Chip MacGregor

February 5, 2013

What does an agent need to know?


So after reading over my previous posts on agent/author relationships, i created the list below, and suggested authors think about what they might want in an agent. For example, while working in my doctoral program back in the 80’s at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), I had a Graduate Teaching Fellowship and spent a couple years as an assistant director in the Career Planning and Placement Office. My focus was on helping students graduating in the arts figure out their career plan. So I’ve got strengths in the area of career planning and management for writers and artists that a lot of folks don’t have. But there are plenty of things I’m NOT strong at, and I may or may not be a fit for a particular author. Each agent has experience (writing, editing, negotiations, production, contracts, etc) that he or she brings to bear as an agent. Knowing what you need or what you’re looking for

Okay, with that as a starting point, here’s a checklist of things I think a literary agent needs to know…

  1. Recognize What Makes Great Writing
  2. Understands the Role of a Literary Agent
  3. Know how to Locate/Recognize New Clients
  4. Learn to Evaluate Submissions and Know How to Say “No” Politely
  5. Know How to Say “Yes” to Good Writers
  6. Understand  the Wording in Agency Agreements
  7. Be Able to Assist with Creating a Strong Proposal
  8. Recognize the Balance Between Writing, Idea, and Platform
  9. Understand the Core of What Makes Great Fiction
  10. Be Able to Explain the Nonfiction Template of “Problem & Solution” or “Question & Answer”
  11. Know How to Sell a Book
  12. Working with Writers: Know how to help them Create the Plan
  13. Working with Writers: Be able to Get Authors Focused
  14. Working with Writers: Help Authors Clarify Platforms, Purpose, and Perspective on their Careers
  15. Working with Writers: Develop Career Plans
  16. Working with Writers: Assist with the Writing Calendar
  17. Working with Writers: Help them Clarify a Financial Plan
  18. Working with Writers: Offer Encouragement and Stay in Touch
  19. Working with Writers: Help Move People Toward Greatness (In their themes, their voice, their stories)
  20. Work to Build Authors and Brands 
  21. Be able to Handle a List of Authors
  22. Maintain Positive Relationships with Editors
  23. Understand the Differences Between CBA and ABA
  24. Know How to Talk to a Publisher (Learn about Publishing Economics and Processes)
  25. Know How to Talk to an Author (Learn to Tell the Story of the Agency)
  26. Be able to Follow Trends
  27. Understand Contracts
  28. Know How to Negotiate
  29. Grasp and Share the Basics of Marketing
  30. Be able to Track Authors and Projects
  31. Be able to Teach at Writing Conferences, or at least be abel to Give Advice 
  32. Deal with High Maintenance Considerations and Difficult People
  33. Understand Ethics with Other Agents
  34. Have Great Personal Organization 
  35. Be Able to Clarify the Direction & Organization of the Agency
  36. Understand Money Management & Cash Flow for the Agency (even if you’re not the boss)
  37. Use Time Management and Tracking Tools
  38. Perform an Overall Evaluation
  39. Know how to Think Strategically
  40. Be able to Figure Out how to Get Better

Will an agent be able to do all of this really well? Probably not. 

Did I miss some stuff? Probably. 

But when Sandra and I sat down to come up with a list a while back, this is the list of tasks and abilities we thought a good agent should have on it. Would love your thoughts as you think about what you’re looking for in an agent.  

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  • Sharyn Kopf says:

    The one that stands out the most to me is #13, as I have a tendency to flit from one project to another. I need someone to say, “Sharyn, finish this. Then you can focus on that.” It’s amazing what I can accomplish when I have a deadline.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Sharyn. Different authors need different things. But you’re right — having someone help you stay focused is one of the things an agent can bring. Appreciate your comment.

  • This list is a great tool for writers trying to decide if they need an agent.

  • Chip, those are amazing accomplishments. What a resume! I’ll tell you, I am going to need a fair amount of hand holding at least at first. I’ve got to learn this business, how to write good fiction, and I’ve got to learn pretty fast because I have to start earning a living pretty soon after my retirement.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You know, Steve, you want to be cautious counting on publishing to make you much money at the start of your career. Writing is art, and it’s tough to make a living at art, no matter how good your work. Just a thought to ponder.

  • sally apokedak says:

    Great list. (I have work to do!)

    This is tied up with several you listed but I would add that he needs to know how to protect his reputation. If he acts ethically and if he does all the other things on your list, he will have a good reputation. This is not about looking good, but about being highly thought of by editors so you can do a good job for your clients and being highly thought of by writers so you can collect quality works to offer to the editors.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I”ll have to try that approach one day, Sally… Thanks for coming on and participating in the conversation .

  • Becky Doughty says:

    Yes, 40 times. You said it much better than I did, and in fewer words.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    So basically, an agent needs to know just about everything. Phew. Glad I’m a writer, not an agent. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Naw… Just a lot of stuff about the industry. And Iet’s face it, we all have areas where we’re strong and areas where we’re weak, Robin.

  • John Robinson says:

    Great points, Chip, but you left out #41: Be Willing to Join the Writer in a Celebratory Lifting of a Glass or Three of Guinness When You Sell Their Book. *G*

  • Ramona says:

    That’s actually a pretty good list for editors as well. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I agree, Ramona. (And for those not in the know, Ramona Richards runs the fiction program at Abingdon Press.) Nice to have you come on and leave a comment!

  • Ron Estrada says:

    Good question. I’d like my agent to advise me in the direction he or she sees the market trending. It’s understood that this is an opinion. I don’t expect my agent to predict the future, but I’m willing to alter my writing plans if my agent makes a reasonable prediction.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good point, Ron. A good agent ought to keep tabs on the direction things are going in publishing.

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