Conferences

Lessons Learned As a Literary Agent

Dan is leaving the agency at the end of this month to focus his attention on the work of Gilead Publishing, the company he started in 2016. Here are some parting thoughts.

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I’ve been a literary agent for about 2,000 of the 13,000 total days spent working with and for book publishers over the last thirty-five years. It’s been a great experience, for sure; but as I look back at the thousands of proposals sent and received, common issues appear and reappear.

I’ve learned more about the life of an author, which I never fully appreciated in the previous thirty years I was involved with publishers. For sure, I have a much greater understanding for the personal journey to publication and the struggles encountered by wordsmiths.

But I also picked up some other things along the way, those which I had either little idea about five years ago or at least didn’t fully grasp from my earlier experience.

  1. Competition is broader and deeper than I could have ever imagined. While it might seem like writing is similar to the biblical voice crying in the wilderness, it is actually closer to whispering on a busy city street at rush hour and wondering why no one stops to pay attention. Once you get this concept, the platform issue takes on greater importance and is not some random requirement intended to keep you away from publishing a book.
  2. Categories of books are wider than I thought. Most things that authors believe make their book different from something previously published are not significant enough differences to publishers or readers. What this means is that while you think you have something unique, publishers consider it part of a broad category and judge the publishability of it based on the success of the big category. (This points back to the competition issue as well.)
  3. Commercially successful authors work really, really hard to achieve the success and continue to work hard for a very long time. The required relentless effort is not for everyone.
  4. Most aspiring authors do not attend writers conferences or read agency blogs, learn how to do proper proposals and handle various issues along the way to publication. What this means is agents and publishers are swamped with poorly constructed proposals, manuscripts that have not been through a crucible of critique and aspiring authors who have little idea of how things actually work. Kudos to you who are not in that group.
  5. There is a difference between being published and being published well. Anyone can be published; fewer authors are published well. Author impatience and/or unwillingness to submit to professional input is often the difference.
  6. Creativity is often a casualty when an author is in a hurry. The very thing that captures the heart and mind of a reader is a well-crafted story, told with a captivating style and a bit of creative flair. Many authors simply tell stories as a list of events or explain something in a manner that lacks creative spark. Creativity and style cannot be bottled, but we sure know it when we see it. Writing well takes time.

I hope everyone reading this agency blog will continue to learn and grow. None of us ever truly “arrive,” whether it be professionally, in personal growth or in our relationship with the Father who adopted us into his family.

May we all have enough humility to admit we need to continually learn about this profession, ourselves and our God and the grace to allow others time and space to do the same.

Peace.

 

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