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How do agents stay on task?

Someone asked me this question at a writing conference earlier this year and it struck me as odd. I mean how do any of us stay on task? I guess it might be easier if you're working for a corporation and have set KPIs that you have to attain, or you have a job where you have a list of things you have to do every day.


Literary agents I guess are a little different, since our jobs only exist for, and because of, our clients. To break it down even further, my job is to keep my clients happy. Maybe not happy, especially when I have to tell them that another editor has passed on their project, but I have to prove to them that I'm doing the work.


I've heard a lot of different strategies from agents on how they make sure they're staying on task. From corkboards that list all of their clients to keeping a running list of each client and what project they have or where they are in the process of writing a book. I'm personally not a huge fan of either of these, as they feel a little cold--almost like it takes the humanity out of the job.


I make lots and lots of checklists, personally. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I've got weekly to-do lists on top of daily ones, which help keep me on track to know what big important things I need to do each week. These change all of the time, depending on what's needed when. So if a client calls me two days before their manuscript needs to be delivered, I'm likely going to drop everything to read and get notes back to them.


It also means staying on top of longer term projects can be difficult. It's tough to reign myself in some days and just do the work. This tends to be the case with reading manuscripts and queries for a lot of agents, myself included. There's a lot of stuff to do if you're a literary agent, and unfortunately, reading tends to get pushed to the side because it doesn't have the same required response time.


To put this another way, if I have to negotiate a contract, that's an immediate return of my time. If one of my clients sends me a proposal that's almost done, I can push it that last little bit to get it ready to go on submission. Those are easier places for me to justify putting my time, as opposed to a query from someone I've never met and I have no way of knowing if it's going to be worthwhile. That can be doubly true for manuscripts I've requested, since there are a heck of a lot more words to read and analyze.


As my client list has grown, it's been important to me to talk to my clients and see how they want to operate with me. I know that I take more of a backseat role once a client's book has been sold to a publisher, and I try and make this clear to my clients as well; I want my clients to create relationships with their editors without me. That's a key relationship. I like to be kept in the loop, especially so I can jump in and help my clients if something comes up, but that's not always the case.


I sometimes look at my full client list to see if I've neglected someone or something specifically. To help myself with this, I also leave emails in my inbox if there's an actionable step required of me. I figured it's yet another safeguard to keep myself accountable.


There's no one answer here, and my ad-hoc methods aren't perfect either; in fact, I had a client email me today reminding me of something I had to do that I let slip for a couple of days.


I guess I'm just trying to figure it out like the rest of us.


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