When Jeff told me that he was going to write his blog post this week on the relationship between author and agent, he made it sound dire. He gave me warning because he said that he wanted to give me the chance to rebut his post. I appreciated the opportunity, and waited quite apprehensively to see what he was going to say.
Ultimately, though, my response is hardly a rebuttal, but rather an expansion of sorts, from my perspective, of the relationship between writer and agent. I want to spend much of the time, actually, discussing an element of this relationship which has always been important but now, as the industry changes seemingly hourly, is even more so: Agent as expectation manager.
Yes, yes, Jeff is right that writers take the very blood out of their veins, give the outpouring to someone who (most of the time) isn't even related to them (and oftentimes not in the same city or state), and asks them to do right by them; to select the correct editor to submit to, to write the most pursuasive pitch, to negotiate the best contract, to stay on top of the publisher to ensure that the book gets the best possible chance to succeed. And the very vast majority of agents take that incredibly powerful responsibility very seriously and work hard to achieve the greatest success. As Jeff said, most of us are in this because we fundamentally love books and are excited to find something we think is terrific; so of course we want to see it reach its potential. It's also how we can pay the rent.
And there is the joke that we all hear that so much of our job is talking insecure and apprehensive artists off ledges that we ought to get degrees in Psychiatry rather than English (or business or writing, but you get the idea).
But now--and particularly in the past months--we have a new responsibility. It's now very important to alert our clients (whether current or potential) that being a writer no longer means, simply, Being a Writer. Rather, with the concurrent blossoming of social media and online communities along with the tightening of most publishers' purse strings in marketing and publicity, a writer is now responsible not just for writing his or her book, but also for getting word out. And we've hit a tipping point recently, I think. Within the last year, I've seen writers who sign their contracts with a platform either in place or planned out in detail exceed expectations regarding presales and early momentum. Conversely authors who don't--or who are either resistant or indifferent to this new paradigm--are unhappy, confused and resentful of the fact that simply writing something of quality is insufficient to success: They also need to go out and shill for it.
Both reactions--acceptance and enthusiasm on one side, rejection or grudging, half-hearted attempts on the other--are perfectly reasonable. I totally understand why an author would want to walk away from this crazy business rather than have to spend hours thinking of 140-character updates that might result in sales. I also see how a well thought-out strategy starting several months before publication and going a few months after pub can be both exciting and satisfying to an author who really buys in. (Incidentally, I'm not bringing up the publisher's role at all--that is the subject of a different post from this one.)
So my detour-filled addendum to Jeff is this: Not only do we need to manage an author's expectations on editors' responses, advance and print run sizes, sales figures, and subsequent contracts, we now also need to manage marketing and publicity expectations, and get into very detailed strategies as to how best to market the book on line--which the author needs to do whether he or she wants to or not. We need to do so early--on signing perhaps, and certainly on offer of contract. We need to understand each client's appetite for self-promotion, just how far we can or should push. We need to set up meetings with online consultants--or know enough to do it ourselves. We need to do our homework and learn from other writers' successes and failures. We are no longer "simply" first readers, shrinks, contract negotiators and cheerleaders, but marketing consultants as well. And we all need to get used to it.
PS--Initially when I read Jeff's post I was going to discuss how much work I do on manuscripts before submitting them, and whether I ever go out with a book I'm not 100% excited about or think isn't 100% done. It's a very reasonable question, and one I'll discuss next week.