How Agents Build Authors’ Careers

The following piece was published ten or fifteen years ago.  If I didn’t think it still had validity I wouldn’t reprint it here…



A literary agent’s life involves far more than reading, lunching, and deal-making. His or her services embrace the literary, legal, financial, social, political, psychological, and even the spiritual; and the jobs we are obliged to tackle run the gamut from computer troubleshooting to espionage. But because our business is a day-to-day, book-to-book affair, we tend to lose perspective. With our preoccupation with advances and royalties, payout schedules and discounts, with movie rights and foreign rights and serial rights and merchandise rights, with option clauses and agency clauses and acceptability clauses and termination clauses, it is all too easy for us to forget that our primary goal is to build careers, to take writers of raw talents, modest accomplishments, and unimpressive incomes and render them prosperous, successful, and emotionally fulfilled.

This endeavor demands the application of all the skill and experience we command, plus something else: vision. Vision in this context may be defined as an agent’s ideal of the best work an author is capable of achieving, matched to the best job his publishers can perform. An agent’s vision should illuminate the author’s path, oftentimes far into his future, if not for his entire career.

In order for our vision to be fulfilled, three conditions must be met. First, we have to learn and understand what the author’s own vision is. Second, we have to align his vision with our perception of his talent: do we believe he has what it takes to realize his dream? And finally, we have to help the author fashion his work to suit the demands and expectations of the marketplace.

I cannot overstate how much easier said than done the process of building an author’s career is. Human nature being what it is, the forces militating against success are heartbreakingly formidable. The agent’s vision and the author’s vision may be at serious odds with one another, or at odds with the publisher’s. The author’s talent or stamina or financial resources may simply not be up to the task he has cut out for himself. His publisher may not like or understand his work. His audience may reject it. Every imaginable contingency may beset an author along life’s path: death and disability, divorce and disaster—the same ones that beset everybody else, plus a few that are indigenous to creative people. The attrition rate for authors and their dreams is extremely high, and the odds against talent flourishing under perfect conditions are prohibitive. With so much at stake, it should come as no surprise that agents approach the building of their clients’ careers with the utmost solemnity.

When a writer becomes my client I sit down with him or her to explore immediate and long-term goals. I ask writers how much it costs to live comfortably, how much they earn per book, and how long it takes them to write. It should then be a matter of simple arithmetic to determine what I must do to keep their careers on a steady keel: simply divide their yearly nut by the number of books they are capable of producing annually. This gives me the amount of money they must earn (after commission, I hasten to remind them) per book to make a living.

Unfortunately, life is not a matter of simple arithmetic. Even in the unlikely event that the author lives within his means and nothing untoward befalls him and his family, there is no room in the above equation for profit, and visions of greatness require an author to earn a profit.

Now, books that earn a profit for authors are not easily come by (not, at any rate, as easily come by as books that earn a profit for publishers). Good luck and good agenting may sometimes make one happen, but it is unwise for an author to depend on either. This means the author has to make it happen on his own by writing a breakout book. But how can he do that if he can’t buy the time?
Even if you are blessed with an unexpected windfall, there is no guarantee that you will achieve your dream, thanks to Fehrenbach’s Law. T. R. Fehrenbach, the brilliant Texas historian, once wrote to me that, “Expenses rise to meet the cost of every sellout.” In other words, the profit that authors make does not necessarily go into the fund marked, “This Time I’m Really Going to Write That Book.” More likely, it will go toward something that is easier to grasp, like a new Buick, a giant flat-screen TV or a two-week vacation on Lake George.

The truth is that writers are no better equipped to fulfill their dreams than are other middle-class people, because compromise is an easy habit to get into when it is rewarded with comforts and luxuries. Austerity, integrity, sacrifice, relentless determination, and other virtues associated with uncompromising artistic endeavor are seldom a match for a brand-new living room suite or wall-to-wall carpeting for the master bedroom. So an author’s dream gets postponed a bit longer, and a bit longer after that, until perhaps that terrible day comes when the dream deferred pops, in Langston Hughes’s phrase, “like a raisin in the sun.” Death and disability, divorce and disaster are not the only terrible things that can befall an author, or even the worst things. Giving up his dream is the worst thing, and that is truly tragic. I believe it is an agent’s sacred duty to keep this from happening, to keep the flame of hope burning in the author’s breast, to encourage him in every way possible to seize the moment when an opportunity to reach for greatness presents itself.

Just as importantly, the agent must make a judgment as to whether the author’s talents are up to his ambitious projects. They are not always, by any means. Authors are no more objective about their strengths and weaknesses than anyone else, and when their self-perceptions are deficient, it is vital for their agents to shed light on those blind spots.

Another way that agents help authors build their careers is to match their “product”—an unpleasant but useful word—to the demands of the marketplace. In other words, to make it commercial. It is not enough for a writer to fulfill his dream if his dream happens to be to write perfect imitations of Virgil, parodies of Thackeray, or metaphysical poetry. The agent must therefore be as intimate with publishing and reading trends as he is with the soul of his author, and to make sure the author’s work plays into those trends.

The problem doesn’t always lie with the author. Some publishers are simply better at publishing certain types of books than others, and an author’s development may eventually reach the point where his publisher simply can no longer accommodate it. Then it may be time to move the author to a house that understands his needs and his work and offers an environment in which these can be nurtured properly. It is not always greed that motivates agents to switch authors to new publishers. Most of the time, yes, but not always.

If all goes well—and we have seen how seldom it does—you will gradually, or perhaps suddenly, move on to a new and lofty plateau, maybe even onto the very summit itself. Hand clasped in your agent’s, you will breathe the heady, rarefied atmosphere of success. You will have fulfilled your dream, your talent will now be a splendidly fashioned tool, and you will be published by a publisher that knows how to realize every dollar of commercial value from your masterpieces for your mutual enrichment. Only one thing remains to be done to place the capstone on your sublime triumph.

Why, fire your agent, of course.

Richard Curtis



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