Most depictions of agents in popular culture fall into two categories: the Ari Gold fast-talking hustler who is vainly trying to be one of the boys, and the bloodsucking leech who attaches itself to the author to extract that 15 percent; Or, possibly, both. It sounds pretty dire. But if you talk to authors about their agents, you might find something pretty strange -- most authors love their agents. Why is that?
It's very difficult to fully describe the range of functions of an agent, but one of the most important aspects of the author/agent relationship happens at the very beginning. Agents sift through the mass of queries and letters and projects to find projects he really believes in. From the author's perspective, this usually means that in a sea of rejections and adveristy the agent is the first person who really truly believes in the author's talent and potential. Being an author is really, really tough -- there's a lot of rejection throughout the process, and sometimes even their friends and family don't believe in them. Knowing that there is someone who believes in them is invaluable.
Once the agent has found a project, he shops it to publishers. A lot of expertise and networking goes into this. Agents have lunches with editors and network relentlessly so they know who is buying what, what's working and what's not, and where and to whom they should submit. It's more art than science, but since publishers will generally only accept submissions from agents it's a crucial step.
If there is an offer on the book, an agent will negotiate the advance and the terms of the contract. Again, there's a great deal of expertise that goes into this. Agents know how to get better deals than authors could get on their own. They know what rights to hold onto, how to get editors to increase the advance or royalties, how to negotiate the contract to protect the authors' interests, and often the simple fact that the author has an agent automatically ensures that they'll get a better deal simply because the publisher knows they can't mess around.
Once the contract for the book is signed, there are other rights to deal with, such as film and translation. Some of the bigger agencies, such as Curtis Brown Ltd., have their own foreign rights and film departments, and can be very effective in selling film and translation rights. The smaller agencies usually still work to sell these rights through other agents with whom they are affiliated.
After everything is all signed and finished, the agent continues to track the book to make sure things are happening as they should, to make sure the author's money is being paid on time, and just generally keep on top of things. The agent will also work with the author to craft a long range vision for their work to aim for the greatest success down the line.
So in short, what does an agent do? A good agent is part business advisor, part creative director, part lawyer, part salesman, part negotiator, part life coach and part psychotherapist.
Nathan Bransford is a literary agent with the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown Ltd., a New York based agency that has been representing writers since 1914. He, along with countless agents, editors, publishers and both published and yet-to-be-published writers, has established his own page in myspace, a social networking site that's not just for kids anymore.