A Day in the Life of a Literary Agent

By Linda Pratt

It’s always interesting when people ask what I do professionally. I tell them that I’m a literary agent, and, more often than not, the next question is: What publisher do you work for? This very question shows me how little most people really know about the down and dirty parts of an agent’s day. As an agent, my job is to be an advocate for my clients, which can be anything and everything, and trust me, over my 20 plus years in the business that covers a lot! Agents negotiate contracts, act as editorial partners before we submit a book to publishers (we work with publishers, not for them!), are liaisons between our clients and their editors at the publishing house, manage publishing schedules, sell subsidiary rights such as translation, audio, merchandising, motion picture/tv rights, and many other things that crop up.

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The most frustrating thing for me is the misconception that many aspiring creators have, which is that they think a literary agent is required to reach editors at many publishing houses. They also think that literary agents have the luxury of choosing any clients they want. There are a lot of people who dream of publishing a book: some who just decide that writing a book is on their bucket list and today’s the day, and others who see writing as a craft and have spent time honing it. The truth is, the submission process to agents is democratic: every writer has an equal opportunity to submit their work for representation. But, every agent has a limit as to how many clients they can fully service. They have to chose carefully, to decide which clients will benefit from their very best efforts. The same is true with the publishing houses where agents submit client work. And the dynamic changes once an agent decides to take on a client. Once each side agrees to work with one another, the agent then works for that author or illustrator. What does that mean? Well, our agency specializes in children’s books, so here are some of the things I did today:

I responded to an inquiry from a person who wanted to translate one of our client’s works into Scottish Gaelic. I had to let the person know that we cannot grant that right to an individual since publishers typically employ their own translators. We could not hinder a potential publisher by forcing them to use a translator not of their choice.

I received a contract for review, which I compared line by line with the last contract that this author/illustrator had with this publisher to make sure it matched, as well as incorporated all of the specific terms for this particular deal.

I was a second pair of eyes to review a colleague’s draft of a contract to one of her client’s works for Korean translation rights in hardcover, audio version, and e-book rights.

I corresponded with a client about the wording for a deal announcement of the sale of her picture book manuscript in Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf (the industry’s leading trade magazine’s online bi-weekly edition that focuses on children’s books). This is shared with the editor for the publisher’s approval and also the illustrator and their agent, if applicable, before being submitted for publication. With the same client, I also asked if she’d heard from her editor on another picture book project as editorial notes were due to be sent to her some weeks back. She hadn’t heard, so now I need to nudge the editor again.

I shared happy news with another client that his sales on the Chinese editions of his trilogy continue to go like gangbusters. We then talked on the phone about the idea of approaching a Chinese film company to license film rights (the work had been under a film option in the U.S., which expired), and we also talked about approaching his Chinese publisher about taking him to China for an author tour. Then I responded to a contracts manager at a U.S. publisher regarding some outstanding issues on a contract for that client.

I emailed a different client to let her know that the editor to whom we had submitted her picture book manuscript last week with one of our illustrators attached responded very quickly that she loved the project, and it sounded like we might have an offer this week . . . although it always remains just a potential offer until it actually comes.

I received another rejection on a project that I just adore, and for the life of me cannot understand why no one has snapped it up. It’s head scratching . . . and heartbreaking to me.

Along the way, I checked in online banking to see if any monies had posted to our client escrow account for monies due. I would record those in our accounting system, and cut checks to the client the next day.

And I ended my day writing an editorial letter to yet another client about clarifying the emotional motivation of a groundhog that is the star of a manuscript involving homes in a playground and campground.

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So, I did not have any glamorous lunches at restaurants, nor did I have the phone stuck to my ear demanding things in high octaves. I did a lot of things that were more mundane, and while tomorrow will be completely different, it will likely still be more ordinary than you think. I love my job, because as John Lennon said Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” or, in this case, life is what happens when you play a small part in something that has a profound effect on a reader you’ll likely never know, and that’s pretty spectacular!

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