#sypagents: Agents Uncovered

Head to any author advice website, and you’re likely to find the recommendation that writers should, in most circumstances, seek an agent. But what exactly does an agent do? And how do agents balance their clients’ needs with publishers’ requests? Our latest event featured a panel discussion delving into those very questions.

Meet the Panel:  

Our very own Kirstin Lamb, co-chair of SYP Scotland, led the evening’s discussion, and was joined by Judy Moir, Edinburgh based literary agent and consultant, and Taran Baker, who brought her experience as agent’s assistant at Michell Kass Associates to the table.

Judy has an impressive career behind her, moving between freelance editorial roles and positions with publishing houses including Mainstream, Canongate and Penguin. When Penguin Scotland shut up shop, she made the decision to go it alone as an Agent.

The majority of Taran’s career path will be familiar to many; she started out in bookselling, studied English Literature at university and undertook publishing internships. But how did she break into the world of literary agencies? Well, that’s perhaps slightly less orthodox. While working at YALC she got speaking to Michelle (of the eponymous Michelle Kass Associates), and soon afterwards found herself working at the agency.

So, what does an agent actually do? 

Judy describes the agent as a facilitator, admitting that publishers can get by without them, but that they provide a truly valuable support system for both authors and editors. Though they are advocates for the authors they represent, sometimes they have to be the “bad guy,” letting their clients know if and when they’re in the wrong.  Taran agrees, adding that no two days were the same as an agent’s assistant – some days involved organising travel, others were focused on proofreading, while others still were dedicated to marketing, highlighting that Michelle Kass Associates truly “does it all”. Both panellists note that there’s a lot of reading, dealing with submissions and correspondence with publishers’ royalties departments involved in working as an agent.

It won’t come as a surprise that both Judy and Taran have spent a lot of time working with rights – however, Judy points out that the rights dealt with are often divided between different types of agents, with a primary agent, such as herself, sub agents who deal with foreign rights, and specialist agents who take responsibility for specialised areas such as film rights. Taran’s experience differs slightly, with even specialist areas covered by Michelle Kass Associates.

Want to be a literary agent? These are the skills you’ll need. 

Judy highlights the importance of sales skills – learning to pitch and to remain “sanguine when negotiating”, as well as developing the ability to write convincing sales copy will stand you in good stead. Taran, who has worked on international projects, points out the difficulties of selling into foreign markets, and the potential for language barriers to give rise to problems.

Though many agents double as editors, Judy says editorial skills are not totally necessary, though a nose for the amount of editorial work a piece needs is essential. Both panellists acknowledge that it can be difficult to decide how much polishing they should be responsible for. While Judy has an editorial background, and Michelle Kass Associates is known for sending out writing that needs little further editorial input, they agree that publishers shouldn’t expect this from all agencies.

Taran believes an eye for visuals, and an understanding of covers and marketing can be valuable, while also pointing out that people can be difficult on both the publisher and author sides of the relationship, and that patience is indeed a virtue.

Getting training in contracts and rights is core to getting roles with literary agencies. Taran emphasises the importance of taking advantage of every opportunity, as well as being kind and making connections with industry peers, while Judy points out that though paid internships and entry level roles may offer excellent opportunities in London, such roles in Scotland are generally undertaken on a voluntary basis.

So, opportunities vary between London and Scotland – what else is different? 

According to Taran, the biggest difference is that London is essentially busier, with more access to networking opportunities. Being prepared to jump at opportunities whenever they arise is therefore even more important in Scotland – things do happen up here, after all! Kirstin chips in, adding that there is immense value in getting to know your peers, as you never know when your friends will come in handy. Even with email, social media, and speedy transport options, Judy admits that it is hard to get to know industry peers in London if you’re based in Scotland.

How do you balance good relationships with publishers with your responsibility to your clients? 

Agents have a duty to their authors, but at the same time have to maintain solid, professional relationships with publishers. Our panellists point out the importance of developing relationships in which both parties trust you, particularly as this can be useful when trying to smooth over any unpleasant situations. Judy focuses on the management of expectations, which feeds back into the importance of trust. Though it can be difficult to tell an author that they are unlikely to top the bestseller charts, “honesty is the best policy,” an adage which she says becomes particularly important when dealing with difficult clients or publishers.

I’m a writer – how do I get an agent? 

Both Taran and Judy had some excellent tips to share for aspiring authors. Taran emphasised the importance of being ready rather than rushing to contact agents with work that is not polished to the extent it should be. She also highlighted how off-putting agents find pushiness – it should perhaps not come as a surprise, but being rude is unlikely to capture the right kind of attention.

Judy added that agents are busy people, and that being brief is generally appreciated. She also highlighted the importance of conducting appropriate research before querying an agent – if an agent does not represent children’s books, sending them a picture book aimed at under 5s is unlikely to reap rewards. Speaking to other authors is an excellent way to find out more about the process – Judy even says that her most interesting opportunities have come through word of mouth. Taran agrees, pointing out that this is the digital age, and that writers should be exploiting all avenues for research, whether that involves speaking to people in person or online.

Whether you want to be a published author, dream of discovering talented new authors as a literary agent, or have designs on a job at a publishing house, we hope our event answered all your questions on being and working with literary agents.

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