Seven things I learned in my first year as an agent

I’ve been with The Rights Factory for a little over a year now. I started out just handling foreign rights for my colleagues, but with the support of my fantastic boss I soon started representing my own domestic clients as well. Now I represent clients writing in genres from middle-grade SFF to narrative non-fiction (and I even have one client who writes both of those!). I’ve done some deals and had some rejections. I have lost sleep over manuscripts and then realised that it’s all going to be fine. I have found diamonds in my slush pile.

Here are some things I’ve learned in my first year as a literary agent. I hope they’re useful to somebody else.

1. Publishing is slow
Slower than that. No, slower. These days I raise this issue with authors before I sign them, because I don’t want them to have unrealistic expectations of how quickly the publication process is going to go. You see interviews occasionally with blushing debut authors who shyly tell the story of their first publishing deal, and it usually goes like this: their agent submitted their manuscript and then had two editors on the phone within a week (sometimes within 24 hours). The contract was on their desk a week later, and it’s all been such a whirlwind and they’re so glad and they were never expecting anything like this to happen. I know that only a very tiny minority of authors have this experience and yet I have to admit, even I get carried away by these stories sometimes. Every time I do a submission I’m on tenterhooks for the whole following week, imagining editors reading it right that second and going I HAVE TO HAVE THIS. Because that’s how I felt when I read it, after all.

In real life, I got an offer within a month of submission once – but it was for non-fiction, which tends to move quite a bit faster than fiction. My colleague recently got an offer for a book nearly a year after she’d submitted it. And then, of course, after the offer there is the negotiation, and the signing, and the editing, and then you’ll be waiting a year or two more until the book is actually published. This is not a business for the impatient.

2. Related: I do not have all of the answers
I don’t know why that editor hasn’t got back to me yet. Yes, it’s possible that they aren’t interested in your book. On the other hand, maybe they’re really interested in your book. Maybe they’re taking it to the acquisitions board right now. Maybe they’re deliberating over whether it has a place in the market, or whether it’s too similar to something else they already publish. Maybe they haven’t even opened the submission email yet. I know it’s frustrating, and I’m sorry, but I am not going to help you speculate on what editors are doing. It only leads to sad times for both of us.

3. Plot is fixable
I like to think of myself as an editorial agent. I take on manuscripts that have potential and I work on them with the author, sometimes for months at a time, until they’re ready to go out. And so far I’ve found that plot is the easiest aspect of a manuscript to fix. I’m happy to take on manuscripts that have great characters and great worldbuilding but need a bit of help in the plot department – as long as I have reason to believe in the author and their ability to fix things, and as long as the author and I are in agreement about what actually needs to be done.

4. Non-fiction is fun
When I started this job I wasn’t expecting to take on any non-fiction, but these days I can’t get enough of it. Non-fiction is different from fiction because it’s sold on proposal, rather than on full manuscript – which means that, as an agent, I get to participate in putting together a really outstanding, eye-catching proposal. Everything happens much more quickly than in fiction (partly because editors only have a fifty-page proposal to read, rather than a three-hundred-page manuscript) and because it’s a less subjective area it’s easier to get an idea of what kind of books editors are looking for. Also, I learn so much interesting stuff from my non-fiction clients. More non-fiction please!

5. Some people get very angry when they are rejected
And that’s fine. They can send me angry emails if they like – it just demonstrates that I was right to reject them. There are a lot of authors out there who are angry with the traditional publishing industry and take a somewhat antagonistic attitude to agents. I think it’s easy to forget that actually we’re real people who only want the best for our clients – and that if we give feedback to authors who aren’t our clients, we’re doing it because we think the manuscript has potential and we’d like to be helpful. I send far more form rejections now than I did when I first started out, because I got sick of people responding to my rejections with lists of reasons why I was wrong about them and their manuscript. It’s harder to argue with a form rejection.

6. I can’t sell books I don’t love
I’ve been around for long enough now that occasionally I see a deal announcement for a book I recognise, or hear that an author I turned down has acquired an agent. There’s always a fleeting feeling of regret, a sense that maybe I missed out on something good – especially with the former (which admittedly has only happened to me once so far, but that’s because publishing is slow, see above). But then I remember all the reasons why I passed (it’s usually one or both of the bottom two reasons on that list) and I realise that actually, while that manuscript may be eminently sellable by somebody else, that doesn’t mean that I could have sold it. It’s hard sometimes – editing and re-editing, targeting submissions, tirelessly advocating for the manuscripts that I love, telling clients what they need to hear. I can do it because I believe so very strongly in my clients and their writing, and I don’t think I could do it as effectively for a manuscript I didn’t love. I would do those authors a disservice if I offered to represent them, instead of letting them find another agent who would love their work with their whole heart.

7. This is the best job in the world.
Sure, it’s hard and frustrating sometimes, and not exactly the most stable of careers. But when you get a new manuscript that lights you up inside, when you call up a prospective client and find that you really hit it off, when you chat with an editor and get that tingling sense that one of your manuscripts would be perfect for them, when you finish a submission and you feel full of glee about all the awesome you’ve just sent out into the world, when you get an email in your inbox with that magical word ‘Offer’ in the subject line…it’s magical. I just can’t imagine wanting to do anything else.

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3 Responses to Seven things I learned in my first year as an agent

  1. Glory Szabo says:

    Thanks for the post – what an interesting read! It’s fascinating to consider things from the agent’s point of view as it’s sometimes hard to anticipate for writers, especially the first time around. However, I am sad to hear that you had to start sending out form rejections due to the nasty responses you got to more detailed rejections; it’s a shame some writers don’t consider rejections as a learning experience.

  2. raymi says:

    “This is not a business for the impatient.”

    Knowing this I become patient, henceforth lazy and have not delivered my all-encompassing “the book” just yet. #excuses. Great piece!

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