I talked to some literary agents last week about how they do business. I'm afraid I wasted a good chunk of time talking about how I do business, but that's par for the course when I'm let out of the house. The idea was to garner some general impressions of the literary agency scene these days, as it's been five years since I last worked with an agent, and have no need for one as a self publisher. Remember, there's a big difference between a real literary agent and a scam artist.
One of the agents I spoke to was an independent who owned her own agency and had about twenty years of experience in the field. The years speak to her success. I suspect most independent agents at any given time are ex-trade editors who try it for a year while collecting unemployment and give up with a filing cabinet full of manuscripts and no sales. From talking with her, I think her success is largely due to her representing books that intrigue her as a reader, rather than chasing publishers with titles she hopes can make a lot of money. I like that approach because I don't swing for the fences myself. While I don't think she spends a lot of time on statistical analysis, it sounded like she gets about 20 queries a day by e-mail and requests a follow-up proposal from perhaps one of them.
The other agent worked for one of the big literary agencies in NYC that have a hand in movies and other entertainment areas as well. Given their overhead, it sounded like they weren't really interested in representing deals that didn't promise an advance where their cut would come to several thousand dollars, which would put you in the $50K area for book deals. The only publishers who can pay that kind of advance for fiction are the biggest trades (or well financed wanna-be's). Since the whole point of hiring an agent is to have a publishing insider pitching for you, it does make sense that the agent will be pitching to a limited number of presses where personal relationships are in place. The way she expressed this was something like, "If I called a publisher who didn't know and respect the agency I work for, it wouldn't do the author any good."
I also spoke with a well published fiction author who had been with the same agency for over a dozen titles. She cherished the agent relationship for insulating her from the business side of publishing, which can be dark and contentious. More power to her, but that's not a position most aspiring authors can afford to take. I should also note that there was a bit of selective memory at work with many of the more successful writers who lectured at the conference. Writers who have figured out how to make a living writing often forget how that first book deal or contract with a literary agency came about and attribute their success to the quality and intelligence of their writing. While hard work and talent play a part, a little memory mining often brings admissions of luck and personal relationships to the surface.
The worst advice anybody can give a writer is that they go into isolation and perfect their craft before trying to get published. Most first novels are pretty bad, but agents and editors will advocate for titles that mesh with their personal world view. So if you're wondering why you can't interest an agent or an acquisitions editor at a literary press with your novel, remember that they are human beings, and personal preference rules. And remember they are mainly women, as are mass-market fiction readers.