Our 2015 Masterclass series got off to a stimulating start on the contemporary challenges and opportunities for today’s literary agents. Publishing MA student Ashley Bodette summarizes the valuable insights on offer from the Head of the Books Department at David Higham Associates.
Lizzy Kremer’s Masterclass was both educational and inspirational. When deciding what area of publishing I would like to work in, I initially thought I might want to be a literary agent. Too often though, I was told that it wasn’t a viable career option (with student loans and moving expenses that could not be met by an agent paid by commission). After hearing Lizzy’s master class, not only did I begin to feel that it was a viable career choice, but she also reminded me why I wanted to be an agent in the first place: they are the champion of their authors.
Lizzy’s lecture taught many things, but probably most importantly, that the literary agent working in today’s publishing landscape doesn’t just have one role. They have a multitude, including:
- The Surveyor – Agents must be able to survey the current landscape of the publishing industry, not only to know what is important to the market and publishers right now, but to be able to predict what they will want to read in the future. They need to be aware of all the obstacles and opportunities that may come along. Lizzy said that each person (reader) has a dream map, and ‘the market is where those dream maps overlap.’
- The Discoverer – This is the role everyone expects to hear about regarding today’s literary agent. Yes, they do discover new talent, but this, by far, is not their only role. Although, increasingly, publishers are looking to agents to find the next author or story they want to invest in – and this includes who have self-published.
- The Nurturer – If you ask an author what they think the role of their agent should play, they will quite simply say one or two things: it’s an agent’s job to be on my side, and to make me money. Being a writer is lonely, and their agent should be there to encourage them, and keep them on their writing journey.
- The Translator/Bridge Builder – Something I hadn’t considered before, but an agent has the ability (and perhaps the duty) to talk to one side (the publisher or author) and then translate their wants/needs to the other party in a way that is effective and empathetic. This is one of the reasons why publishers encourage non-agented authors to get an agent.
- The Interferer – An agent needs to be a self-starter, and interfere in the process when something isn’t right, because they genuinely care about the author and the publisher being successful. They also can remind/explain to publishers when to be kind, and when to be business-like. It’s about “Author Care”.
- The Negotiator – An agent makes contracts for their authors. They must be constantly watching out for the author’s best interest. ‘Contracts are there for the best and worst case scenarios – including protecting authors for unexpected success.’
- The Market Trader – An agent takes the basket of rights that is the ownership of every piece of copyrighted content, and can parcel them off and sell them piece by piece. This is something agents often consider themselves to be experts in; it’s what they do.
- The Optimist – Although the publishing landscape can be depressed/pessimistic, it’s the agent’s role to be an optimist.
Many agents/agencies are diversifying in the ever-changing business of publishing, with some offering editorial, or self-publishing assistance, writing workshops, among other things. But Lizzy also warned that some diversification could lead to conflicts of interest if agents/agencies aren’t careful.
Lizzy offered lots of advice to those who are considering working as a literary agent. Prior to joining David Higham Associates in 2004, Lizzy worked at Ed Victor Ltd. for 7 years, and was a publicist for a publishing house before that.But her response to what she would tell her younger self now? ‘Trust your boss.’
All in all, Lizzy’s Masterclass was inspiring. Many of my fellow students who already had wanted to be a literary agent were even more motivated to follow their dreams. And for those students not looking at becoming a literary agent, they walked away with a much better understanding of what their role is in the publishing landscape, and why they are needed in the industry.