What does an agent do? What should an agent do?
There are layers of answers to this question. There is, at this moment in time, absolutely no industry standard by which to measure ‘the quality of a good agent.’ Different agencies are good at different things; different agents at different agencies are good at different things. The determination of tasks that is technically the purview of any given agent is not standardized, nor is there a standardization of quality in a way that can be publicly matrixed out and vetted, at least for now.
Whether it is possible to do so (W. thinks certainly so), and whether it should be done so (W. thinks certainly so, in a way that is proportionate to a commitment to a solid business ethic that respects writers and the business both) are debatable questions.
Many writers don’t know this, but membership to the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) demands nothing more than the consistent sale of books, without measuring, as part of the number of sales, the following dozen plus things that can be considered:
+ the nature and quality of the editorial work that went into the book prior to its submission;
+ the nature and quality of the submissions list (the list of editors/publishing house imprints to whom/which the agent submits any given project);
+ the nature and quality of the incipient negotiation for the base offer [advance, publication timeline, publication type, royalty hierarchy, the territory to which rights are licensed (North America, World English, and World rights licenses are three base forms of licensure), and bonuses where they are applicable, among other items];
+ the nature and quality of the boilerplate contract (every imprint has its own contract, and over time, every agency comes to personalize the base version of this contract for its own agency — this is the ‘boilerplate’);
+ the nature and quality of the negotiation into that boilerplate over time (how agencies negotiate, and the degree to which they respond to marketplace changes over time, paying attention to industry standards for different questions), and then from the boilerplate to the personalization that is due every individual author and his/her book;
+ the nature and quality of negotiation for the international, where applicable, and subsidiary markets (audio, options for film/TV, and more);
+ the nature and quality of the vision-casting that is due individual authors for their career, in terms of imagining and balancing between individual titles, trilogies and series, writing in different genres, and more;
+ the nature and quality of intervention, where the publishing house demonstrates some degree of financial, creative, or professional abuse against an author;
+ operational management, in terms of database; accounting; author agreements; mailings for advanced reader copies (ARCs) or galleys (copies sent to readers and reviews prior to the formal publication, listed as ‘not for sale’), contracts, and checks; and other operational demands;
+ relational management, in terms of the relational capital that is developed between an agent and editors, an agent and his/her agency as well as other agents, as well as an agent and his/her writers, which in some ways is the utter foundation upon which everything else rests (but is developed over time);
+ innovation and capacity in terms of project placement and adaptation to the market, which can to a large extent be measured primarily by (in a general sense) the agent’s intelligence, and then weighed against an agent’s mentoring from other agents, which is the fundamental learning methodology in the business (note that most agents do not have a degree in publishing, English, or legal questions; never has the industry required one; and never has this form of a degree been a reflection on the potential of the development of taste in an agent, determined most particularly by the way in which that agent reads), as well as systematic experience actually doing what healthy agenting demands;
+ market research, oriented to a healthy sense of distinctions in genres and thus their markets, as well as a healthy sense of the books that have sold, do sell, and the reasons for their success or failure;
+ and more.
You can find above incipient conceptual categories for the kinds of questions that you want to ask agents offering representation, and questions for which good agents should have healthy, quantifiable/concrete answers. (I’ve always deeply appreciated the questions outlined in this post here.)
(As some key examples, think about these questions, and to a large extent, a really healthy agent will tell you, without triggering or freaking out, if and when a question crosses boundaries. Most general decision-making questions shouldn’t, but I see this as a general forewarning. Just note that, in an hour-long conversation, for example, about basics with regards to the agenting relationship, you may not think to ask some of the more difficult questions about extended career-building needs, and so I share these questions with an eye toward the dozens of writers I’ve known over the years who have chosen to recycle through agents.
I’ve never had a writer walk away from an agency agreement with me (former clients were released by me and the agencies for which I worked, due to my departure). I think one of the fairest questions is, “What is your client retention rate over 1, 3, and 5 years?”
Additionally, conversations with both existing and former clients about the style of communication, submission strategy, and otherwise are all just and proportionate purviews of the agency selection process.
Some particulars, therefore, given the above: “May I see an example of your editorial notes? Can you give me an example of market research that you have done in the past few quarters, to understand why this book is selling so well? Can you tell me why you think this book succeeded? Can you walk me through the auction for this book, in a general sense–given that I love this author, I want to understand what you felt was important for the success of this publication?”)
Differences within agenting structures are diverse, but you can see some basic splits in these dimensions:
+ fiction versus non-fiction agenting; and
+ an argument for the ‘most basic characteristics that every single agent should demonstrate’ (again, the AAR does not give a framework for the answer to this question, and so the burden of the work at this point is on writers doing their own research) versus the ‘characteristics that agents develop over time on all of the turfs above that then give rise to talent, specialization, expertise, and magic’ that makes one agent genuinely, truly more capable in his/her work than another, and the total and utter proportionate foundation upon which all of these decisions can and ought to fall for the writer who has the gift of receiving even a single offer (no agent is better than a bad agent) and, more certainly, multiple offers
I’ll come back to all of this with time, and try to matrix out some examples, in a very basic way, of things I’ve learned much about from experience in different agency contexts and then also through stories, of both magic and horror alike, that can help writers discern, and to discern quickly, the degree to which any given agent or agency should be entrusted with the health of any given writer and his/her career.
Look for more at some point soon!