The Changing Role of the Literary Agent

When you think of a literary agent, what do you picture?

Before I started working at an agency, I had an image of a Very Important Person sitting in an office, reading through manuscripts until they found that diamond in the rough.  Then they would (almost immediately) sell that gem off in a heated, cleverly negotiated publishing deal, closing out the phone call with “I want that contract on my desk in the morning!” *slams phone*  And that’s where the agent’s role ends.

Oh, Younger Joanna.  You poor, naïve little chickadee.

I later learned that the job also included revising and editing said diamonds, going on submission and waiting (oh god, the waiting), sometimes going on more than one round of submissions, negotiating said deal (not heated, or clever…more straight to the point), acting as liaison between author and publisher, reading and negotiating contracts, keeping on top of schedules for said diamond-writing client (production, publicity, etc), and some general client management.  And of course, there’s just the general office work, all the while looking for other diamonds and starting the process over again and again. Oh!  And networking.  Lots and lots of networking.

And while that’s a lot, I think it’s lovely, because it’s the best job in the world (in my humble opinion).

But the world is changing, and the role of the literary agent is changing right along with it.

Sidenote: the role of most professionals is changing, but in the case of this post, let’s just stick with literary agents, or my head might explode.

In fact, the role of the literary agent is changing so much, that I’ve found that I have less time for some of the old responsibilities and have to rely more and more on my assistant (who is—to quote Janet Reid—a GODSEND), and the post-business day work hours.

So what are some of these changes?

Well, I’m going to stick to the top 3 things (though there are plenty more), and I would like to note now that while I am talking about the “role of the literary agent” in general, I am only speaking from my own personal experience and what I’ve learned from a handful of colleagues.

We advise more on public image. Back in the day, no one really knew who the elusive Author was…writers had almost total anonymity unless they were appearing at an event.  Even big best sellers were often just a name and maybe a photo.  Once in a while one of the biggies would appear on TV.  But today we have endless possibilities to get to know authors because of the internet.

Now you may be saying “But Joanna, you’re fairly young…the internet has been around for much longer than you’ve been in publishing!”

And you’re right. But how the internet is USED in publishing has changed so drastically over the past few years that this evolution is still fairly new, and I’ve watched it happen.
So before an author’s book launches, agents must help to plan out the public image they want to portray (via website, blog, tumblr, goodreads, twitter, facebook, etc). Which leads me to….

We have taken on a public relations management type role. Pre-internet, it would have literally been impossible for authors to round up all of their book reviews, or even a quarter of them. And aside from fan letters and the occasional event (if any), they didn’t really interact directly with their readers either.  But now…authors are exposed to EVERY. SINGLE. REVIEW. And because anyone can have a searchable blog now, not only do they see every single professional review, but they get to see every single personal review of their book, too (well, every one posted at least, which is a lot).

This is not necessarily a bad thing, because it also creates a space for authors to interact with readers directly. Which is pretty freaking cool. (What I would have given to post a comment on Madeleine L’Engle’s blog and have her respond to me when I was little!)

BUT…this leads to a new role for agents.  Because the internet is posting things every single minute of every day, authors are put in situations that require a lot more judgment calls on a regular basis in terms of both interacting with their readers and the kind of public image they want to present in order to support their work, which means that agents have to help them make these calls all the time, which is almost a full-time job in itself. (That’s a lot of whichs—bad agent!)

We not only edit…we develop, package, and oh yeah, we still edit a lot. When an editor brings a book to an acquisitions meeting (the meeting where the publisher decides whether or not to buy a book), they are not only meeting with other editors and the publisher—sales, marketing, school & library marketing, publicity…depending on the publishing house, any one of these or all of these departments are present in some way. They all weigh in.  And in general, they’re looking for the whole package when acquiring a book: well-written, well-executed plot, commercial hook, possible platform to build-on or create based on the project/author, is it ripe for the market?, etc.

So we have to get our diamond as close to the whole package as possible before sending it off.  Which means…well, development, sometimes even packaging talent…and lots and lots of editing.

Confession: we’re still trying to figure out how these important changes fit in our day-to-day in a balanced way. So not only are we expected to have a good eye for a projects, be able to revise, pitch and sell them, negotiate and navigate contracts, liaison between publisher and author…now we’re also expected to act as a publicity, marketing and sales consultant, and be able to interpret data (ie-Bookscan numbers, Amazon rankings, etc) as well as the landscape of different review mediums, we’re supposed be able to explain to authors what publishers are and aren’t doing for their book and why, and the list can go on depending on the book, the author, the publisher and the situation.

Change isn’t a bad thing though.  I still think it’s the best job in the world.

And what I should point out before I close is that everything the agent is working on, the author is, too (and more, because they’re the ones writing the wonderful stories).  So really, this post should be called the Changing Role of Authors…And How Said Changes Affect Agents.

I’m happy to answer questions in the comments!

42 Responses to The Changing Role of the Literary Agent

  1. Sooz Feb 29 2012 at 7:52 am #

    Wow, what an insightful post. To be honest, I never really thought about how much agents’ roles might have changed in the last decade…or 5 years or even 1 year. But now that you lay it all out, I can definitely see how you and other agents would have to change with the shifting industry and the shifting technology.

    Great post, Jo. Lots of food for thought.

  2. JoSV Feb 29 2012 at 8:26 am #

    Thanks, Sooz!

  3. Ladonna Feb 29 2012 at 8:45 am #

    This was great information. Thanks for sharing.

    • JoSV Feb 29 2012 at 9:00 am #

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Julie Feb 29 2012 at 8:59 am #

    Hey Joanna! Great post! What an interesting and varied job you have. Thank goodness for dedicated agents who are willing to offer so much help and expertise to their clients! 🙂

  5. Erin Bowman Feb 29 2012 at 9:11 am #

    Jo, this was such an interesting post! And I’m so with you re: commenting on Madeleine L’Engle’s blog. If I could have done that as a child….Man. The internet, or maybe it’s just the growth of social media in general, has really changed the way authors interact with readers. As you pointed out, it only makes sense that the agent’s role has changed as well. Will be interesting to see how things continue to evolve in the years to come.

    Thanks for sharing!!

  6. Leonicka Valcius Feb 29 2012 at 9:22 am #

    This is a fantastic post! I plan to be a literary agent in the near future so I love the insight you provided. Many industry professionals tell me I’m lucky to be joining the business now and I’m starting to see why. It never occurred to be that the things you listed were changes; I just considered them part of the job description. I know you said you don’t have the balance perfectly worked out yet but so far how do you divide your time between working with the clients who have book deals, working with client whose manuscripts you’re selling, and wading through the slush pile for that diamond?

    Thanks so much!

  7. Leonicka Valcius Feb 29 2012 at 9:32 am #

    Another question! In managing the new PR management role, are agents working closely with the publicist assigned to the book or do you have a different sphere of influence and responsibility? For example I recently interviewed an author about her upcoming book and she had to clear it with the publicist at the publishing house before she agreed. In what scenario would she go to her agent instead of the publicist?

    Thanks again!

    • JoSVolpe Feb 29 2012 at 9:52 am #

      Hi again,

      This new PR-type role isn’t an Official Thing…it’s just something that has come to light on a day to day basis. I do work hand-in-hand with my clients publicist. Often I’m the first person interview requests go to, or my clients forward these requests to me. Because authors are so easily accessible today, my clients get anywhere from a few to upwards of a hundred or so requests a week. More often than not, it’s difficult to judge which ones should be given consideration and which ones should. So I help with this, and if we feel there are some that should be considered, we forward them to the author’s publicist at the publishing house.

      I hope that answers your question?

  8. JoSVolpe Feb 29 2012 at 9:43 am #

    Well, to be honest, I closed to queries back in December for this very reason. My job is to work with my clients first and foremost, so finding new projects has to go on the back burner for now. I hope this won’t always be the case, but for now, I’m really happy with the decision. I have some pretty fabulous clients and they’re always working on something new and different.

    So for now, that’s how I’m balancing it.

  9. JoSVolpe Feb 29 2012 at 9:54 am #


    I apologize to all for many typos!!

    I’m answering from my phone, but now I think I’ll hold off until this afternoon when I’m at a computer.

    I apologize for the errors!

  10. Kat Zhang Feb 29 2012 at 10:01 am #

    What a lovely, informative post, Jo! And can I now go around calling everyone “poor, naïve little chickadee”? 😉 It’s got such a great ring to it.

    Thanks for teaching us all a little more about agent life!

  11. Kody Keplinger Feb 29 2012 at 10:29 am #

    Great post, Jo!! It’s really interesting to hear how the business is changing. You rock!

  12. Catherine Stine Feb 29 2012 at 11:57 am #

    Thanks for the insights, Joanna!

  13. Sarah J. Maas Feb 29 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Wow! What a fantastic, insightful post, Jo!!!! I’ve been wondering how the role of agents has shifted in recent years, so it was super-interesting to hear your take on it! 🙂

    • JoSVolpe Feb 29 2012 at 1:14 pm #

      Thanks, Sarah! It’s changed for all of us, of course.

      I should also note that agents always did a bit of each of these things…it’s just become so much MORE in recent years.

  14. Leonicka Valcius Feb 29 2012 at 2:05 pm #

    Those are great answers, thanks!

  15. Marie Lu Feb 29 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    This is so fascinating to read! I totally cling to my agent for PR advice. 🙂 Thanks for the insight!!

    • JoSVolpe Feb 29 2012 at 2:23 pm #

      Right??? I would cling to Kristin, too. She’s brilliant!

  16. Leah Rhyne Feb 29 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    Super-cool post; thanks for sharing insights. It makes me realize just how much an agent/writer should click before entering into any sort of agreement. I can’t imagine having to do all that work for someone with whom you don’t have a great rapport. Also a good reminder of exactly what we writers are seeking. Expertise, advice, negotiation, awesomesauce. 🙂


    • JoSVolpe Feb 29 2012 at 3:44 pm #

      Yes, that’s a really good point! All of this would be downright awful if you didn’t get along with your agent/author or you didn’t love the project.

      Thanks for commenting!

  17. Alexa Feb 29 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    Fantastic piece! Would you say that the lit agent’s increasing, unofficial role as a public image/PR guru has potential overlap issues with publicists? ie: are there ever conflicts with the in-house publicists promoting an author’s book with their agent, on matters of image, social media, etc?

    • JoSVolpe Feb 29 2012 at 4:00 pm #

      I’ve never been in this type of situation and I don’t foresee it as an issue. The goal overall is to work together to put a successful book out there, so it wouldn’t help to be working against one another. Like I said above, we’re not PR, we’ve just taken on a PR-type role since more public-image situations are popping up all the time, some very unexpectedly. Ultimately the author’s image is the author’s decision, not mine or the publishers, so I can’t imagine a conflict like this one.

      Though, I guess anything is possible!

  18. Patrick Gabridge Feb 29 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    Great post, Joanna. I think as authors see their own roles changing, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that the agents are also seeing their jobs change radically. In some ways, we’ve seen tasks that used to belong to traditional publishers now being outsourced to authors and agents. Those tasks used to be done who were paid on salary (by the publishers), to people who are now paid on commission/royalty. I wonder if the current royalty structure can be maintained, with such a relatively small percentage of money going to both author and agent, when they are being asked to do more and more work (and still do the same old jobs they did before).

    • JoSVolpe Mar 1 2012 at 10:03 am #

      These are some pretty good points that I hadn’t considered. Thank you for raising them, Patrick!

  19. Alex Lidell Feb 29 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    What an intersting article. I hadnt considered how the online stuff was effecting agents. Thank you so much for the inside look!

  20. Amie Mar 1 2012 at 4:45 am #

    Joanna, this is fantastic, thank you so much! I think what I find interesting is that some of what you do these days seems completely natural to me, because I’ve only immersed myself in this world in the last couple of years — and some of it definitely seems like a progression from the traditional days I think most of us carry in our heads. I remember the first couple of times as a teenager I found an author blog or website — Anne McCaffrey used to be way ahead of the curve because she maintained a forum and communicated with fans in it. These days, all kinds of social media are expected. And of course, since we’re all learning how to do it, we turn to our agents!

  21. April Tucholke Mar 1 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    Wild nights are my glory.

  22. Leigh Bardugo Mar 2 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    Great post, Jo. I’m lucky to have you as my agent for a lot of reasons, but one is that you clearly understand this changing role and you don’t shy away from adapting to it– or helping your authors adapt to it as well.

  23. Question Mar 3 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    Hi Joanna! This was such an interesting read!

    I’m curious, though; how do you think self-publishing is affecting the role of a literary agent? I’m interested into going into publishing and it seems like self-publishing is almost removing the literary agent from the picture. What are your feelings on this?

    • JoSV Jun 18 2012 at 12:43 am #

      Hi Question,

      We work with a handful of clients on their self-publishing ventures. I don’t feel like it’s removed us from the picture at all. Instead, we’re more involved with those projects than we’ve ever been involved with projects before! We not only sell books for clients, but we edit with them, advise them, guide their careers…all of this comes into play for self-publishing and then some.

      x J

  24. Jasmeet Apr 13 2012 at 10:51 am #

    Hi Joanna
    Have been researching endlessly on Literary agents for a research paper I am working on. And I too echo the same question right above. what are your thoughts on the role of the agent in the current scenario of self-publishing? And I wonder if agents are still looked upon as “intruders” and usurpers of friendly relations between publisher and author? (as was the case during the twentieth century)

    • JoSV Jun 18 2012 at 12:45 am #

      Hi Jasmeet,

      As you can see from my answer above, we’re very much involved with our clients who self-publish.

      To answer your second question, I don’t feel that way at all (though I know exactly what you’re talking about–it is an old-fashioned mindset). Editors’ roles are changing drastically as well, and we work with them very closely. It’s a true team effort to get a book ready for publication.


  25. veronica Jun 17 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    What an interesting overview of the agent’s role, very useful to know all this additional stuff; raises a query in my mind though. I have an agent working with me on my first novel – very professional, very charming – but we don’t really “gel”. I don’t think he “gets me” . I’ve been thinking I should maybe look for another agent; and your post has made me think it more. How can someone present me at my best – as part of the package you describe – when I don’t feel that we are on the same wavelength? We aren’t signed up to a contract but he has given me a lot of feedback on my novel over the course of several months. I feel an obligation towards him now. But I really want to stop dealing with him and maybe look for a different agent. Will this impact badly on me, do you think? It’s causing me sleepless nights!

    • JoSV Jun 18 2012 at 12:47 am #

      Hi Veronica,

      If this is how you feel, I would end your relationship with the agent immediately. While it is a very intimate process–working on a project together–this is also a business and we (agents) understand this. I can’t imagine he would take it personally. Also, if you don’t want to work with him, you are wasting his time and yours. It is hard enough to get published, why add this stress on top of everything!

      Be honest. You’ll feel a weight lifted from your shoulders right away.

      x J

  26. John Eden Mar 21 2013 at 7:03 am #

    Nice Post Joanna, its great to be an agent!!! its turned my role too……..

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