How Many Hats Does a Literary Agent Wear?
By Cynthia Ruchti on February 12, 2020, adapted from an article posted on April 10, 2018*
How many hats does a literary agent wear? And why would I want an agent on my side?
Among the many questions agents field at writers conference where newcomers to the industry are in attendance are these: What’s a literary agent? What’s an agent do? Why do I need one? Is a literary agent sort of like an insurance agent, real estate agent, secret agent...but for books?
At a recent writers guild event, I attempted to answer some of those questions with this list of responsibilities and roles agents play. Every agent is an individual with stronger gifts in one or more of these areas, and with boundaries about how many of these hats they choose to wear.
Many good literary agents serve as:
Book doctor and brainstormer
Counselor and Career coach/manager
Defender—of the author, his or her project, the worth of their work
Editor—who already cares about you as a person
Fan—including sharing publishing or industry successes
Grunt—doing the heavy lifting with numbers, contracts, royalty statements, behind-the-scenes at pub houses
Heart attack preventer
Jill (or Jack)-of-all-trades
Knowledge banker—collecting not only information about the author, but what matters to the author, as well as careful data collection on the author’s behalf agent hat casual
List-keeper—timelines, deadlines, where projects currently stand
Matchmaker—matching an author to a project, a project to a publisher
Negotiator—advance, marketing efforts, high volume discounts, rights, royalty percentages, differences of opinion between the author and editors; and buffer between author and publisher
Opinion filter—helping authors know which reviews deserve their attention, which editorial comments or cover art choices are worth further discussion
Agents also wear the hats of:
Proposal shaper and polisher—one of the most time-consuming of all an agent’s roles
Questioner—What are you working on? Why? When do we need to shift priorities? Where do you need to invest more effort or time? What’s going on at home that may affect your deadlines, the quality of your writing, your sanity? Is that the best title for your book?
Researcher—who’s publishing what; who’s reading what; who’s looking for what the author is producing? Keeping abreast of industry news; which editors have changed houses, changed focus, changed careers;
Sifter of ideas—Book ideas are measured in trillions; shelf space for books is measured in inches
Talent Scout—Always on the lookout for a strong idea written by a strong writer with a strong platform and a strong chance of attracting a publisher’s attention
Umbrella of Protection from the harsh rays of publishing reality
Visionary—helping authors envision, plan for, and become equipped for their futures
Wisdom-Dispenser—daily, from “You might want to consider deleting that Facebook post,” to “Your family needs you right now. I’ll talk to your publisher about an extension.”
eXcellence Midwife—Caring about and tending to the excellence growing within an author
Yes Nurturer—working hard to find and grow the best yes; LOOKS for the yes, but learns to live with many a no
Zigger—when the industry is zagging
Agents wear many hats...sometimes all on the same day.
P.S. Ending this post with a picture of my personal favorite. What hat would I, a Books & Such agent, most appreciate wearing? This one:
*This post was adapted from an article written on April 10, 2018 and posted on the Books & Such Literary Management blog.