A literary agent is the liaison between writers and commercial publishing houses. We shape manuscripts, pitch them to publishers, negotiate deals, and take a percentage of the sale as commission. In the course of my work as an agent, I do the amount of legal work a typical, non-lawyer agent would do: contract review and negotiation. If it gets more complicated, such as trademark registration or film deals, I will not risk giving legal advice without an engagement letter, and usually I will refer my writers to a colleague.
In turn, I have separate legal clients with whom I engage through my firm, whose matters range from review of publishing agreements (agreements usually obtained without any agency representation, thus the need for a lawyer’s eyes), copyright issues, option/purchase agreements for literary properties, trademark questions, libel and privacy prepublication reviews, and other general intellectual property-based work.
When the two roles diverge, it can be daunting. Each amounts to a profession in which, to be successful, you have to throw yourself 100 percent into networking, business development, industry knowledge, and, yes, the actual work. Instead, I’m splitting this into two largely exclusive parts. The publishing industry is based in New York, so when I’m selling books as an agent, I frequently travel down the East Coast to meet with editors. And my law firm itself is quite small, so there’s a degree of client cultivation that’s necessary, which takes me away from both billable hours and the agency work.
Sometimes, when I’m behind in reading manuscripts, I wonder if devoting my entire focus to being an agent would be more efficient. And sometimes, when I feel less-than-attentive to legal clients, I wonder if I am short-changing them. There are not many people who have a job set up similar to mine, and I do not have a network of mentors who can guide me through this world I’ve created.
Where the roles intersect is rewarding, both personally and professionally. However, I take the opportunity to cross market my skills when I am meeting with editors. I give them both of my business cards and casually let them know that I can always help with things like copyright emergencies. I also work with well-established people who pass along referrals for legal work from the literary world. There are not a lot of people who understand as well as I do the legal issues facing writers and editors. When doing legal work for writers or editors, I hope that they are comforted by knowing that someone from the industry is on their side.