How the Agent is like the Author

Once an author writes a book and decides s/he wants to get it published, s/he must then revise, revise, revise (at least, I hope that’s what writers do first!), and then submit, submit, submit. Assuming the writer is going the traditional publishing route, he must first procure an agent in order to procure a book deal. So the first hurdle is finding the agent who likes the book and wants to represent it. Some authors assume all agents are created equal, with the same likes and interests, and that just because they say they are a literary agent means that they will want to represent any book. Not true. Agents are people, and they each have certain genres they like or dislike. They also have certain genres they want to sell, or they don’t want to sell. So when finding an agent, a smart writer will target submissions to agents who will be good fits. The writer will compile a list (or some other way of organizing) of applicable agents, and then s/he will send out a query letter.

I already knew all that going into my internship. What I didn’t know is what agents do with a book once they’ve agreed to represent it. To my surprise, it is a lot like what the writer was doing. First, we go through books and databases (and rely on previous experience) to make a list of editors who would be interested in the book. Then, a pitch letter is sent out. I got to work on a few pitch letters, and guess what? They are a whole heck of a lot like query letters! There’s the hook, the conflict, the hint at resolution, and a short (relevant) author bio.

So what the agent does is actually very similar to what an author did to get the agent. Which means it’s a long, intensive, and sometimes-painful process. The biggest difference is that where the author has birthed this manuscript and cares for it like a parent loves a child, the agent is at best an aunt – and quite possibly more like a mentor – who cares, but will not risk life, limb, or bottom line, for the manuscript. For me, this is a compelling reason to write an emotionally powerful novel that will make the agent part of the family. It is also a reason to screen your agent to make sure that s/he actually cares for the manuscript.

I am home after a wonderful summer interning with Andrea Hurst and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. I will continue to be a reader for Andrea Hurst Literary Management. In a few weeks, the school year at Northwestern will start, and I’ll use this blog to summarize what I’ve learned from my Introduction to Poetry Writing and the Art of Fiction classes.

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