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An Agent’s Role in Shaping an Author’s Career and the Second Book

photo by Gavin Wray
Today I want to talk about the literary agent’s role, not just in selling an author’s book, but in shaping their career. It’s a more nebulous part of the job description, beyond the editing, negotiating and contract work that comprises the nuts and bolts of the job. I’ve also found it to be both the most exciting and the hardest part of what I do.
I love thinking alongside an author about the direction in which they want their career to go. Thinking long term is an important part of the initial conversation an author should have with their agent as you want to be on the same page, and while of course that path isn’t set in stone, it’s a good idea for an author to have a general vision which she can share with her agent at the beginning.
I still believe in the old-fashioned way of growing an author–book by book, review by review, and fan by fan. And to that end, an agent’s job really begins after she’s helped edit the book and placed it with a publisher. It’s her job to then foster a relationship between the author and the editor, and in turn that editor’s publicity and marketing department, which means making introductions, setting up meetings at the appropriate time before publication, and actively participating in the outreach (either blurbs or advance reviews/conferences/festivals/film contacts/bloggers etc) along the way.
With long-term thinking in mind, an agent also has to work strategically alongside the author about what book two (or three or four) is going to be. That can sometimes involve a tough-love conversation when an agent doesn’t think that follow-up book is strong enough. I once heard an editor say (rather glibly, I might add) that everyone can write one good book but it’s the ones who continue to write better and better books that separate the good from the great. I don’t think that’s the case. I certainly can’t write one good book and I am guessing neither can she (those that can’t, teach and all that), but it is something that writers struggle with.
7 things I did this month to help guide my clients’ careers
(1) submitted a manuscript to a film agent
(2) recommended an author for a book festival
(3) wrote a promotional piece on behalf of an author
(4) had a heart-to-heart with an author over future vision for her career
(5) guided foreign sales
(6) secured a blurb for an author’s galley
(7) hashed out what an author’s next book would be

I was recently talking about why the second book is so hard with a group of agent colleagues. Sometimes, if a first book has been a wild success, an author can become paralyzed with fear about putting themselves out there again. Having written that first book in solitude, without the pressure of an audience, they are now writing under a microscope and with expectations to fill. That can’t be easy. Or, perhaps they had a lousy experience with an editor or the publisher themselves and felt their love of writing tarnished by the business of writing. Even though I work in the business of writing, I get that. An author is asked to jump through hoops, much higher than anyone else in the process is asked to jump, and it’s exhausting.
A very wise client once told me told (after not sharing pages of her next novel until they were as perfect as she could get them) that the only person she was competing against was herself and her last book and she wasn’t going to send it to me until she knew it would knock my socks off. Luckily it did, and I find myself quoting her to others, hopefully in a cheerleading sort of way, ala, I know you can push yourself to the next level. And sometimes (also enthusiastically!) suggesting that they are better than said work, and it might be time to put that book away. That’s the tough part for me, because, as I said earlier, I can’t do what these writers are doing, putting together a book with a beginning, middle and an end, but it’s my job to give my opinion about whether that next book is the best business decision.
What do you published authors out there think about the second book? And for unpublished authors, are you thinking about the book you want to land an agent for or are you thinking about the next 10 years? I am really curious. Perhaps just getting the agent is the focus once your book is finished and it seems fantastical to think beyond that. I’d love to know.

About Elisabeth WeedElisabeth Weed formed Weed Literary LLC in 2007. Prior to that, she worked as a literary agent at Curtis Brown, Kneerim and Williams and Trident Media Group. Weed Literary is hands-on in every stage of the publishing process, from developing proposals, to submitting books to the all of the major houses and negotiating contracts with those houses, to involvement in marketing and publicity of books, as well as in the selling of foreign and film rights.Web | Twitter | More Posts

"Write without pay until someone offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for"
Mark Twain

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Fast fact about writing

Well-known writers who have suffered from writer's block include George Gissing, Samuel Coleridge, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Mitchell and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Writers who overcame writer's block and published new work after a hiatus of decades include Harold Brodkey, whose novel The Runaway Soul appeared some 30 years after it was first projected, and Henry Roth, whose first novel, Call It Sleep, was published in 1934; his second, Mercy Of A Rude Stream, did not appear until 1994.