On being a new agent

One of the reasons I love being a literary agent is that it’s an ideal way to use all of the publishing skills I have. I’m a salesperson – I love matching customers with the perfect book for them, and I love enthusing about books to people who are interested (my father, who also made his career in sales, always said to me that ‘sales is the transfer of enthusiasm’, and I can’t think of a better definition than that). I’m also an editor, a nitpicker and a very close reader – skills I’ve honed working as a translator. A translator is the closest reader you can possibly imagine – we spend hours considering the nuances of every word we’re translating, and agonising over the exact implications of the word in the original language. Publishing tends to be seen as divided into the Sales Side and the Editorial Side, without much crossover between the two (I think it’s more complicated than that, but that’s a story for another day), and it makes me so happy that as an agent I’m using both these skill sets pretty much all the time.

Being a new agent comes with its own particular delights and challenges. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

The Good
– Being at the ‘actively looking for clients’ stage is really fun. It’s become particularly enjoyable since I was announced in Quill and Quire and featured on Quick Brown Fox, because people are actually reading about me and sending me stuff I’m interested in. I’ve got multi-ethnic sky pirates and feminist dieselpunk and all sorts of other delicious things in my inbox right now.

– Related: nobody seeks me out because of my reputation, because I don’t have one yet. Instead, people tend to seek me out because they feel I value the same things that they value in a book, which means I have a lot in common with my clients even before our relationship has really started.

– I don’t have many clients yet, which means I have a lot of time for each of them. I can afford to take on manuscripts which have potential but need quite a bit of work, because I know I’ll have the time to put in the work with the author. I love it when authors see me as a collaborator, somebody they can bounce ideas off while they’re working on a book. I love that feeling of reading a good manuscript and clearly seeing what needs to be done to make it even better. I’m not really looking forward to the time when I am too busy with existing clients to be able to do this kind of thing for new ones.

– I can move fast. I’m able to respond to emails quickly, and I generally read and respond to each query I get within a few days of receiving it. If I find something I really like, I can request a full manuscript, read it and arrange to chat with the author before some other, busier agents have even had time to read the query. Occasionally when the author goes back to the busier agent to tell them there’s an offer of representation on the table, they shoot to the top of the busier agent’s to-do list and I end up losing them – but other authors like the idea of an agent they can rely on for a quick response, and stick with me.

The Bad
The obvious one is that I don’t have much of a track record yet. Not as an agent, anyway – I’ve made literally hundreds of deals as a rights executive (ask me some day about sticker books in Korea). I know that signing with me is a leap of faith for some authors, and I’ve certainly had the experience of speaking with authors who don’t really seem to respect me or see me as a ‘real’ agent. I try not to mind too much when this happens – it’s clear that we wouldn’t be a good fit for one another anyway.

On the other hand, some authors are excited by the idea of being part of my small, but growing, client list. I think there must be something thrilling about knowing that an agent believes in you and your writing so much that they are building their career and their reputation on it. I guess in the end it’s just the same old question: would you prefer your book to be the smallest book in a big publishing house, or the biggest book in a small publishing house? I don’t think there’s a right answer to this – both options have their advantages and disadvantages. I know I have to work with what I’ve got – I belong to a successful agency and I have an ever-growing database of industry contacts, but I can’t magically become an established agent overnight (and nor would I want to, given all the good things about being a new one!). I am a new agent and I am looking for clients who are excited about working with me. If that’s you, then get in touch. We can grow together.

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5 Responses to On being a new agent

  1. Colin says:

    “Sales is the transfer of enthusiasm.” My dad worked in retail most of his life, and I think he would agree with this statement. It’s a great way to look at it.

    • Lydia says:

      It’s really what sales is all about, isn’t it? I also feel that the whole publishing industry basically runs on enthusiasm, so it’s a particularly good definition for people who sell books.

  2. Norah says:

    i love this. you’re such a good writer and your passion makes me happy and inspired.

  3. Kelly Ann S. says:

    I’m excited to find an agent in Canada that is accepting new clients! I’ve already sent you a query (children’s fiction). Hoping we might be a match. Either way, good luck, welcome to Canada and have fun!
    Kelly Ann S.

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