Ten Immutable Laws for the Literary Agent
Blogger: Wendy Lawton
My chapter for this morning was Exodus 20–The Ten Commandments. I took time to write each one out in my journal since my mind always connects better when my hand is engaged. The practice got me to thinking. If literary agents had ten rules, what would they be?
Here’s what I came up with:
I. We work for the client. This would seem to go without saying but recently we’ve seen an uptick in the number of blog posts and blog comments that suggest that agents are somehow “in publishers’ pockets.” Nothing could be further from the truth. You need only ask some of the editors with whom we’ve recently negotiated contracts.
II. Our clients come first. Agents, like everyone else, are pulled in so many directions—writer’s conferences, reading queries, looking at the work of potential clients, and even doing office and bookkeeping chores. We always remind ourselves, our clients come first. It’s one of the reasons literary agents are notoriously tardy getting back to potential clients. Reading queries and manuscripts of those not yet agented has to take a back seat to client work.
III. To best serve our clients’ long-term career goals we must craft win-win solutions. An agent who “goes for the jugular” will not help the clients’ long-term career. The best agent is the one who makes sure that both the publisher and the author win, so that the relationship can grow over time. An agent who squeezes the publisher for a wincingly high advance stands the risk of killing a career if the author does not “earn out” in the first year.
IV. We must be willing to make decisions in the client’s best interest even when it may not be in our best interest. If an author’s career is on an upswing, an agent who insists on a mega-multi-book deal is doing his client no favors, even if it brings in a hefty commission on the front end. It may lock the client into that agent for several years to come– which an insecure agent might want– but with each successful book that client could have gotten better and better terms.
V. We need to be mindful of our relationships within the publishing industry. A good agent builds strong relationships in the industry. These will stand him in good stead when he has to ask for concessions, negotiate a contract, or deliver tough news.
VI. We need to keep abreast of all that is happening in a changing industry. Having an ostrich-like agent with his head in the sand does no one any good. A wise agent stays one step ahead of the curve. It takes a fair share of reading and networking but it is time well spent.
VII. We must be careful not to jump too soon or hang back too long. When changes come, the prudent agent understands that time is of the essence but is also careful not to jump precipitously.
VIII. We must be, above all, truth tellers. It is too easy to focus on the marketing side of what we do—shopping manuscripts to publishers—and *wink, wink* justify inflating numbers, twisting details or omitting negative statistics. A good agent will steadfastly stick to the truth. Truth matters. Also, when it comes to giving feedback to the client, the agent must speak the truth in love.
IX. We need to be creative. Finding new ways to serve our clients and approach the industry becomes increasingly important in a climate of change.
X. We must be people of integrity. The agent handles money, relationships, proprietary information and confidences. Integrity is essential.
Like the ten commandments, it’s a list against which we can clearly see our shortcomings
So, Your turn. What did I miss? If you had a similar list, say The Ten Tenets of Authors, what would you include?
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