a popular response).
Then there were these: “I’d like honesty about what my agent did for my book in the last time period.” (The more they have to do is the less you’re willing or able to.) “I’d like an agent to be kind and frank about my work.” (Even if those two are at odds?) “When there’s a writer in the room with more star power than me and she or he is not your client, you might want to pay a tad more attention to me, your client.” (But what if they’re single and really attractive?)
No one answered what immediately popped into my head, the answer that most makes sense if you’re looking for a champion for your work: “I would prefer my agent be independently wealthy.”
Maybe that seems counter-intuitive – if an agent wants to make more money, shouldn’t they take on more authors whose work they can sell? Just sell more books? In fact, the Agent/Author relationship is usually so fraught with emotional and editorial concerns that there’s scarcely anything left over for the countless submissions we’re always in trouble for not reading quickly enough. And so it’s important to remind ourselves that while an Agent is often our first reader, we shouldn’t rely on them the way we might our friends or a partner.
When I started in publishing, I worked for a very wealthy person whose agency was swimming in bestsellers and where most of the agents had done serious time in publishing houses, editing for them and running them. Breathing that air and taking my mentor’s extensive advice, while also collecting a decent salary, gave me a lot of room to grow and learn on the job. Here’s what a winning book proposal reads like. Here’s how editors are thinking when they’re editing a novel for plot. Here are the best editors of their generation, and here’s who to avoid. And perhaps most importantly, Here’s how to negotiate a contract. (This was before there were specific people in place at a lot of agencies to fulfill those roles. These days there are plenty of young agents, and probably some old ones, who have no idea what the contract even says.) Getting to eat in the best restaurants in Manhattan was a bonus. It was a great way to move up the ladder, and it spoiled me. The truth is most literary agents don’t live that way.
Most literary agents are scrappy people who love literature so much that they squeak by on a 7.5% commission of proceeds of books that sell for less than ever, and work harder and longer for people who resent them completely. And if the book doesn’t sell, or doesn’t sell through to earn out its advance (as is the norm), then 15% of nothing is nothing. But that agent is still expected to jumpstart or save a career, and be the person the author repeatedly looks to for emotional and creative support. That is a time suck for both parties, and it takes a rich person to be able to afford to keep at it.
There’s a difference between being Facebook friends and being really intimate. Lord knows I’ll be Facebook friends with almost anyone! I once represented a dear friend, and though we were both happy with my work, we still managed to come to blows over the lengths at which he thought I should “defend him” when it came to rushing payments through. I’ve had to remind myself a few times that I shouldn’t take a client’s financial crises to heart, even as I can relate. Especially because I can relate.
These days I’m a part-timer, meaning I only work for the people I’ve already committed to working for, and I have no desire to augment my list. (Don’t worry – I still chip in for overhead at my agency, and I do my best for the clients I have, the majority of whom are professional grownups.) In general, I think there are too many writers and too many agents, but more to the point, authors expect too much from a person whose job responsibilities have grown disproportionate to their salaries. For almost all projects, we’re expected to embody the role of the editorial expert almost completely in advance of the sale, and we also must have a jump on the marketplace, be legal experts, celebrity wranglers, gifted title choosers, etc. And we’re supposed to be the person that fixes it if something goes wrong and the author isn’t happy, and we should fix it in a way that makes it look like the unhappiness isn’t the author’s idea, but the agent’s, since the author still needs to look flawless in the eyes of her publisher.
Part of it is our own fault: a lot of literary agents are naturally drawn to co-dependent relationships. We’re either frustrated artists ourselves, or we’re so wrapped up in this idea that we can control the fate of a book, if given the chance, beyond taking it to the next step, which is publication. But even if we can, we shouldn’t take it that far.
If you expect your editor or agent to make you feel whole in your talent, or to complete your vision of yourself as an artist and a success, then you’re headed for a heartbreak. If you find yourself wondering why your agent isn’t “doing more” to make you feel like a winner in the game of life, it probably means you should see a therapist. Writers as a group, I’ve noticed, are an emotional people (I’m one myself, obviously). Writing is a solitary exercise, and some forms breed depression, loneliness and anxiety. Moody artists, especially if they aren’t on their meds (which I recommend, and wish I could prescribe), often cross the boundaries of what is professional and ask for the things they were supposed to get from their moms. And there’s an intense sense of entitlement.
An agent friend recently told me that he felt stuck when a writer whose second book wasn’t selling complained about the Agent’s delivery of the harsh reality. “You’re supposed to pick me up when I fall down,” The writer had whined. No, the agent wished he had said. You’re supposed to write a book that captures the imagination and wallets of the American public, and I’m supposed to help you sell it.