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The top 5 skills a literary agent needs

This is a guest post by Rory Scarfe. Rory spent several years as a non-fiction publisher before becoming a literary agent, where he has worked with a range of authors across fiction and non-fiction. Here he lists his tip 5 skills  that an agent needs.

This list is highly subjective. It reflects what I have learned and the skills that I want to continue developing (among countless others). We operate in a fast-changing business but these are the top skills that, to me, will remain at the core of being a good agent.

1) Expectation management

This doesn’t mean setting your sights low. Yes, in part, it’s about protecting your client from disappointment but it’s also about stressing the uniquely wonderful things that publishing can offer. To take a well-worn, but true, example; a Premiership footballer on £100k p/week won’t see much commercial incentive in writing a memoir, yet the magic of publishing a book could be very real and persuasive. We need always to remember the specialness of our industry.

2) An eye for detail

I have to make an admission: as a publisher I was sometimes guilty of overlooking the finer details of a deal (to be absolutely honest, after the excitement of winning a book it could feel boring and secondary). As an agent, that sort of thinking will get you shot, and rightly so. Those details can equate to a substantial difference in an author’s prospects and are as integral to the deal as the top-line figure. When it comes to deal-making, eternal vigilance is the order of the day.

3) Boldness

Remarkable people write remarkable books all the time and if you don’t send that letter you’ll never know. Enthusiasm can be infectious. You just might be the one who persuades that legendary figure to dust off their typewriter and rock the publishing world. There’s nothing to be lost by asking, so leave your shame at the door. The same goes for deal-making: sometimes you have to trust your gut and believe your author can do better, even if that means being prepared to walk away.

4) Resilience

Publishing, for all concerned, is a business of ups and downs and as an agent your job is to play both the cheerleader and schoolmaster. When the publisher’s attention slips (God forbid), or when an author despairs, you have to be there to crack the whip and rally the crowd. As an agent, you seek always to pitch somewhere between approachability and firm-ness. No-one wants to work with an a**hole, but nor does it benefit an author to have a puppy dog in their corner.

5) A collaborative spirit

You hear stories of semi-mythical ‘glory days’ of agenting, when an author earning out meant only that their agent had failed to get them a suitably whopping advance. Of course, today, the object is always to secure your author the best possible compensation, but we’re also playing the longer game. Will a publisher follow through on their promises? Do they have the vision to work with your client to build that author’s career? These are the pressing questions that can unlock the best kind of success.

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