On average, how many clients does an agent have? And is it hard to manage all of your authors/current projects and sift through the queries you receive? I imagine that you would have to work 24/7 or risk falling behind/drowning in your work!
The answer to this isn’t as easy to give as a number, because an agent that’s two or three years into building their list (like myself) is going to have a considerably different number of clients than an agent who is ten or twenty years into their list.
But – if the question is asked slightly differently – “How many active clients does an agent usually have?” then it’s a little easier to answer. At any one time, an average agent that’s been building their list over 4 – 5 years or more might have between 30 and 40 active clients. (But who those active clients are could/will change over time.)
Right now, at two years into building my list at BookEnds, I have sixteen clients. But even then, it’s not uncommon to not hear from one of my clients for a bit when they’re writing their next novel or working on revisions for something under contract. If their work-in-progress is going well, if their books that have been published are being shepherded well by their publisher, if they’re busy marketing their published work, if we’re on the same page with their next career steps, and/or everything in general is going well, then an agent doesn’t need to be as heavily involved at that particular moment.
As an agent’s list grows though, it’s also not uncommon for some clients to either take a break from writing, to be working on a more time-intensive WIP where perhaps you don’t hear from them much (if at all) for several years, or to have a client dealing with some personal issues that puts a hold on when and what they can write, etc. But unless the author-agency agreement is terminated, these are still an agent’s clients. They’re just inactive. And when they’re ready to come back (again, assuming that the agreement is still in effect) then they would just re-establish contact with their agent.
Another thing that changes as an agent’s list grows, is that an agent (hopefully!) has a list of clients that are more established with their publishers. So instead of selling their projects based on a whole manuscript, perhaps you’re able to sell on proposal – or with an open contract based on their prior sales record and relationship with the publisher. And while you’re shepherding a client in this more established place in their career, it also gives you a little more room to help build a debut by doing the editorial work, etc. that your more established clients no longer need from you.
Now, am I still working on evenings and weekends to keep up (or perhaps more accurately, not be as behind) with client and submission reading? Of course! Most of us are, no matter the size of our list.
And while it is frustrating to be told that agents and editors do nothing but eat biscuits all day and that’s why we don’t respond to queries (true story) – the truth is that we have to juggle the needs of our clients first, but those needs for any individual client are also changing over time, which is what makes room for new clients on our list. Because the other truth about being an agent is, sometimes the books you love don’t sell. Sometimes the market shifts and suddenly you have a number of authors that write in a genre that isn’t selling as well, and you have to figure out how to get them through that market change. Sometimes one of your more established authors are suddenly no longer able to write or sell, for whatever reason. So just because an agent might have 30 to 40 active clients at any one point in time, doesn’t mean that they can rest on their laurels.
There are no guarantees in publishing, but I guess what I would say to a debut author is to not count yourself out from somebody that’s already got a great list of books. While – yes – a newer agent will have more room on their list, the truth is we’re all always looking for our next great project!