Publishing has moved on from the days when there was a slush pile and a dedicated reader to go through it. The business is just too big and has too many other aspects that it needs to concentrate on that, certainly for the bigger companies, it simply doesn't have the time or resources to dedicate to finding authors directly.
And that's when a literary agent comes in. A literary agent is a go between - not just for sending your script out to publishers but, if it's accepted for publication, then as a liaison and stalwart every step of the way through the publishing process. They have good contacts and relationships with editors, they know the sort of books to pitch to them, they know the ins and outs of contracts, royalties and rights and will basically guide an author all the way through step-by-step ensuring that they're getting the best deal and profile for their work.
As for the day-to-day life of an agent? Juliet Mushens, (she of the great dress sense and classy cats) is an agent in the UK Literary Division of The Agency Group. She represents a bestselling list of fiction and non-fiction writers including the international bestseller, THE MINIATURIST by Jessie Burton and the Sunday Times bestselling crime writer, James Oswald. She tells us here what a normal day for her would consist of:
My alarm goes off at 8:15 and I normally do thirty minutes of emails in bed before I hop in the shower. I work closely with our NY office which means that I get a lot of emails overnight, which I try to clear before starting the day.
I always draw up a to-do list and top of it tends to be contracts and money chasing. A big part of my job is to make sure my clients get paid promptly, so negotiating contracts, sending for signature, and then chasing for payment takes up a lot of time. Some of my clients have up to forty deals (and I have forty clients) which means a lot of contracts, tax forms, and money to keep track of.
A large chunk of my day is spent responding to emails from a diverse array of industry people. In the past hour, for example, I had the following:
- Reissues of book jackets for approval by author
- Publisher rights department asking which countries a TV adaptation of a book of mine would be shown in
- Assorted interview and appearance requests for an author
- Translation publisher asking if they could translate from a final manuscript rather than page proofs
- An exchange about a payment which hadn't arrived in our bank account and finding where it had gone
- Approving a press release
- Co-agents abroad asking for updates on where a debut novel sold in the UK and US
- Three meeting/lunch requests
And that is just the tip of the iceberg!
Some questions are easily answered but others take days to solve, and involve talking to many different departments.
If I am submitting a book to editors I will spend the day calling my submissions list to pitch the book, then sending out the manuscript in the UK, to literary scouts, in the U.S. and around the world. Some deals can be slow, but others can move very fast - with a debut I sold this year it was sold in nine countries in a week which meant a lot of update emails and phone calls to field!
I also write editorial notes for clients, draft press releases, analyse sales figures, submit books to publishers, approve cover copy, and try to read unsolicited submissions if I ever get a spare moment.
Often my clients will call me during the day if they have questions or need support. Sometimes they just need my opinion on how to fix a sticky plot point, at other times they want a pep talk, or my guidance on how a book is performing or what they should write next.
I might have lunch, or coffee, with an editor too, to discuss any upcoming projects and to find out what they are looking for.
Evenings are often taken up with author launches, author panels or publishing parties. Weekends can also be spent attending conventions or writer workshops - I attended Harrogate Crime Festival and Nineworlds with authors this year, and was at Fantasycon in October.
I often read manuscripts on evenings and weekends. I usually receive around 600 a month. Reading and responding could be a fulltime job!
I love the variety in my day-to-day job and whilst it can certainly require juggling a lot of tasks at once, there is nothing I would rather do for a living.
And how easy is to get an agent? About as easy as it is to get a publisher and sometimes just as frustrating. While agents usually are open to direct submissions, they also, as you can see from Juliet's example, get a huge amount of submissions. And, usually, already have existing clients that they're working on behalf of. You really need to research the agents who are working in the genre you're writing in - assess whether you think they'd be a good match for you and your book and then check over their submissions guidelines. There are plenty of good sites out there offering advice on how to pitch to an agent - so do the research and go for it. Don't be too despondent with a rejection - every agent is looking for a different thing and we all have very different tastes. So just keep trying - and good luck!