“Know thy enemy,” Sun Tzu (more or less) said.
To which I must ask: “And who is my enemy?”
Shall We Play a Game?
Because, in the spirit of setting ground rules, I want to make clear that an enemy does not have to be a villain. Nor are they required to be someone who hates you or wants to harm you.
For the purposes of this exercise, an enemy is merely the person sitting on the other side of the table from where you are. For example, a job interviewer is your enemy. Or a lovely person you are on a date with. There is nothing necessarily at fault with these people, but you are trying to win something from them that they take great pains to guard. In this way, they count as an “enemy”.
(Of course, Sun Tzu could have saved me the trouble by saying, “Know thy opponent“. But it’s a few centuries too late for that.)
In any case, the competition is friendly, if still adversarial. The stakes are high, but the feelings don’t have to be.
Because today’s “enemy” is the literary agent I am trying to procure.
Think Like the Enemy
As part of my efforts to get any kind of leverage with literary agents and editors, I have tried to put myself in their shoes. This requires me to imagine what their struggles, goals, and daily lives are like, certainly, but that is entry-level imagination.
A more realistic simulation requires hard data. And the biggest insights into the life of an agent is not to hear what they’re saying about their own jobs.
It’s what they say about each other that reveals the tricks of the trade.
What Agents Don’t Say about Themselves
There is no shortage of agent interviews on the internet. Few of them are of any use to authors, mostly because the interviewer makes the mistake of asking the agent about their own business.
Though I try to keep my blog free of R-rated content, I would hope than an adult is reading this. Because an adult will already understand what I mean when I say NO ONE is ever honest when answering questions about their own business.
Every time I encounter an agent interview where they talk about what other agents are doing, I bookmark it, because these are rare. Yet they are always eye opening. When coaxed into talking about their peers, agents will let slip the secrets that their profession keeps close to the chest.
As a Keeper of Secrets, I cannot help but be enticed.
From such whispered treasures, I have learned how wonderfully complicated the world of representing authors can be. Such nuggets include:
- The commodification of authors. Each one is like an equity that can vastly appreciate in value, and a good agent will chase that value.
- The prevalence of poaching in the agent community. Authors aren’t the only ones fed up with the inefficiency of the “query and wait” system of client finding. The highest-paid agents often capture successful authors from smaller agents, sometimes even within their own agency.
- There are different classes of agents, and people in the industry know who is who.
- There is a difference between what an agent claims to be looking for and what they actually represent (wish lists and special requests are often unreliable).
- The most successful agents are generalists. They don’t put limitations on what kinds of books they’ll represent. They simply seek out the best authors, regardless of what field those authors work in.
As an author, I find this information fascinating and of great value. That agents seem to be embarrassed by it puzzles me. It’s a mercenary world and a mercenary industry, and I don’t find anything to be ashamed of in admitting that. I value transparency above pageantry, and attempting to dress up your profession as something saintly is a major buzzkill for me.
Time to Play
Armed with knowledge, I can more easily imagine myself in the position of an agent. Knowing that authors represent a certain quantifiable amount of value and liability makes the job more accessible.
As with any job, you are surrounded by people of different power levels.
As an agent, it’s possible to be absolutely lost. But it’s also possible that you know what you’re doing when everyone around you does not. And, just like any profession, that can work against you or for you.
It also makes sense that agents don’t always confide this information with their clients. Generally, it’s a bad idea to show the customer how the sausage is made.
I’ll leave it at that for now. The subject is worth revisiting in the near future, but not every lesson can be taught in one sit-down.
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