Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

What Do Agents Actually Do?

Most depictions of agents in popular culture fall into two categories: the Ari Gold fast-talking hustler who is vainly trying to be one of the boys, and the bloodsucking leech who attaches itself to the author to extract that 15 percent; Or, possibly, both. It sounds pretty dire. But if you talk to authors about their agents, you might find something pretty strange -- most authors love their agents. Why is that?

It's very difficult to fully describe the range of functions of an agent, but one of the most important aspects of the author/agent relationship happens at the very beginning. Agents sift through the mass of queries and letters and projects to find projects he really believes in. From the author's perspective, this usually means that in a sea of rejections and adveristy the agent is the first person who really truly believes in the author's talent and potential. Being an author is really, really tough -- there's a lot of rejection throughout the process, and sometimes even their friends and family don't believe in them. Knowing that there is someone who believes in them is invaluable.

Once the agent has found a project, he shops it to publishers. A lot of expertise and networking goes into this. Agents have lunches with editors and network relentlessly so they know who is buying what, what's working and what's not, and where and to whom they should submit. It's more art than science, but since publishers will generally only accept submissions from agents it's a crucial step.

If there is an offer on the book, an agent will negotiate the advance and the terms of the contract. Again, there's a great deal of expertise that goes into this. Agents know how to get better deals than authors could get on their own. They know what rights to hold onto, how to get editors to increase the advance or royalties, how to negotiate the contract to protect the authors' interests, and often the simple fact that the author has an agent automatically ensures that they'll get a better deal simply because the publisher knows they can't mess around.

Once the contract for the book is signed, there are other rights to deal with, such as film and translation. Some of the bigger agencies, such as Curtis Brown Ltd., have their own foreign rights and film departments, and can be very effective in selling film and translation rights. The smaller agencies usually still work to sell these rights through other agents with whom they are affiliated.

After everything is all signed and finished, the agent continues to track the book to make sure things are happening as they should, to make sure the author's money is being paid on time, and just generally keep on top of things. The agent will also work with the author to craft a long range vision for their work to aim for the greatest success down the line.

So in short, what does an agent do? A good agent is part business advisor, part creative director, part lawyer, part salesman, part negotiator, part life coach and part psychotherapist.

Now let's hug it out, bitches.


Anonymous said...

Oh... my... god...

Not even one person attempted to kiss your ring finger by leaving a sugary sweet comment behind: "Nathan, thank you for taking the time out of your day to tell us what agents do. This highly informative blog post will be of great benefit to everyone visiting this site. And might I add that I agree with every word you wrote."

Not one comment!

And look at how you ended the blog, with a funny line no less: "Now let's hug it out, bitches!"

Ha! That's a bit like telling a joke in an empty room!

Now, I'm not saying that people didn't read this blog, or won't read it in the future, but what's the point in taking the time to write a great post like this... whoops, I just inadvertently kissed your ring finger... if nobody is going to suck up to you in the comments section afterwards? A pointless endeavor, I'd have to say.

Anyhow, since apparently it's just you and me, in this here room (which is kind of creepy, when you think about it), maybe you could take the time to explain why you rejected my story of a young cook who becomes a celebrity chef.

Here's the opening of the novel to refresh your memory.

I mean, how could any agent pass up on this?


In the middle of lunch service Chef had sent one of his young cooks to the market on a produce run, and the young man had returned with a basket full of tomatoes. These are the happiest tomatoes I’ve seen since the summer, he thought, picking one up and smelling it: ‘A tomato must smell of tomato,’ he would say to his cooks, ‘if it doesn’t smell of tomato, then it won’t taste of tomato’.

His name was Jean Christophe Novello and he was the 32-year-old chef-proprietor of Chartreuse restaurant, which bordered Wandsworth Common, in southwest London.

Born in The Black Country, Chef Christophe entered the industry at just sixteen when his father, seeing that he wasn’t progressing in school, withdrew him, and ordered him into town, to find work as a kitchen apprentice.

While working at The Hotel St. Germain, Christophe discovered that his dyslexia, which had been a hindrance to his academic growth, was now an irrelevancy, and that what mattered in a professional working kitchen was not book-smarts, but rather a thing known to cooks as kitchen awareness, or the ability to rely on each of the five senses when cooking. The sounds that food made when it was cooking could be as important as the smell or the sight of it - likewise, a cook working the meat section needed to have 'the touch', as to test the meat with the tip of his finger for its degree of doneness.

'This is a physical place', something had said to Christophe on his first day in a professional kitchen.

He had picked up his pairing knife and had commenced to peel potatoes, and the words had seemingly dropped out of the air: 'There is no book-learning in this place... you can survive in here.'


Also, in this blog you forget to mention another thing that agents do, which is to network themselves so that one day, when they write a novel of their own, it will be infinitely easier for them to get the blasted thing published.

As far as I can tell, the real key to getting published is to avoid having your manuscript tossed onto the slush pile - you know, that big pile of suck in the corner.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think you say more about yourself than you do about me with that comment.

Anonymous said...

I say more about myself than I do about you?


I'm going to have to decrypt that.

I say more about myself than I do about you... I say more about myself than I do abut you... no, I don't get that?

But on a more serious note, this sentence here: "So in short, what does an agent do? A good agent is part business advisor, part creative director, part lawyer, part salesman, part negotiator, part life coach and part psychotherapist." - really speaks to me. It's why so many of us are searching for a really great agent.

Having to navigate the shark infested waters of the publishing world without an agent to guide the way means that a writer is lost at sea, of course. I'm sure that some will make their way to the shore, but most, I fear, will crash against the rocks (or get eaten by the sharks?).

Somebody told me it would be more difficult for me to make contact with an agent than it would to get my first novel published on my own. Presently, I'd have to agree with that.

Indeed, I'm about to abandon my attempt at locating an agent. I just feel that I need to try something else. My next step is to start contacting small publishing companies - and then, if that doesn't work out, I'll have to look into the option of the so-called 'vanity press', a phrase which I dislike a lot. Why is it vanity to believe in one's work so much that one is prepared to put down tens of thousands of dollars to get it published? That's not vanity - that's courageousness, and I would tip my hat to any person with the cojones to do it. Financially, it might be a foolish thing to do - but you have to respect a person who does that.

(See, doesn't this section look better with comments?)

Let's hug it out, bitches!

Anonymous said...

Great post, especially as I have an agent and wonder what her day is like.

Anon from above - I also couldn't get an agent. Sometimes you have to put that novel in the draw and call it a day. Start writing another one. It was only on my third novel and about fifty short stories later that I started to get my voice.

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