If I were forced to write a mission statement, it would be short and sweet: “Help authors. Have fun.”
It’s easy for anyone in this business to lose sight of the fact that we do what we do because we love books, and that everyone else we meet is here for the same reason. That’s why my favorite article from the past two weeks is this one from Jonny Geller. Geller is the CEO of Curtis Brown, a big British agency, and the BBC had him give his ten tips for anyone starting out in the business. But a couple of his tips are especially useful for writers, too.
Of all the tips on Geller’s list, “Look for career writers” might be the toughest one for writers to hear. If an agent is going to invest time in an author, they want that author to write many successful books. That means: the less time this person has spent on some other career, the better. There are examples of bestselling authors who wrote their first book very late in life, but they’re the exception, not the rule.
Geller also recommends that agents “get involved” with every aspect of the publishing process, which many claim to these days—even if few actually do. I think the way Geller describes his job is the way the industry is heading, though, and this is something else authors needs to hear. Agents ought to be doing a lot for their 15%.
“Be honest with your clients” is another great tip, both for agents and for authors. It’s better for an author to hear from me that their book idea is terrible than to hear it from the twelve editors passing on it. Still, the temptation is always there. Pretty much every client I have competed for and lost was a potential client I told “unfortunately, you have a lot of work to do before this is ready to show editors” while some other agent said, “you’re practically done!” I don’t know if the other agent really believed that, but I hope those writers came to their new agent ready to make some of the changes I recommended anyway.
It’s Geller’s last tip, however, that contains both my favorite and my least favorite advice: “Believe in your instincts and don’t take it all too seriously.” Good instincts are really useful in an agent. Good instincts backed up by research is a lot more useful. But the other point is something I’ve reminded lots of colleagues: “Try to remember what it was like when you were an obsessive reader at the age of seventeen, because that’s the person who matters—not the wise old agent who seems to know everything but doesn’t.”
Geller also inspired me to pass along a few more tips of my own for aspiring agents, and I hope they also turn out to be useful for writers.