I am driving my teen-aged son home from school (it is a luxury I afford him because it's an 8 minute car ride and 45 minutes by bus, and it's one of the perks of working from home) and my son asks me the above question. I'm kind of shocked, because he has seen me work since he was a toddler (I used to have the office in the home with my business partner, and one day my son picked up his Playschool phone and said, "Lori Perkins, Lori Perkins.")
I love my job. I think everyone I know knows that I love what I do. It's a really great way for me to combine the skills that I've learned over the years - as an editor, sales person and a business woman. And the best thing about being an agent is that I have no boss (other than the marketplace) telling me what kind of books I have to take on.
And I get to work from home and work with the coolest people in the universe. We are all book fiends, whether we're writers, agents or editors, so we love the same things.
So I was surprised to have my son ask me this question, but then he followed it up by saying, "well, no one wants to be a literary agent when they grow up" (he wants to build robots and has been doing that since he was in 5th grade, so I think he was wondering about his own career path). I told him that when I was his age, I wanted to write, which I have done, quite successfully - I've published four books, edited two fiction anthologies and probably published 2000 articles, and been paid for all of them. I was the publisher of my own newspaper in Manhattan. But the real problem with writing is that I can't guarantee that I'll consistently make the income that I make as an agent as a writer.
And then I told him that I don't believe in the starving writer mythology. I believe that writers should either make enough to live a middle class life from their work, or do it part-time for the fun, and not the money. So when I write, I write for fun and the money goes for the extras.
And then he said, "Well, you don't write and you're not the editor, so what do you really do?" and I tried to explain how I manage a writer's career and get the work ready for an editor to buy it. And he said, "Well, then, you're the middle man." and I said, "yes, that why my blog's called agentinthemiddle," and he laughed. But I was really glad that I was able to explain it all to him in a way that really made sense to him.