Agent of the Year: Good agenting
We are supposed to be nominating each other, we publishing professionals: the closing date for the Bookseller Industry Awards is nearly upon us. If we think we can discern the Imprint of the Year, Rights Professional of the Year or one of many other Publishing Persons of the Year including, indeed, the Literary Agent of the Year, then now is the time for us to explain who they are and why we think they deserve to win this accolade at the big event in May.
What an honour it is to be recognised by one's own peers; for our regular day-to-day colleagues to look up from their inbox skirmishes to say, however briefly, "Hey, you're good at that!". For agents, often working autonomously like little satellites; frequently gambling heavily on talent and working on spec; with a relatively undefined brief (if we can agree it isn't just: Make Money Any How); it takes experience to work out what is meant by "doing a great job". And a highly developed sense of self-worth to recognise when one is doing a great job oneself.
I have worked with some fantastic agents so I have seen skill and success first-hand. But I'm not Ed Victor, Bruce Hunter or Anthony Goff: as quickly as I register another agent's talent, I recognise the many ways in which their M.O. won't work for me. We agents are all different (strong) personalities: we each need to find our own path to success. We have to figure out what we're good at, and mine it. Then face up to our weak spots and plug them. Learn to trust our instinct for what's right but also to look at each question four ways before attempting to answer it.
I know I'll return to the subject of what 'good agenting' is repeatedly in this blog because it particularly interests me. I used the phrase carelessly in conversation with an important publisher a while ago and he rightly challenged me on it - what did I mean? I sketched the best answer I could in the moment. I know it has to do with integrity, with loyalty, with taste, with strategy: above all, with our duty to always put the client's interest first. But I'm still shading in the detail of that picture.
A couple of years ago, I was working from home on a quiet Friday when an email from one of my most regular client correspondents popped into my inbox. When I opened it, I was slightly alarmed to note that about twelve of my other clients were copied in. "We have decided," the email announced, "to nominate you for Agent of the Year....our testimonies are attached. We love you."
The two pages of testimony had clearly been pasted together from emails sent back and forth between my clients. A mixture of acutely personal opinion and generous professional praise, I recognised each voice, each story, each author's sincerity. Of course I started crying, sitting there on my own, at my silly crowded desk, with the laundry piled up behind me. I wrote to them, I called them; I was so grateful, so touched by the ways in which they had thanked me for my work. They're bloody good writers: they had hit their mark.
But the next day, I was still leaky. And on Monday, back in the office, I still felt emotional, watery. Eventually, a few days later, I asked a friend what she thought the problem was. "I should be happy about this," I said, mystified, "Why am I crying all the fkg time? What is this emotion?" She thought for a few moments, assessed me calmly. "It's relief," she said. "Isn't it?"
It was: I saw it immediately. I was relieved; they were tears of relief. Since I'd started agenting, I'd had my head down; trying to do a good job without knowing what one was; pushing beautiful rocks up high hills; sticking my neck out and making promises I didn't know if I or others could keep; championing my instincts. Hoping that I was doing ok but obviously without ever being entirely certain. Now I was being firmly told by my own clients: I was good at this, and they were grateful. I hadn't even realised I'd been holding my breath.
When the shortlist for Literary Agent of the Year was announced and I wasn't on it, I wasn't surprised. I hadn't done anything special that year - nothing to mark me out as more deserving than the next agent. But my clients were absolutely appalled and I found myself fondly comforting them. A week or two later, one of them (still narked at having had her views roundly ignored) arrived at my office for lunch carrying a parcel. The contents are pictured above.
What treasure. And more recently, something else to file with it. An email from the important publisher. He'd spotted a flash of 'good agenting' in me and wanted to point it out.
That's more than enough for me: a trophy from my authors and an email from someone I admire. No need for further nominations. Good luck to all my clever, honest, tireless, passionate fellow agents: I sincerely hope you win. You're doing a good job. And now: breathe.