If there weren’t people whose job it was to sort through what gets published, we might be subjected to Danny Gellman and the Righteous Wand of Justice by Danny Gellman, age eight. Or My Life as a Complete Nobody: A Memoir by Who the Heck Knows or Cares? Sadly, there is a lot of bad, bad writing out there. Literary agents wade through miles of garbage to find those diamonds in the rough – the sparkling, literary gems that might actually be worth our time.
First of all, there are two major breeds of literary agent. You’ve got your run-of-the-mill agent who is open to submissions in one or more genres – poetry, short or long fiction, non-fiction, etc. These guys are usually bookish types (imagine that) who love the English language and are constantly on the lookout for something that excites them. Depending on the agency, they may be after the buck, seeking a thrilling sci-fi novel or an exclusive tell-all, and not as gung-ho about the actual quality. Then there are agencies that just want to uncover phenomenal literary talent, even if the work isn’t going to sell a hundred million copies. Don’t get us wrong – all literary agents are pulling for good writing, and all of them want to make money… but some of them simply have different priorities.
Above all, they are looking for something they can sell to a publisher. An agent can love a manuscript all she wants, but if the publishers aren’t bitin’, her bills aren’t getting paid. The novel about a woman who sits at her desk at work and stares at one spot on her cubicle wall for 300 pages is spectacularly well-written – it’s impressive that the book isn’t the snoozefest it sounds like it would be – but is anyone ever going to buy the thing after reading the blurb on the back cover? Maybe it’s best to toss it into the slush pile and move on…
Second, there’s your Hollywood literary agent. These guys deal almost entirely with screenplays – they have relationships with the studios and are looking for scripts that they believe will translate into successful films. Once again, you’ve got some agents who are mostly looking for the next big summer blockbuster, while others are willing to consider more artistic scripts that can be produced as small-budget features. But the H’wood agents with a heart of gold and a love of dialogue over money are… a rarity. You have a better chance finding a hockey-hater in Canada.
The first type of literary agent can be found in any major city, but most of them set up shop in New York. Their offices probably resemble those of most other business professionals, except that they are littered with books and written submissions. Yes, we are in a digital world, but try telling that to the millions of aspiring authors who still mail in hard copies. (Many agencies specifically request hard copies even still – some won’t even an email with an attachment if you send them one. Apparently none of them have invested in virus protection.)
The agents usually have one or more readers who go through what is referred to as the “slush pile” – the collection of unsolicited manuscripts that have been received by the firm. The readers go through these works in an attempt to dig up something that may be salvageable or – once in a while – something that is truly brilliant. For the most part though, the agent will either request submissions based on intriguing query letters (introductory letters that give an agent the gist of a project), or else will correspond with authors with whom he already has a relationship. There are simply too many unsolicited submissions for the agents to pore through them all by themselves. And besides, the vast majority of that stuff is – not coincidentally – literary slush.
Your Hollywood literary agent is a slightly different animal. Beyond having a passion for screenwriting and uber-competitive work cultures, Hollywood agents LOVE selling things to people they’ve schmoozed for the most money possible. It is the essential part of the job and agents have to be awesome at it, because being awesome at selling their clients’ work is the only way they’ll ever get anywhere, or make any money.
Despite dealing with writers (and their writings) all day long, being a Hollywood literary agent is not a bookish profession. Sure, agents need a good eye for dialogue and voice, and they need to be fluent in the tropes of story-telling, but above all literary agents must be great negotiators of people. Because they negotiate with difficult, greedy, backstabbing Hollywood people all the time. When they aren’t reading scripts and emails, they spend their day on the phone negotiating appointments, negotiating their clients’ egos, and negotiating their clients’ contracts. And this last part isn’t easy. It’s actually very scary. It takes a lot of guts to negotiate a good deal for you and your client with an experienced Hollywood producer who’s pretending to be your friend while secretly plotting to get the best deal for himself. Some of the most conniving plotting in Hollywood doesn’t happen onscreen.
But if the negotiating doesn’t scare you and you’re up for dealing with the pressure, agents do get to work with an awesome variety of talented professionals at the top of their game. In a lit agent’s day, there are screenwriters, producers, network and studio executives, lawyers, assistants, talent managers, and other agents, especially if you are an agent at a major full service agency (one that represents top level writers, producers, directors, and actors all underneath the same talent umbrella).
Agents at major, full-service agencies have a special super power. They get to package movie projects for production companies with as many clients from their agency as possible. To do this, lit agents meet in a big conference room with their agency’s other talent agents (the colleagues that rep directors and actors). Then they see how many of their agency’s stars they can stuff into one project. What they come up with ends up being like one of those all-inclusive cruise ship deals to the Caribbean. The agency’s directors are the airfare, the writer is the cruise ship, the actors are the six days and seven nights of buffets and drinks, and the destination is selling the package of clients to a production company for as much money as possible. It makes everyone’s lives easy and happy, or at least that’s how agents pitch it, though that “selling for as much money as possible” part sometimes gets in the way.
As you might imagine, as a literary agent in Hollywood, you’re always working for someone else and most of your life is going to be devoted to the job, especially as a young agent starting out. To get ahead, you have to work hard. For entry-level agent hopefuls, agency hours are notoriously long starting at 9:00am and going to 7:00pm, and the pay ain’t great. If you calculate the hourly rate, entry-level assistants make less per hour than the guy who washes their boss’ car. And for all agents, the work doesn’t stop once they leave the office. They read script after script (most of them pretty bad) in search of that diamond writer in the rough, the one they will ride to their next promotion or get them that big deal or maybe just get them in better standing with their boss. Keep in mind, no one’s ever going to hand over clients that are already making money. More likely, everyone will be willing to take advantage of the good work you’re doing on their behalf. For agents trying to make their way up in the field, they are the ones in charge of growing their own career and knowing when to take that next step up isn’t always clear. What is clear, though, is that there will be a lot of reading and networking and more reading and more networking before any agent gets anywhere.
So if a life of sucking up to clients, negotiating tough contracts, mining piles of scripts for movie-writing gold, and spending countless hours on the phone and at lunches making sure you and your clients stay at the forefront of producers and studio execs’ minds sounds like a good time, becoming a Hollywood literary agent might be for you. Assuming you can get in, and climb the agency ladder, and find clients, and manage to sell their scripts, the payoffs can be big – ten percent of whatever your client gets. Then again, they can be small. And remember, your clients will always be getting more. More money. More glory. More fame. More of everything. So you should definitely make sure you’re okay with that.
Then again, if you don’t want to get trapped in the gears of the Hollywood machine, there is always that cluttered New York high-rise office to consider. The lifestyle isn’t as exciting, but it isn’t as fraught with shallow frivolity either. And maybe you like the slower-paced way of life. So what will it be – tortoise or hare? Either one has a chance to win the race…