What does an agent do?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a blog post about what an agent does, written by editor Shawn Coyne….

I had coffee with a friend of mine. It wasn’t just a social occasion. He’d written a manuscript (provisional title: The Accidental Apiaristand it’s good, really good. Funny, too. (It’s recently been published under the title Show Me The Honey.)

He is one of the relatively small number of people who should be able to get a traditional publisher quite rapidly, I think. And even though he’s a sales guy himself, I suggested he consider looking for an agent. “But what does an agent do,” he asked?

Coincidentally, the very next day, I stumbled across a blog post on the Steven Pressfield website, headlined, “How an agent figures out her pitch to publishers.” Written by Pressfield’s own editor, Shawn Coyne, the post tells the story of Malcolm Gladwell’s agent for his book The Tipping Point.

Here is what went through Gladwell’s agent’s mind before making her deal for what became a best-selling book:

…What she is going to have to do is shoot down the Pavlovian “magazine article does not a book make” editor argument right from the start. Why exactly is “the tipping point” a bigger idea than just a way to look at the controversial broken windows criminology theory and of how people get the flu?…What is the single simple thing about the tipping point that would appeal to the largest possible audience?

So, the agent interviewed Gladwell, at length and found out the answer she needed. The result?

Gladwell and his co-author, John Decker, both received an estimated US $1–1.5 million advance for it, and the book sold 1.7 million copies by 2006.

As I read this blog post, I was reminded of the (probably apocryphal) boilermaker story. It goes like this:

An experienced boilermaker was hired to fix the boiler system on a steamshop. After listening to the engineer’s description of the problems he looked at the pipes, listened to the thump of the boiler and felt some pipes with his hands. Then, he took out a small hammer, and tapped a valve, once. Immediately, the entire system began working again and he submitted his bill for a thousand dollars.

The steamship owner was outraged and asked for an itemized bill. Here is what the boilermaker sent him:

For tapping the valve: $.50

For knowing where to tap: $999.50

TOTAL: $1,000.00

That’s exactly what agents do. They know where to tap.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on May 28/18.

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