View Full Version : What makes a literary agent?

07-27-2010, 05:27 PM
Sorry if this has been asked before, but I wanted to tie it into my own personal situation.

What exactly makes a literary agent what they are? As far as I know, there is official training or regulation right?

The reason I ask, is because a family member of mine, who went to UCLA Film School, is interested in trying to become a literary agent, and she said she'd represent me.

So, my question is this. I've desperately wanted to submit to this sort of small publisher, because I think they'd like what I have, but they only accept agented submissions.

Buuut...on their website, they pretty much tell the "agent" what they expect to see in their email inbox.

So...I guess I'll just stop beating around the bush. What's to stop my interested family member from submitting my stuff (following their guidelines), as my "agent" Is that legitimate?

I'm very curious.

07-27-2010, 05:39 PM
There's nothing to stop her from doing it. However, what makes an agent is the agent's experience and sales and knowledge of the industry and competence in the legal side of said industry and connections to major publishing houses. Membership in AAR is also a big plus, but that doesn't come without experience and sales and adherence to rigorous guidelines. With no experience and sales, your family member can call herself an agent all she wants, but who's going to listen?

If she really wants to be an agent, she could start paying those dues by interning with an agency or publisher. I suppose she could sub your book to this publisher, but if they are bothering to require agented subs, I'd imagine they'd look into her background to see if she's legit.

Will either of you be arrested for subbing the MS? No. You may, however, burn any bridge to that publisher. I don't know. If you think your MS is a spectacular fit for the house, go ahead and send them a polite (and brief) query letter, making your case. Worst they can do is ignore you.

Or, you could seek a "real" agent (see above.)

07-27-2010, 05:45 PM
Nothing. Seriously. Anyone who wants to hang out a shingle and call themselves a literary agent can do it. And it would be legit.

However--and there's always a however--if they don't have the connections into the publishing industry, if they haven't networked with the individual editors and houses and know what it is they are looking for, if they aren't in the right circles to be hearing the scuttlebutt about what's going on in the industry, they'll be worse than useless to any author. In fact, they can be out-and-out damaging.

A friend of mine, many moons ago, decided to become an agent for reasons I never knew. She signed more than half of the writers' group I was in (self included) to an exclusive five year contract. This included a past Hugo-nominee who was no longer agented at the time.

So said agent-friend approached Donald Wolheim (founder of DAW, if you don't know his name) at a local con where Wolheim was GoH and cornered him about the book the past Hugo-nominee had finished. DAW had published the guy's first three books, after all. It seemed like a shoe-in sale.

I happened to walk past during these negotiations, so I don't know what was said prior to my arrival, but Wolheim's body language had shut down and Agent-friend was in full rant about something, while Hugo-nominee was trying to merge with the chair. The long and short of it was that Wolheim said that he wasn't going to look at this book and, in fact, he'd never consider anything she represented because she was so unprofessional and offensive to him. Furthermore, he'd make certain his friends in the field (which was pretty much the entire SF/F publishing community) knew about her.

And I'd signed a five year contract that I then had to get out of. Big hassles. No longer friends.

FWIW, in her seven years of being an agent, the ONLY book she sold was for someone who DID have personal connections into the publisher who bought the book--and then all she did was negotiate a really piss-poor contract for the author.

But that's (one of) my extreme experiences with agents. Nothing will stop your family member--but you've got to think about whether or not it'll really do you any good.

Also remember that this has to be a business relationship and that family has to be kept out of it. At the time I signed the contract with my friend, she had been the matron of honor at my wedding. She hasn't spoken to me in 15 years--not since I ended the contract with her.

Many things to consider in this.

07-27-2010, 06:26 PM
An agent often becomes an agent simply by hanging out a shingle that says "Agent".

The big problem with a family member submitting for you is that they will probably won't know how to submit, won't know what to say if the editor calls them, and will probably have no idea what to do next if the publisher says "Yes."

If you want an agent, I'd suggest finding one who already has the experience to do all this.

If your family member wants to be an agent, said family member should go work for an agent first, probably as a slush reader.

07-27-2010, 06:43 PM
If your family member is actually interested in being an agent--as a job, not just YOUR agent--they'd be better off applying to internships at established literary agencies or publishers, like Phaeal said. There's a lot more to it than just sending your book to an editor and hoping the editor says yes. Your family member will be much more successful if they learn a bit about the business before just jumping in blindly.

07-27-2010, 06:54 PM
I second and third what has been said above :)

07-27-2010, 07:44 PM
A better question is "What makes a useful literary agent?" The answer to that question is "Experience, knowledge of the publishing industry, and all the personal contacts they've built up that can help sell your book."

I would not accept representation from anybody who didn't have solid contacts in the publishing world -- and I mean a LOT of contacts. Not just one or two.

07-27-2010, 10:44 PM
You may want to check out some agent blogs (like Nathan Bransford, ktliterary, etc)--they all have great posts on how one would go about becoming an agent.

It's easy to say "I'm an agent"--it's hard to have the contacts and savvy.

07-27-2010, 10:48 PM
Pretty much what everyone else has said, and I would like to add that there is no training or qualifications, and there is no real regualtions so to speak. There are associations that agents can join, but it's not compulsory.

After all, if the industry was regulated then we wouldn't have t have a background check forum here.

07-28-2010, 12:06 AM
Thanks everyone for all your helpful information.

Mainly, I was just curious as to what would happen if I allowed her to "agent" me, so I could get my manuscript to this particular publishing house. I see now that it is far more complicated than it looks, lol.

I'll relay the information to her.

07-28-2010, 04:49 AM
Thanks everyone for all your helpful information.

Mainly, I was just curious as to what would happen if I allowed her to "agent" me, so I could get my manuscript to this particular publishing house. I see now that it is far more complicated than it looks, lol.

I'll relay the information to her.

Yeah...no. Houses will know whether an agent is legit or not. And, often agents submit to editors they personally know.

R. A. Lundberg
07-28-2010, 05:41 PM
This thread brings up some really, really scary things, doesn't it?
To be an agent you need to: call yourself an agent. Literally.
You can know no contract law, accounting practices, or have any business sense whatsoever and still legally be a representative.

When you consider that in many cases your agent will not only expect but demand that you turn over your career to them, that's a pretty scary thought. I know many, many agents insist that they receive all royalties first and then disburse them to you... and many also will demand that you write a particular genre... will make the decision of whether or not to submit manuscripts or not... I know that there are agents who will cease submitting a manuscript after eight rejections... the list goes on and on.

A good agent is an absolute gold plated find. Unfortunately, the field is littered with hacks, failed business majors and marketing people, and out and out scammers.

I cannot imagine why there are no licensing requirements for this.
It's harder to be a cab driver in New York than be a literary agent. To be a cabbie you have to have both a driver's license and a hack license.

Old Hack
07-29-2010, 10:44 AM
I've seen some really awful things happen to writers who were signed to an agent who had just started up, with no real experience in the business. Some of those agents were writers who had published a couple of books and so assumed they knew what they were doing.

One writer was offered a contract by a major house but her agent turned it down for her because of a troublesome clause in the contract. I saw the clause in question and it didn't mean what the agent thought it meant: so that inexperienced agent lost her client a contract because she had such a poor understanding of contracts, and of publishing conventions. That book never sold.

The moral of the story is that no matter how nice you think a start-up agent is, if they don't have a good few years of publishing experience under their belts, don't even consider submitting to them.