A writer may think of agents in London, New York and elsewhere as gateways to publication in a major house, or she may consider them as fortresses that barricade her from the world of publishing and all her hopes in that direction.
They are both, of course. At times, they may seem elusive, discouraging, and wholly disinterested in anyone who isn’t already in the media with a grand following. They attend parties and launches and awards dinners for already-established authors, and appear to have no interest whatsoever in bringing aspiring authors into the fold.
By contrast, agents can dazzle you with attention. Sell a few stories, or appear in a newspaper article with what seems like a good non-fiction idea, or have another writer slip your manuscript into the right hands, and suddenly you are treated like a celebrity. The same agent assistants who once protected their boss from you now crowd around, telling you how much they love your manuscript. The assistants are smart and educated and often the daughters of terribly famous other authors. They present you to an agent who has a list of the best prospective editors for your work, ideas of how to sell your foreign rights, and enormous confidence in your future. You go out to lunch and your agent wants to talk about you, your book, and even your next book. Finally, you’ve entered the beguiling and heady love affair that is the author/agent relationship, with your life’s work at its centre, and it feels just great.
Enjoy it but be careful. Remember, for example, how someone becomes an agent. It is a simple two-part process: he decides he wants to be an agent. He then tells others he is an agent. But this isn’t the sort of agent you want. You want an agent whose name, alone, carries great weight. You want the agent who is from an agency of such importance that your inclusion within it means your manuscript moves up to the top of the read pile. The agent who can get an answer from an editor in a couple of weeks, not a couple of months, and possesses a reputation for representing excellent authors so that you are advantaged in a publishing house even before your work is read — that’s the agent you are after.
Isn’t it the case, then, that even though we writers are envious that agents love only famous writers (and not always us) we want agents who are already established, if not a little famous, themselves?
The only way an agent becomes useful to anyone is by reputation. He must be seen to broker the right books. He must maintain his own relationships with editors and sales people, alike, and appear always to know what is going to be hot. To that end, a good agent will align his career with our own only after very careful thought. His career is enhanced with every successful author he signs. When he brings a future award winner and big seller to a house, his standing goes up a notch. When he presents a manuscript that the editors don’t like, their thoughts about his judgment may waver. In other words, every “no” costs him. This is the reason he stands so staunchly at the gate turning away manuscripts, not because he doesn’t care about new writers.
In fact, new writers are what keep agents going. Nothing makes an agent happier than being the first to see the potential in an undiscovered writer. For here is the other real skill in agenting: seeing the value of a work before others have even endorsed it. Being a great reader, a fast reader, and a relentless seeker of new material are all part of being a great agent. Mix in a little maverick, a little risk-taking and a whole lot of confidence, and you get a great agent. There aren’t many out there, but they exist. We just have to bring them the right manuscript, and they are ours.