In defense of the literary agent   9 comments

I was briefly following a literary agent on Twitter who dispenses advice one day a month (I think it’s called #queryday). I’ve never heard of this person, but she has a substantial following.  I believe she’s addressing mostly people who are in search of an agent or a book deal.

One of her tweets hit me like an arrow –it was the last one I read before I removed myself from her followers. She said, An agent’s job is not to handhold or coddle or boost a writer’s self-esteem. An agent’s job is to sell the manuscript.” She put the declaration out there, as far as I could see it wasn’t in response to anything anyone asked.  I tweeted back (sort of jokingly), “Well then whose job is it to coddle the writer- the publicist, the editor, the husband?” And she shot back, It’s nobody’s job to coddle a writer. If a writer needs coddling, s/he’s in the wrong business.”

And to this I would like to say, “Wha-hat? WHAT????”  Who is more insecure and in need of consolation than a writer?  And what is this ‘not my job?’  I used to work as a clerk in an insurance company, it was my job to process death claims, it wasn’t my job to tell people that I was very sorry about the passing of their loved one and wait for half an hour while they looked for a working pen, but it was something I did anyway. I also used to change the water in the water cooler, which also wasn’t in the job description.

The thing that got me about this is that I have an agent who does all of that stuff that supposedly ”isn’t an agent’s job’.  And my agent is arguably the best and most desired literary agent in the business.

It’s true. I don’t generally call her up and say “nobody wuvs me.” Or “does my paperback make me look fat?” But when we’re talking about my work, I definitely whine and she consoles. Christ, there’s a lot of  getting slammed when you’re a professional writer, A LOT. Public and private.  Even great writers get it.  Rejected manuscripts, snotty reviews, readings where only two people show up (none of this has ever happened to me of course, but I’ve heard about it.)

I mentioned this particular tweet to my agent  because I’d wondered if I was the one who was off-base. Her response:  Horrified.  “Writers work alone,” she said,  “we are a kind of support line.”

And it’s not just my agent. I know a lot of other lit agents. They represent people who are just starting out and people who’ve been cranking out best-sellers year after year and these agents treats their clients the same way.  I mean there are certainly ones (like the Twitterer) who may not operate like that, but I would be wary of someone who announces that they don’t coddle.  Agents are there for writers in many ways –it is not just selling the ms.

I don’t know. I just think agents get a bad enough wrap, why give one to yourself?


Posted April 24, 2009 by julieklam in Twitter

9 responses to “In defense of the literary agent

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  1. Julie, I could not agree with you more. Well said!

  2. Thank you, Kimberly. I should also say that would my agent (or editor or publicist) be in need of coddling, I would be there for them, too!

  3. Well, of course, I think you’re right (though I have no agent nor ever will have one).

    It’s the etiquette of this that amazes me: how a moment of irritation from the tweeting agent turned into a moment of snark which she then calcified into a rule.

    And a rule that, as you rightly note, makes no sense at all: how can an agent negotiate between writer and publisher if she treats the writer with indifference or contempt?

    Rude & bad business.

  4. Thanks, Anne. All true!

  5. Julie, you’re fab, and so it’s probably a pleasure to coddle you. You’re also wicket talented, so it’s probably easy for your agent to tell you you’re wicket talented when some a-hole editor who got where he/she is today merely by virtue of having gotten hired as an assistant 20 years ago and then managing up every day since doesn’t see what us smart people see. So you’re not the norm because you’re better than most. As an editor I have definitely worked with needy writers, and there’s a point where the relationship shifts from kind colleagues to patient and unpaid therapist.

    I’ve had four agents. And I think maybe agents are to writing as realtors are to houses. Some realtors are your friends, they’re smart and fun and can tell you exactly how to change your house so it’ll sell, and if it doesn’t sell or some cretin in an Escalade says it doesn’t have enough hottubs they’re decent enough to have a few kind words. My current agent fits that catagory: She’s a total pleasure, she’s fast and efficient, she an tell me what needs to be done, she’s there when I need her, and I try not to whine. The other three, well, two were available when they thought we were all going to get rich; then they disappeared. The third was a complete weenie who seemed to be in the biz because he had a tone of money and for some reason agenting was the hobby he’d chosen to pursue.

    Moral of the story: Agents, like writers, editors, and all other forms of human, vary. Some are incompetent. Some are competent but cold. Others are competent AND nice. I agree with you that the trick is in finding the ones who are capable AND coddle, and probably those who are willing to be kind and consoling also end up getting better clients.

    Ever read the Miss Snark agent blog? That was fab.

  6. You are awfully kind, Rod. I did read Miss Snark back in the day!

  7. My first question is, what’s that agent doing, trolling Twitter for clients. My guess is he/she is a disaster. And your response is right on.

    Early in my life as an advertising copywriter I had an interview with a gent who wanted me to come to work for him. We were lunching in a smart little bistro discussing salary if memory serves. “I know what you want”, he said. “You want to be loved”. I have never forgotten it.

  8. I bet if that agent took her daughter to see “Max and Ruby,” when the big spider came on stage she would refuse to take her daughter out until the coast was clear.

  9. I just read your book – loved it. Thanks for sharing your story.

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