From the time I became an agent, lo those many years ago, my single focus was on how to help the author achieve his or her goals. I saw my job simply as the "author's representative." Over the years, I met other agents who had a very different point of view. They saw the job as "making the deal."
The "author's representative" makes deals and negotiates contracts too, of course, or they wouldn't stay in business. The difference is that they define their role much more broadly. They help the author develop the book idea and the proposal package; they coach the author; they recommend appropriate freelancers if the author needs them; they are on call to answer questions along the publishing process; they brainstorm marketing ideas with their authors; they will continue to make proposal submissions to publishers even if twelve publishers have rejected the book so far; they help the author forge a relationship with the editor and publishing team once a deal is made; they mediate disagreements between the author and his or her editor; and they build a long-term relationship with the author over multiple books. And of course, they handle royalty statements and author payments.
The "deal-maker" agent defines his or her role more narrowly. This agent typically only takes a book that is ready for sale to a publisher (no development work); their sales effort is usually confined to a group of editors who always give the agent the kind of deal he or she wants; and if there are no offers or the offers are too low, the agent will give it back to the author and that's that. If a deal is made, this agent is then focused on rights sales and generating income, not building a relationship with the author, per se. The author is expected to work out whatever issues come up with the publisher, and the relationship with the author is "strictly business."
It's important to note that the deal-maker point of view is perfectly legitimate, and not without its merits. The "author representative" style often leads to a lot of unpaid work on behalf of the author, and cumulatively, this agent may eventually be forced to shift to a "deal maker" style for the sheer ecomonics of it all. Authors need to be sensitive to the time they take from their agents with "peripheral" aspects, and try to get information on their own before asking the agent. Having an agent doesn't excuse the author from research and homework.
So you can see that in order for you to get the right agent match, you need to consider the matter of the agent's style and job perspective in addition to him or her being a match for your book.There are very few bad agents because bad agents don't stay in business. But there are bad agent-author matches, which leads to both people being unhappy and the author losing valuable time being confused or unsure of what to do next. I get calls from authors asking "Is it me or is it my agent? What should I do? How long do I give this?" If the match is wrong, you end up with situations like the book not selling, or the book that is sold not really being the book the author wanted to write, or the book sold and now the author is pressed into a time schedule and publisher expectations he or she was not prepared for. If you're expecting your agent to coach you or explain things to you and then find your calls not returned or emails unanswered, you will be frustrated. If you are asking your agent questions all the time and the agent doesn't really work that closely with his or her authors, both of you will be distressed.
When you are agent hunting and one says "I want to represent you," it is very hard to not say "Great! Let's go!" because the process of getting an agent can be so laborious. But you will not gain much if that agent is not the right match for (a) your book (b) your needs, and (c) your communication style. Publishing is a long process and you don't need to add layers of agent problems to it. Take the time to have phone conversations with the potential agent before signing up. Ask direct questions like, "Do you talk to your authors all throughout the process?" "Can I call you for help if I have a problem?" "How many publishers would you go to with my book? What if it doesn't sell right away?"
There's a reason the author-agent relationship is most often compared to a marriage.
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