Who Becomes a Literary Agent — And Why?

Who is this strange, possessed character who becomes a literary agent? What is the agent’s dream?

They used to say that old editors never die, they just become literary agents.

Is that true?

Who becomes a literary agent in today’s tough sell market, and why?

Are we all old editors? Is there any hope for us?

It’s not possible to describe the backgrounds of all literary agents, but in general, the people who become literary agents are editors, writers, published authors, publicity agents, media re-treads and an odd collection of people who share a single passion — no matter whether their agency is large and corporate or small and boutique.

Our big box-store competition are the big agencies, but what about the so-called “mom and pop” agencies or the sole practitioner? Can they still make a living?

Years ago if you wanted to buy a book, you bought it from a bookstore that bought it from a publishing house, that bought it through a literary agent. There was no Amazon, no Kindle, no e-books, and very few self-published ones.

Now everyone’s a writer, and the market is flooded with books that haven’t come from mainstream publishers.

These authors without agents are on their own.

But literary agents are still going strong. Despite the hurdles, many who have written or edited books still enter the agency world, because authors who opt for self-publishing usually cannot effectively act without agents. If an author wants to sell a significant number of books, he or she usually has to turn to a literary agent to gain access to a mainstream publisher.

Publishing is no longer a gentlemen’s agreement. This is hardball stuff. The author needs all the help he or she can get.

Why does the agent hang in there?

For me it’s the excitement of finding the talent and making the deal. Most agents will tell you that almost 99 percent of the material that comes to them is not good enough to be published. But that 1 percent, the golden nugget, the one that will be the grand slam, that’s what keeps agents plugging away.

One great book for the author and agent can be like hitting the lottery. They finally hit the creative and financial jackpot. Do they become rich and famous? Sometimes, and it’s that “sometimes” that both keep reaching for.

Then there’s the creativity of it all. Working with a well-structured, well-written manuscript is a delight.

And, if the mountain doesn’t come to the agent, the agent can come to the mountain. The agent can come up with his or her own book ideas and put them together with the right people who can take it to the top.

That’s another reason to keep the agent, as well as the aspiring author, tied to the computer, and to keep them reaching for the stars (translation NY Times Bestseller List).

Bottom line: Literary agents are in this crazy, unpredictable, often-unrewarding field because we love it.  And tomorrow, if the right query hits the right editor’s desk at the right time, and all the stars align, author and agent may achieve their dreams!

— Jackie Simenauer

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