MANY NEWER WRITERS seem dead-certain that they need an agent. But I have found that, when I speak with them, they are not all that certain of what they need an agent for. Either that, or they want an agent for all the wrong reasons.
Oftentimes, writers are of the mind that, once they find an agent, they’ll have a wise and experienced industry professional who will review their book, give them advice on how to make it better, tutor them on how to better focus it, and maybe break out a blue pencil and give their manuscript a content edit, or even a line edit.
That’s a lovely thought, but that’s not an agent. That’s not what an agent is supposed to be doing: not in (or for) my book, anyhow.
Writers looking for advisors, collaborators, copyeditors and hand-holders are in search of mentors, not agents, and the really great agents—ones who are truly and deeply respected in and by the publishing industry—are all way too busy to be mentors.
Great agents are, first and foremost, businesspeople.
Yes, they love books. And if their specialty is selling fiction, they love literature and eat, breathe and sleep novels. They are the kinds of folks who keep a stack of new releases on their nightstands (or their Kindles), and go through books the way regular human beings go through meals.
But it’s important to understand that agents aren’t reading all that stuff so they can sit down with budding novelists and tell them how to fix their work. They are reading it to stay current on the industry, to track trends and detect emerging themes.
Great agents also develop close relationships with acquisition editors and the people who sit on the publication boards at the major houses. And they don’t do this so they can leverage sympathy and use it to make a sale for a new and possibly marginal writer; they do this to build a necessary trust, and to learn what publishers already have established in their product pipeline, what they are looking for, and what they need.
And while great agents realize that they have a fiduciary responsibility to advocate for the authors they represent, they also have a professional obligation to do so with integrity, to seek vigorously those publication deals that will be of tremendous benefit to both parties, and to comport themselves in a fashion that will leave both author and publisher eager to work with them again. Then, once agreements are reached, great agents make it their business to see that what has been agreed upon is delivered—by both parties.
Doing this is a fulltime job. It is more than a fulltime job. It doesn’t leave time to be a book doctor or a teacher.
I know that there are people who will object to this, because they have—and may have enjoyed long relationships with—agents who do help them fix their manuscripts and advise them on their craft. But every time I hear about an agent doing this, I can’t help but wonder: when do they find the time to stay current with their industry? And, more importantly … when do they find the time to sell books?