16 July 2019

The life of a literary agent

Jonny Geller, Curtis Brown 120
by Jonny Geller Curtis Brown 120, From the Agents

Welcome to the next in our series of Curtis Brown 120 blog posts, these blogs include exclusive interviews with authors, agents and publishers; writing tips; industry insights – and much more besides.

Curtis Brown Chairman and top literary agent Jonny Geller reveals what it is really like to be an agent …

I’m often asked: what does a literary agent do? An agent is a negotiator, editor, manager, mentor, friend, psychologist, fan, critic, marketeer, and impresario. Most of all a connector. Someone who takes huge pleasure connecting talented people with creative collaborators and seeing them flourish.

To me, being a literary agent is the best job in the business – you get to do everything.

You’ve got to be a person who loves talking to people, who is naturally curious and who is willing to let other people shine, without feeling diminished yourself. It’s very important that that is something you get a buzz out of.

An agent is there to:

1. Protect and promote their client

At its most basic level, a literary agent does three things:

1) Looks after the interests of the writer by selling their book to publishers around the world. An agent must therefore know how to exploit the rights (whatever they may be) around the world in every form on behalf of the writer.

2)The agent must also be heavily involved in the author’s career management;

3)The agent has to identify what the author wants and needs and deliver as close to that as he/she possibly can.

2. Find the right publisher and editor for the client

Some agents are born salespeople but find the reading cumbersome; some agents are literary critics and editors who find the selling an interruption. There is no point in an agent who can’t broker a deal with the right publisher or an agent who can’t read the work. I want my authors’ books to be read in 50 years’ time and so it has to work on a level beyond the financial, but without the financial safeguards it isn’t likely to stay in print.

3. Offer critical expertise and editing

Authors need their agent to have the expertise, experience and instinct to tell them what to do and then they can decide whether they agree with you or not.

My job really is to identify somebody who can write a story in a way that only that person could have written it. If I can identify that voice then I’m half way there. It is easier to help someone with a story if they can write, than the other way around.

4. Help clients pick which battles to fight

We have to make a decision, very quickly really, that we believe in that author in the long-term. When I engage in a relationship with an author, I’m behind them 100%.

5. Help shape and nurture a career with longevity

I feel like I’m much more of a manager than an agent and I often act as an objective sounding board to the author. I help with the worldwide PR for some of my clients. I make editorial suggestions, discuss structure, plot and character, help with blurbs, covers and advising authors which battles to fight with their publishers.

There will always be a need for literary agents/managers because an author must have an objective friend who can take the long view. Also, someone to take care of the contracts, royalties and sell your book in Croatia.

6. Champion and advise your client

Sometimes writers need help and some writers have to learn to survive their success. One of the key things in your relationship with them is trust, your authors have to be able to trust you.

And not just with financial matters, they need to trust you to read their book and tell them the truth and that is one of the hardest things about the job.

I have never once chosen the path of not telling the truth. I’ve found my relationships with writers significantly deepens after some of our most difficult conversations (touch wood – so far, none has walked out because I’ve been honest enough to say when something needs a lot of work).

Communication is very important.

7. Read read read 

Agents read a lot. I read my own author’s manuscripts more than anything else… but you also have to know what else is going on in the marketplace, to see what else it selling and doing well.

Be curious, be open to new ideas. The ability to spot the kernel of a good idea inside another less developed idea and to get an author to write and use their talents in the right way is a huge part of being an agent.

It’s not about getting authors to write the book that you want them to write, it’s about listening to them and helping them find the book they wanted to write but have not discovered the right way to let it out.

8. Play

Storytelling is playful, fun, entertaining. Never forget we are in the business to inspire, entertain, thrill, move. Enjoy the pleasure of telling your story and we will enjoy bringing it to readers.

9. Not a 9 to 5

At Curtis Brown we represent a huge variety of authors, fiction and non-fiction, picture books and cookbooks, debut novelists and authors embarking on their twentieth book. Here are some real-life anecdotes by Curtis Brown agents which show that in the everyday life of a literary agent, there’s no such thing as a typical day.

Here are fifty of the extraordinary tasks we literary agents have done (and some we continue to do) in the line of duty …

  1. Read and annotate the latest draft of a manuscript while in labour
  2. Fall in love with a manuscript that was written under a pseudonym and then have no idea who to ask for when you arrange to meet them in a restaurant
  3. Break best offer news to an author from a beach in the Mediterranean
  4. Do some risqué online research in consulting over the plotting of the denouement for a new crime novel
  5. Sign a celebrity client in an airport fish and chip shop
  6. Spend the day in a giant bed outside Foyles Southbank, dressed in pyjamas, to celebrate a publication day
  7. Carry a socialite’s handbag while she’s on the red carpet
  8. Escape a literary function with aforementioned socialite by crawling the length of top table under the tablecloth
  9. Read unsolicited submissions in the bath
  10. Eavesdrop on the tube, in restaurants, anywhere where there’s an interesting conversation going on that might be good subject matter for a book
  11. Meticulously cross-reference accounts with royalty statements
  12. Beg/bribe the office puppy to sit still, surrounded by copies of a new book, for the agency’s Instagram
  13. Nearly end up publishing a client’s novel after their indie publisher goes bankrupt two months before publication.
  14. Spend a weekend locked in a house in a small French town, waiting for a client to emerge from their bedroom to unlock the front door.
  15. Discuss cover options with an author from a retreat where mobile phones were forbidden
  16. Photocopy an out-of-print book from cover to cover in lieu of having a PDF file version of the manuscript, and then realise it’s the first in a LONG series
  17. Dress head-to-toe in orange, including an orange umbrella, and accompany a team of similarly clad orange people to Trafalgar Square to hand out copies of an author’s book
  18. Play an incompetent chef in a promotional video for a cookery author
  19. Round up colleagues to participate in publication day Boomerangs
  20. Edit a client’s manuscript during a family wedding
  21. Take the train to Scotland to talk at a writers’ group
  22. Try and read an iPad screen during a reading day on the beach in full sunlight
  23. Send out a submission on your wedding day
  24. Sprint to the postroom of a massive newspaper to intercept a confidential document that had been mistakenly delivered there after a courier mix-up
  25. Tweet about a Kindle Daily Deal for a client’s book and obsessively refresh the Amazon page to see it climb up in the charts
  26. Accept a pre-emptive offer whilst boarding a flight
  27. Stay up until 3am to read a submission you love
  28. Drink six cups of coffee because you were reading until 3am
  29. Listen to dozens of pitches on one-on-one pitch sessions
  30. Brainstorm title ideas for a new book
  31. Write personalized letters on your favourite stationery to promote a client’s book
  32. Hand deliver a time-sensitive contract to a client’s house and wait outside for them to sign it
  33. Read a submission in one afternoon and offer representation on the same day because it’s just that good
  34. Find all the red and pink books in the office to arrange into a heart for a Valentine’s Day social media post
  35. Attend bookfairs in London, Frankfurt, Sharjah, Bologna, Guadalajara… it’s a hard life!
  36. Make editorial notes on an iPhone while brushing teeth.
  37. Spend a week buried in the British Library archive, photographing and transcribing 60,000 words of handwritten text.
  38. Run out to a well-heeled perfumerie (with a royal warrant, natch) to track down a specific bath oil for an international client to take back home in their suitcase
  39. Interrupt a family holiday abroad to research a literary estate at a local library
  40. Try to keep a 600-page paper manuscript in the right order while reading on the tube
  41. Go into bookshops and take pictures of clients’ books in the window or on a display table
  42. Rearrange said display if necessary to bring clients’ books to greater prominence
  43. Have anxiety-induced nightmares every night from submitting a novel until the first offer comes in
  44. Tell authors how to pronounce the names of their foreign publishing houses and editors
  45. Run workshops at libraries about how to submit to literary agents
  46. Spend an hour drafting a perfect email about something uncomfortable
  47. Commiserate with an author suffering from writers block
  48. Negotiate a revised delivery schedule with that author’s editor, in light of the writers block
  49. Attend readings by creative writing students in bookshops
  50. Cross fingers and whisper a wish before pressing ‘send’ on a manuscript to an editor

Find out about the Curtis Brown First Novel Prize.

Read more Curtis Brown 120 here.

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