Remaining viable as a literary agent

As it turns out, accepting queries from prospective clients for only one or two months during the year allowed me to respond to writers more quickly and provide feedback and, I hope, encouragement. What it didn’t do is benefit my business. Not one bit.

I’ve mentioned to friends in publishing that I’m seeing far fewer good, viable manuscripts, which might be due to two factors: the increasing number of literary agents, at least in the U.S., and the trend toward self-publishing.

documentsIn 2014, I’ll take queries continuously for the entire year. I’ll need to be considerably more selective about which manuscripts I offer to read, though, so I don’t end up with an unmanageable reading queue. Furthermore, I won’t be able to think of working with writers who aren’t already adept at self-promotion. It won’t be easy to reject prospective clients on that basis, because I’m empathetic. And I’m enamored of the underdog. And I’m an introvert myself, so my heart goes out to others who are introspective. Nevertheless, I must select the manuscripts and authors who have the potential to succeed at reaching readers. Any writer who hasn’t accepted the professional responsibility of connecting with an audience isn’t likely to be a good investment for me or for a publisher.

I adore my job and my clients. There’s never a moment when I’m not thinking of them and how to improve their odds. The biggest perk of being a literary agent is that I’m never bored. Book people are fascinating. They’re inquisitive. They like to argue. They have strong opinions. They make use of their intellects. (Well, they fantasize, at least.) I wouldn’t trade them for any other colleagues. Astronauts, actors, academics, actuaries, pearl divers—sorry, but people in the book business are having a lot more fun.

2 thoughts on “Remaining viable as a literary agent

  1. Marsha

    What do you specifically look for in terms of a writer’s ability self-promote? As for the lack of viable manuscripts, I tend to blame the ease of self-publishing, especially when some writers think that means they don’t need to pay an editor or assessor to analyse and strengthen their ms.

  2. Robin Mizell Post author

    Well, I don’t mean to be flip, but I look for effort. Most of the time, there’s no evidence of it. Hard to believe, I know. I’m glad there’s a succinct buzzword to explain: the Dunning–Kruger effect. It’s fairly easy to rule out the dilettantes, occasionally including naturally talented writers whose inexperience makes them better candidates for self-publishing. Often enough, these folks don’t actually want their writing to be more than a hobby, though they might be perfectly, obliviously willing to ask other people to invest in their recreational pursuits. (To be fair, there are publishers who fall in the hobbyist category, too.)

    It’s far more difficult to assess the potential of a writer who, in addition to being talented, is professional—who approaches creative writing as a business. The person will be discoverable online, will have demonstrated publicly an ability to engage people’s attention with a certain level of sophistication, and will be driven or competitive. In addition, I look for clients who are empathetic, honest, and intelligent, because I believe readers are searching for those qualities—they are visible in the writing.

    There’s one more huge, distressing deal-breaker: hubris. What makes it so troubling is that it needs to remain the elephant in the room.

    Is it frustrating that these criteria are so subjective?

    With regard to self-publishing, there’s some economic justification for giving consumers (book buyers) no more than the level of quality they demand. We can see it a little more clearly in other industries, where price obviously matters more than quality to a large percentage of consumers, who are not discriminating or can’t afford to be.

    Self-publishing service providers can view writers as consumers of their services. In that case, the sales transaction with the writer of the book is the real endgame, and whether readers ever enter the picture doesn’t matter much to the service provider. Nothing wrong with that at all, as long as it isn’t misrepresented to the consumer (the writer).

    A freelance copyeditor is a service provider in the same way a self-publishing service is a service provider.

    I do feel that some free self-publishing platforms currently are being offered by companies that, essentially, are investing in writers, just as literary agents and traditional publishers invest in writers, with no guarantee of a return on their investments. It’s not so simple for most people to figure out the differences, other than the obvious: one door is wide open and the other isn’t.

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