So there are jobs and there are careers, right? And neither is better than the other. It all depends what you want and where you’re going and how you’re getting there. Well, in this post, I am going to focus solely on the career side of things. Because in this business, that’s what it’s about. (And when I say business, I mean book publishing—and clearly there are jobs in book publishing that don’t NEED to lead into a career path, but I’m focusing on the ones that do, which are many.)
Careers take a long time to take form and they don’t always start out profitable and there are lots of long term goals. In fact, this is the top definition listed when I searched the word “career” online:
An occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.
Um, sounds like every author I know.
That’s right authors—when you tell people that you write books and they look at you and say “Yes, but what do you do, ya know, like as your career?” you can say back with certainty “Being an author is my career, so neener, neener!” (Ok, maybe leave that last part out. But you can think it.)
Being an agent is a career, too. Once you’re in, you’re in for the long haul. It’s not something that you can just up and quit on easily. People depend on you. The work doesn’t stop at 5:00 EST, or on Friday for the weekend. It becomes part of you, the stories you’re working on and the people you’re working with—it’s inevitable. And I happen to think it’s a good thing to be so personally invested.
When I sign on a client, my hope and plan is always that we’ll build his/her career together. That means, we’ll be in it for a significant period of our lives together. So in order to BE an agent, it’s not just about getting the job done. There is so much more to it than that.
Be willing to adapt. I give this advice to writers, too, especially with the industry changing so much now. But it goes for any career really. A lot can change over a person’s life. One’s skill-level is always improving. Goals change. Finances change. Life throws surprises at you. You have to adapt to these new situations as you go. As an agent, we’re working with a number of people whose circumstances are changing all the time. It’s important that we keep an open mind and are prepared to adapt to these changes.
It’s a partnership. As a commission-based job, an agent only makes money if the author makes money. So while the agent works for the author, they are also working for themselves. You’re working together, and your goals are the same (well, they should be in any case). You’ll share the tough times together, and you’ll share the success together. Neither one of you is the other’s employee, and either one of you can end the relationship if something isn’t working. So ask yourself “can I work with this person?” when offering representation.
Know when to call it quits. This is the part of the author-agent relationship that no one likes to talk about (or experience), but it’s a reality: not every author-agent pair is going to work. And it is very difficult for the author or the agent to hold up their side of the bargain when they’re unhappy in their working relationship. Authors and agents choose to terminate for a variety of reasons, but to me, it always boils down to this: if something is not working in the greater sense, it is in both parties best interest to go their separate ways. That doesn’t mean either one is a failure. It just means that you (author or agent) will work better with someone else.
It’s a 24-7 job. This does *not* mean that you’re supposed to work 24-7 (though we all feel like that once in awhile). But this does mean that there is no set time in which this job plays out. You have to be the one to budget your time and balance your schedule. And you also have to be prepared for those moments when you get a call from your film agent at 9pm Friday night to discuss a time-sensitive offer. And also, most of the reading takes place at home, so get ready to read on the weekends, too.
Keep reading. I know I’ve said in previous posts that to become an agent you need to be a reader first. Well, it’s really easy to stop reading for pleasure along the way. Keep reading. It will keep you sharp, it will keep you up on new projects and what’s hot, but most of all it will keep you excited and enthusiastic about your job.
There is probably a ton of other advice to give on how to BE an agent. But these are the top things for me. I’d love if some other industry people (authors, editors, agents…whoever!) shared some of their own advice in the comments, too! We’re all in this together. I mean, after all—it’s our career. And it’s part of us.
Joanna Volpe is a literary agent with New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. She represents all brands of fiction, from picture books to adult.
She has an affinity for stories that have a darker, grittier element to them, whether they be horror, drama or comedy.