making my list and checking it twice – a work in progress

Based on the comments offered by various people, here is the current composite of the perfect agent:

*makes best efforts to sell the individual client’s work, but not to the detriment of other clients; has sufficient time and resources for each client
*must be enthusiastic and passionate about each client’s work, but not in a gratuitous way, and also be willing to be constructively critical as needed
*must read said work in a “reasonable amount of time”
*must be honest and trustworthy and have a good reputation
*must be competent and act professionally
*must communicate and be responsive to client communications, and as part of that should be available to discuss career direction and listen to the client’s goals and desires for said career and make suggestions to bring that vision closer to reality without superimposing their own iron-clad will upon it (especially should not suggest the writer work in areas for which they are not suited)
*knows the market and proactively informs clients about new opportunities
*ideally, should have a compatible personality

Boy is that a lot to live up to, and that last one is probably the most subjective of the bunch, though there are a few others that sound that way as well. I’ve summarized, of course, out of necessity as several of these requirements repeat throughout the comments. So, is anything missng?

For me, this is food for thought. (Heck, it’s more of a feast for thought.) And, I know I said something about trying to post what my vision of the ideal client might be. I haven’t really put that together as yet, but it occurred to me as I was staring at the list above (and telling myself that, yes, I’m a goddess and I can do all that), to turn it back and paraphrase it as the same qualities can and do apply to writers. Just to give everyone something to snack on with me.

*makes best efforts to sell their work, by concentrating on improving the craft of their writing (for future works) and spending time and energy to promote currently published works (e.g. book signings, mailing lists, web site maintenance, etc.); realizes agent must spend time and resources on each and every client
*should be enthusiastic and passionate about their work, but not in a blind way, and accept constructive criticism
*must deliver their work in a “reasonable amount of time” (e.g. make deadlines, or give plenty of warning when deadlines might need to be adjusted)
*must be honest and trustworthy and have a good reputation
*must be competent and act professionally
*must clearly communicate their needs, desires, goals to their agent, acknowledge their agent does not have psychic abilities in this respect, and be willing to listen to and seriously consider the agent’s suggestions for how to make that vision a reality
*should be informed about how publishing works and keep on eye on the current market
*ideally, should have a compatible personality

Now I just need to figure out what’s missing from this list as to what else one might expect from a client….

17 responses to “making my list and checking it twice – a work in progress

  1. ‘Compatible personality’ is so vague, and yet so important. I’ve been very lucky in this respect.
    Both lists seem pretty comprehensive to me.

  2. As mentioned in my most recent LJ entry, I’d like to know how I should go about sending my work to people…what format, and to whom, that sort of thing. I know that information is out there, I’m just twitchy about it. Got any suggestions, books I should read, what?

  3. I’m an incurable list-maker, along these lines, and usually, when I get to the end of making one, I read it over and either go into severe REM (uncontrollable blinking), or else burst out laughing at how impossible living up to it is.
    In the end – purely my opinion – the agent/client relationship is going to come down to a lot of intangibles, nebulous things that either ping or don’t ping, that likely can’t be put into words at all.
    And, I’m curious about your penultimate “desirable client” item. My oldest and best friend in the world is, in fact, a literary agent; I spent the better part of four long emails a few days ago, commiserating with her. She was grinding her teeth because she’d submitted one client’s romantic mystery to a romance house 18 months ago, and was told that they loved it but it was a mystery, and no one was buying those, but how, a month ago, she had one editor at the same house turn down a straight romance because what she really was looking for were “romantic mysteries.”
    So my question is, if the market is that quirky and that changeable – sort of a stock market for language – doesn’t it become a fulltime job watching it? Thereby making it very tricky to actually write the books, too?
    Oy vey.

    • Everything human is that quirky and that changeable.
      If you work for a company, it might be merged with another company — giving you two sets of rules to work with till they’re reconciled into one unfamiliar set of rules.
      If you work for the Federal Government, there’s one certainty — that an incoming President will change a whole lot of things about the way your agency operates. For example, all the forms you work with may be replaced.
      If you’re an elected official, what worked last election might not work in the next one.

      • True. But if I was an elected official, I wouldn’t be writing a book and watching the election in the same breath; I’d be doing one or the other, because both seem like fulltime occupations.

    • So my question is, if the market is that quirky and that changeable – sort of a stock market for language – doesn’t it become a fulltime job watching it
      I’d say there is awareness (good) and, well, the agent’s job, which is in-depth knowledge. I’m a writer. I don’t want to spend my time doing things that an agent can do better, because she already has a lot more knowledge in the field. What, to an agent, is the use of me knowing that editor X has moved to publisher Y and tends to buy books like mine? If I need to tell the agent, I’ve got the wrong agent, because if the agent can’t work out where to submit the book, well…
      If I told my agent to submit it there, I’d feel I was muscling in on her turf – it’s my job to write books, and her job to submit them to the best markets. If I don’t trust the agent to a) have such information and b) make informed decisions on where to submit – decisions based on a knowledge of the business that I as a newcomer to it will not have – then, again, I’ve got the wrong agent; I might as well submit myself and see how far I can get.
      I’m not trying to abdicate my responsibilities; at the same time, I cannot see the point in becoming a better agent than my [still hypothetical] agent. Some writers, obviously, *like* to be in the know, like to be in the thick of it, and I have to admit, being at Worldcon and being surrounded by writers and people in the industry was a heady feeling; a good place to be. But other people – or the same people at other times in their lives – just want to write; and they trust their agents to have that market knowledge and – the other side of the bargain – they will trust the agent to do the right thing, and are happy when the agent tells them ‘this is the wrong place/editor/house because…’ . I don’t think they are, by default, worse clients, or _bad_ clients.

      • I’d say there is awareness (good) and, well, the agent’s job, which is in-depth knowledge.
        And that’s actually what I meant by “keeping an eye on the current market” — being aware. I realize that writing is an art and takes a lot of focus, inspiration and hard work. But writers need to realize that publishing is a business, and far too many of them seem to wave airily when it comes to that. It’s sort of like keeping an eye on the weather. One doesn’t expect everyone to become a meteorologist, but a person can at least check the weather report or talk to their neighbors about it.

  4. On the “timely” thing: I will understand if my hypothetical agent will say “Look, I’m sorry, a hurricane just hit my office and I have three other ms. that are overdue; I can’t get you a response until probably Halloween.” This is far preferable to an agent saying “Oh, I always respond in a month” but not actually doing so.
    The same applies to clients, of course. While one shouldn’t use one’s personal life as an excuse, I prefer the agent who sends me suggestions on how to dry out my books with a hair-dryer, and don’t worry about the deadline until the computer guy sends your backups, to someone who will decide I am unreliable if I fail on one deadline. I am chronically ill, and one bad, unpredictable flare-up can leave me unable to type. I need an agent who can work with that, and know that this is why I pad my deadlines.
    To emphasize “professionalism” on the client side: Clients who treat the business like a hobby are a pain in the butt to people for whom it is their breadwinning job. (I’ve been a magazine editor, and contributors who don’t treat their work like a ‘real job’ don’t get called back next time I need something. Even though the magazine in question wasn’t paying (me or the contributors), we kept it as professional as possible.)
    I think a lot of “compatible personality” will come down to professional behavior and good manners. If my choices are between two agents: one of whom is someone with whom I can be great friends but who isn’t timely, constantly calls me instead of e-mailing no matter how many times I mention my hearing problems, and takes my ms. to Burning Man and loses it; or a fundamentalist Baptist Republican who I would never invite to a party, but who emails me regularly and handles my work with timeliness, respect and professionalism, I’ll take the latter. And hope we can avoid dealing with right-to-life issue surrounding that cloning story I just wrote – or maybe even discuss it reasonably and get ideas out of it.

  5. Agents aren’t psychic?

  6. :laughs on reading point #1 for ideal clients:
    I started promoting Mysterious Paris when I started writing the first draft! I was one of the writers featured in the National Post (Canadian national newspaper) each week for a month, as we writers participated in national novel writing month.

  7. I really like both lists; they seem like very sensible ideals. Personally, “compatible personality” goes at the bottom of my list and is something I would even do without, if an agent had all those other qualities–most of which really are, I think, summed up in “must act competently and professionally.”
    The biggest potential problem area on both sides, I think, is that of communication–that’s my (admittedly limited) experience so far, anyway.

  8. Now I just need to figure out what’s missing from this list as to what else one might expect from a client….
    Well, I would sort of expect something along the lines of “writes well, or, at least writes in a manner that is consistantly salable.”

  9. Thank you very much for this list.
    Now I just need to figure out what’s missing from this list as to what else one might expect from a client….
    I can’t think of anything to add, but I’d like to remark that I find it interesting that both sides seem to focus more on process (must act professional, work in a timely fashion, be honest, communicate with the other side) rather than particulars (‘must get advances of x size/be familiar with the precise niche/get result in x amount of time’ respectively ‘must write to x level/this sort of story/x amount of books a year’). That thread went right through all the comments on your previous entry.
    Although the ‘career development’ aspect makes me wonder a little bit. I’ve been writing long enough (five years seriously, and another ten before that on and off and for fun) and have written enough books (quadrology-in-revision, one out in the world, one in rough draft) that I am actively seeking to _develop_ a career – I know I can do it, and I know I won’t quit any time soon. My mother, on the other hand, is writing up a journey that she and a friend undertook in a VW beetle in 1969 – four weeks through the Soviet Union – and she might never write another book after that; but she, too, would certainly profit from having an agent when the time comes. I should think there are a lot of people who have one book in them that weighs on their souls, one story they really want to sell and that they are willing to polish to perfection – are those projects *not* interesting to agents? Or are they more hassle than they are worth, and you’re taking the long view, first advances being what they are?
    As reader, I’ve sometimes wished that writers had *stopped* – brilliant first novels, lovingly presented, followed by mediocre-to-bad books obviously borne out of a desire to ‘build upon’ what was good in idea and execution; only the follow-ups never got the same attention that the first one did, *and it shows.*

    • I’d like to remark that I find it interesting that both sides seem to focus more on process (must act professional, work in a timely fashion, be honest, communicate with the other side) rather than particulars (‘must get advances of x size/be familiar with the precise niche/get result in x amount of time’ respectively ‘must write to x level/this sort of story/x amount of books a year’).
      That second section of qualities is so highly variable from author to author, though. For example, some people only write one book a year and certainly cannot expect to do more than that. Others want to write three or four books a year in more than one genre. For myself, I have both kinds of those writers – even though I’m sure some agents would be less flexible when it comes to that. Also – to a certain extent – if you have the first set of qualities, many of the second set seem to follow (e.g. knowing a niche, getting respectable advances, etc.).
      I should think there are a lot of people who have one book in them that weighs on their souls, one story they really want to sell and that they are willing to polish to perfection – are those projects *not* interesting to agents? Or are they more hassle than they are worth, and you’re taking the long view, first advances being what they are?
      Good question. Bluntly and frankly (and this comes under the heading of should be honest) — most first books in fiction don’t make enough for an agent to take it on for money-making reasons. Those are either investments in an author’s future, or labors of love (which do happen). There are exceptions, of course – first novels occasionally break out (current examples: The Historian or Strange&Norrell). For the most part, though, an agent who focuses on fiction is going to look long-term and build an author if they can. Non-fiction is a different gig entirely. And memoirs are a very specific sort of non-fiction.

  10. I guess I’m not that demanding when it comes to representation. I want someone who will sell my stuff and when I’m not producing the sort of thing that’ll keep the sales coming, smack me upside the head to let me know that I’m straying off course. A writer and an agent are partners with the common goal of building a money-making enterprise. I don’t need my agent to be my buddy, but rather my advocate. Anything else beyond that basic role is just icing.

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