I’ve been seeing some comments around the Internet expressing surprise in response to revelations by agents (myself included) that they have day jobs. I am likewise surprised that anyone would think this was strange! I guess this is a post I should have made a while ago, but it honestly didn’t occur to me that there were people who were unaware that not all agents start out earning a full-time living as agents. In fact, most don’t.

Here’s something I know most of you will not be surprised to learn: publishing pays very little, especially in the beginning. There are always exceptions--particularly for those becoming agents after establishing careers elsewhere in the industry--but the vast majority of new agents are either working in some other capacity at a literary agency in addition to representing their own clients, are independently wealthy (or lucky enough to have a partner who can afford to support them), or have some other source of income. I know agents who are bartenders and bookkeepers, freelance editors and website designers, sales clerks and substitute teachers... basically, whatever pays the bills while they build their lists and start making enough sales to be able to give up their day jobs.

I had the honor and privilege of working with Robin Rue at Writers House for two years, and for that whole time I performed the duties of an assistant, as well as those of a junior agent after I began taking on my own clients. (This is roughly the same as how editorial assistants begin acquiring their own projects and eventually become editors, by the way.) It was an invaluable apprenticeship and I can’t say enough good things about Robin or about all the wonderful opportunities to learn the business that I was fortunate enough to have at Writers House, but I was still working forty hours a week doing something other than representing my own clients. Any time I had for reading my own slush, developing my own list, or selling projects for my own authors had to be made after I did my other work, and with the support and permission of my boss. Again, I was lucky that she was incredibly supportive, but for practical purposes a lot of my own agenting was still being done “on the side”.

Now that I think about it, I can of course see why the default assumption given the lack of any other information might be that all agents do this full time, but the reality is that it takes most agents several years to get to the point where they can support themselves on their commissions alone. The reality is also that not everyone can afford to pursue this career for that long, but I know people who work full time and/or support families while putting themselves through law school, medical school, and so on, and are successful at it. If they can do that, why would it be any different in publishing?

Finally, one of the things I think is important for me personally is not feeling like I have to take on projects which I consider marginal just to pay my bills, because that’s not the kind of agent I want to be. I don’t think being that hungry is good for either author or agent in the long term, and whether someone ultimately ends up being in this business for a few years or a lifetime, I believe it’s important to try to see the big picture in terms of the career longevity of every client I take on: not just, what books can we sell now, but where will that author’s career be in five years? Ten? Twenty?

Naturally the answers to this question will vary, and I’m sure everyone can think of cases of an author who only had one book in them--preferably an immortally beloved bestseller, for my money--but as far as I’m concerned succeeding as an agent is just like any other success in publishing: you try to always do your best work, and if you’re gifted and lucky maybe you will be one of the few to grab that brass ring, the bestseller (or better yet, series) that makes your career and gives you financial security. Or, you carve out your financial security by focusing on quantity and representing many books that might never make bestseller lists, but which will consistently earn out smaller advances and lead to more contracts (for example, with category romance the agent may only make a few hundred dollars per book after expenses, but people buy a lot of books in that genre and the money adds up). Or, you win the lottery. The good news is that until any of these things happens, you can still have a career in the meantime...

You’d just better be able to pay your rent.

From: [identity profile] rhienelleth.livejournal.com

I've read some of those recent discussions, and I was frankly dumbfounded that people were so surprised at agents having day jobs. I know a few full time agents with widely read blogs, so maybe that's built this belief that "all" agents are full time, meaning no day job to pay the bills.

But to me, it makes sense that most of us as writers can't quit our day jobs, so the majority of agents might not be able to quit theirs, either, as one career is largely dependent on the success of the other.

From: [identity profile] gwyndolin.livejournal.com

I'd never thought about it that way before, but it sure makes a lot of sense.

From: [identity profile] rhienelleth.livejournal.com

I hadn't thought of it until it came up, either, but it didn't surprise me much once it did. As you say, it makes sense!

From: [identity profile] dianafox.livejournal.com

I think the reason people never think of it is that up until very recently I get the impression that it was one of those things that was just Not Talked About. I also felt that for the most part, it was nobody's business what else I did with my time as long as I was providing outstanding service to my clients... but I am not ashamed of how hard I work, and I believe in demystifying publishing when and where it's appropriate.

From: [identity profile] andrewkaye.livejournal.com

Especially when you consider the fact that agents are only making a percentage of what their client earns from the publisher. They're actually making less than we are!

From: [identity profile] dianafox.livejournal.com

They're actually making less than we are!

*laughs* Yeah, don't remind me!

From: [identity profile] alg.livejournal.com

Don’t give up the day job: not just good advice for authors


From: [identity profile] kristinlaughtin.livejournal.com

I think the surprise stems from the fact that agents seem so busy: we read about having to find time to look at queries between reviewing partials and fulls, negotiating with editors, etc., and it sounds like a very time-consuming job--one that wouldn't leave time for a whole other career. A new agent having another job while he/she builds their list and establishes their reputation makes sense, but I think most people figure that once an agent has "made it", they have to/do devote all their (work) time to agenting.

From: [identity profile] dianafox.livejournal.com

I understand, I think it just depends on how you define "job" versus "career". Being an agent is my full-time career, and extra jobs I pick up for money are... well, jobs. (Also, once an agent has "made it", they often have an assistant to help them and free up more of their time for valuable things like sleeping.)

From: [identity profile] jryson.livejournal.com

It's gotta be hard on the part-time agent. The part-timer has just as many publishers to shop her projects to.(all of them) She has just as big a slush pile to read. I hope she takes on fewer projects and clients than a full-time agent. But because the agent must deal with as much slush and as many editors, the time fraction doesn't scale. A half-time agent can't take on half as many projects as a full-timer, am I right?

All that said, I wonder whether I, a part-time writer, should query a part-time agent. It all boils down to my chances.

From: [identity profile] dianafox.livejournal.com

All that said, I wonder whether I, a part-time writer, should query a part-time agent. It all boils down to my chances.

First of all, what I may not have made clear above is that a part-time agent works at least 40 hours a week, and a full-tinme one usually works closer to a minimum of 80. So it's not like having a full-time job and a part-time job, it's like having two full-time jobs (hence my working full-time and going to medical school analogy).

As far as your chances, I think it just boils down to how selective the agent is, period. A lot of full-time agents with lists made up of best-selling authors are going to be more selective than I am... and I am pretty selective now. For myself, I'm interested in taking on fewer clients and giving them more personal attention, because that's how I've found I work best--and I don't think that will change that much in the future.

From: [identity profile] jryson.livejournal.com

In my weaker, more objective moments, I'd rather a potential agent be more selective than to spread herself too thin. Better rejected than accepted then neglected.

First problem for a writer after doing the synopsis, query letter, etc., is whom to query. It's really hard to research agents.

"How did you pick me to query?"

Honest answer: "Well, I was going down the alphabetical list from (Insert favorite list of agents) and came to you."

When I poke around an agent's website, I find they have sold works most often much darker than mine. I'd still be glad for her to represent me, it's just that I doubt my baby is her cup of tea. I have never seen anything about any agent that made me think, Oh! She might might like what I have, then.

So I guess what I want is, part-time or full, the agent is committed to spend X hours per week shopping my novel. And if an agent is new, I'm better off with one who is in an office with a heavy hitter, is my guess.

From: [identity profile] dianafox.livejournal.com

And if an agent is new, I'm better off with one who is in an office with a heavy hitter, is my guess.

I might agree that a new agent can often learn more by working in an office with a heavy hitter, but in terms of having more time to shop a client's novel, not so much (because assisting an agent who represents lots of bestselling authors can be extremely time-consuming). Overall, I think what you really want and need is an agent who is madly in love with your book, since like most other human beings we tend to devote the most time to stuff we're more or less obsessed with.

From: [identity profile] slwhitman.livejournal.com

Also, if an agent is a former editor, there's really no need for her to become associated with a "heavy hitter" agent, because she's usually already got editorial contacts galore. There are several editors considering the agenting route from this latest downturn, so keeping a watchful eye out for an editor who becomes an agent who might love your book--which is definitely the most important thing--is just as valid as looking for an agent who comes from the agenting route.

From: [identity profile] cathschaffstump.livejournal.com

This was a good and educational post. Thanks!


From: [identity profile] jamiebl.livejournal.com

It's dedication and ability that matter. If an agent works 80+ hours a week and never sells a book, they aren't very effective at being an agent regardless of it being their only job. I read some comments on-line also and think it's more a symptom of getting restless in the pursuit for representation than a legitimate gripe.

From: [identity profile] lagringa.livejournal.com

Actually, that's not true. They may not get one book sold, but that isn't the only client an agent is working with. And not being able to sell a book after being very persistent speaks more to the problems with the book itself, not the agent.

From: [identity profile] jmeadows.livejournal.com

You know, this makes a lot of sense. My only experience with learning the details of an agent's non-agent life is Jenny, who is fortunate enough to be a full time agent. Plus, writers keep seeing things about business hours and all...and assume that all agents are working on agenting during business hours. Not regular jobs like the rest of us.

That said, I'm aware my views are skewed! My husband makes enough to support my writing habit (with the assumption that one day I will be rich and famous and he will get to quit the evil book-printing industry ;), which makes me a full time (though penniless) writer. I am always in awe of my writer buddies who can work full time jobs *and* produce excellent books for me to read.

This is an excellent post, because it brings up things writers never think about! We've mostly come around to the idea that agents are Real People (well, some of you are robots, I'm absolutely sure ;) but having other jobs to support your agenting habits...never really occurs to most of us. Which definitely makes *me* admire you and other agents with other jobs. I already knew agents really had to love the work to keep going with it (awful pay and all), but this really drives it home!

So thank you. :)

From: [identity profile] live-bomb.livejournal.com

This was a really interesting read. Thanks for posting it. I didn't know much of what you said. Now I know. Go me!!!

From: [identity profile] thisiamdenied.livejournal.com

Hello! I stumbled upon your LJ in a random way, but after reading through it I've added you to my friends list. I thought it would be polite to let you know that, but there is no obligation to add me in return.

I've been trying to remember a song I listened to back in high school, but I couldn't remember the title, the artist, or any of the lyrics. So, I had nothing to go on and only hoped one day I would remember it. The only thing I remembered was that it had the same title of another song that I hear on the radio frequently. Of course, once I started paying attention to the radio, the song never played. Today it came on, and got on Google the moment I returned home from work, and it turns out the singer's name is Diana Fox. I looked her up to see if I would like her other music, and your LJ was at the top of my Google search!

I clicked out of curiosity, and it turns out that you are an entirely different person, but infinitely more helpful! I've also rambled far more than I intended, and I'm sorry about that. To sum up, I'm an aspiring writer and simply want to follow whatever you blog about. :) Sorry again for rambling!

From: [identity profile] rhondaparrish.livejournal.com

This is a great post, thank you for sharing it. I hope you don't mind, but I've added you as a friend.

From: [identity profile] theslaghammer.blogspot.com (from livejournal.com)

Thanks for the informative, thoughtful post Dianna. Knowing how dedicated and busy agents are, despite the fact that every project they take on is a gamble is quite amazing considering you do it all for a mere 15% (normally right?) commission. I relate to the two full time jobs aspect of it, because so far no one is paying me to write, but I still take it every bit as serious (if not more) than my paying job and put in at least full time hours on it as well.

I understand the drive to create because that's what I'm all about. Agents must have a real passion for literature, or maybe people? the thrill of discovery? Anyway, what ever makes you guys tick -- Thanks!

From: [identity profile] wrathchylde.livejournal.com

Hi - I found you on the White List and added you. Just dropped in to say hello and that I hope you don't mind me crashing your blog :)

From: [identity profile] vrleavitt.livejournal.com

Incredibly informational! Thanks for sharing this.