Many agents have been publishers themselves. It follows that they like to specialise (usually in the kind of books they used to publish, or those in which they have a strong personal interest) and that they have an encyclopaedic view of the industry.
You can find a list of agents in industry yearbooks, along with a list of the best-known writers they represent. JK Rowling found her agent through this source, and apparently initially picked him because she liked his name (Christopher Little).
Agents often work a bit like advertising agencies, in that they tend to have just one major client in each field. So just as an advertising agency would not represent two directly competing accounts, a literary agent is unlikely to take on two authors whose books are very similar. This is particularly true in the non-fiction market, where having two directly competing authors would be bound to cause difficulties.
Generalising further, literary agents are gregarious, fond of being noticed (they tend to dress quite strikingly), good talkers (they certainly seem to know everyone), dramatic travellers (fond of hopping on and off planes in a blaze of self-generated publicity), good negotiators (their livelihood depends on it, as does that of the authors they represent), and not immune to vanity – so mentioning that you have heard them speak, or making it clear that you know who they are and particularly want to be represented by them, tends to go down well. Most are based in key hub cities, although there are clusters in other attractive places, close to publishers. It’s not necessarily more prestigious to have a metropolitan agent:
‘I find we are often seen as a bit fresher than the London agents, and all publishers seem interested in finding out about the literary scene in Scotland.’
Jenny Brown, whose agency is based in Edinburgh, but who nevertheless sells most of her clients’ work to London-based publishers
Before asking what they can do for you, consider what’s in it for them
I always think the secret of a good business proposal is to look at it from your would-be collaborator’s viewpoint rather than your own. Thus, when seeking sponsorship, you get a far better response if you explain what the potential sponsor will get out of a relationship with you than if you tell them how much you need the money. To paraphrase JF Kennedy, ‘Think not what an agent can do for you, but what you can do for an agent.’
Taking the same approach with agents, they are looking for writers:
- With talent (and can you prove it by providing quotes from satisfied readers/reviewers?)
- Who can sustain it beyond one book (and thus will be ongoing earners and repay the initial investment of time they make in you)
- Who are topical (all agents and publishers claim to be looking for the ‘next big thing’)
- Who are different, or have a new slant to bring to an existing strand of publishing
- Who are promotable (a key publishing term meaning interesting or memorable to the media). How you come over (or are likely to come over) in the press/on the air will be a key factor in deciding whether or not to take you on.
How the money works between author and agent
The money side of things needs a little more consideration. Whilst most agents are book lovers, and enjoy what they do, their service does not exist as a wider service to literature in general, but to make a profit. As well as a talent for writing, they are looking for financial remuneration from those they represent. So whilst an agent may be willing to help you shape your novel and provide advice, they will be doing these things in the hope that you will reward them with books that sell, rather than out of pure altruism.
It’s not uncommon for authors to feel that agents have picked them up, sounded interested in them, asked them to reshape their writing (and often at short notice), not managed to get them published – and then callously dropped them. They are left feeling deflated and bewildered about what to do next. But looking at the situation from the other side of the fence, if no money has changed hands, or no long-term agreement been signed, the agent may feel that the investment in time and money has been largely their own – and for no ultimate financial remuneration.
Whatever advance the author gets, their agent usually gets 12.5–15 per cent of it, so it is in the agent’s interests to sell the book for the highest amount of money – or to the publishing house that is most likely to make a long-term success of the writer’s career. This may lead the cynical to conclude that agents are more likely to be interested in media-friendly (or just media-based) authors than pure literary genius, but it is through the success of key names that they are able to take a punt on new writers. An agency that confined itself to literary fiction alone, and ignored the popular market completely, would probably not last long.