If you have a particular knack for drawing pretty pictures, you might become a manga creator. If, on the other hand, you have a particular knack for writing coherent sentences, you might become an editor. Or you might become someone like me, a freelancer grinding along on the periphery of the manga industry. All three of these streams should by this point be well known, and I have noted of late the emergence of people with whom I have much in common in them.
However, there is a fourth career "stream," and it is one that I have not yet seen anyone my age attempt to tap: that of the literary agent.
(Dear Editor Friends, please do not kill me.)
In book publishing, the push-pull between editors and agents is legendary, and nowadays it's safe to say that it's the agents who ultimately have the most control over what gets published and why, not the publishing companies. Once upon a time, the relationship between author and editor was an intimate one of support and mentorship, and publishers provided authors with contracts that authors signed more or less without question. Agents, when they were utilized at all back then, worked more like author's assistants, keeping track of all those little book-keeping details that busy artists can't be bothered with. But then one day one ambitious agent who has since become legendary in the field had an idea: He--and not the publisher--would be the one to draw up the contract. And ever since, agents have become the proverbial gatekeepers of talent, and publishers have become profoundly dependent upon their expertise. (Many will not even consider unagented submissions.) Not to mention each others' rivals. Agents routinely pit publishers against one another in order to secure the best deals for their author clients.
Comics publishing a la Marvel and DC does not work like book publishing. This is not my area of expertise, and I'm sure there are people who can explain the system in more detail. But suffice it to say that, as a creator for Marvel, you are doing work for hire, and you do not, as say Stephen King does, hold the copyright to your work.
Where, then, "manga"? It's widely accepted, especially among comics people, that the advent of manga has moved comics publishing closer to book publishing and that all of the issues that affect and afflict book publishing are becoming issues for comics publishing as well. This, to my mind, will include the power of the literary agent in the field. Note the future tense. I say "will" because it hasn't happened yet. Yes, there are a handful of select agents working in the graphic novel field, and some have already begun pitting US manga publishers against each other. But there are entire subgenres of manga--BL is the most notable example--that are still emerging categories with a large potential market, and for which there are no agents whatsoever (at least as far as I can tell) with sufficient expertise. If you're an aspiring BL artist here in the States, you're going to have lots of trouble getting published under terms favorable to you--and if you're picky, you won't be published at all.
Naturally, manga publishers do not want to go the way of book publishers in respect to this dependence upon literary agents and its accompanying loss of revenue, and most of the them (most famously TOKYOPOP) have not yet. After all, there is serious money to be had in franchising. Batman floppies in the comic book stores don't make DC money; it's the feature films, the action figures, the mountains of branded merchandise that keeps them in business. But thanks to the agent, book publishers do not have this profit engine. Don't for a moment think that, just because Random House published, say, Ian McEwan's Atonement, that they're the ones who made the most money off of the critically acclaimed film adaptation Atonement (movie tie-in editions aside).
But I'm not convinced that manga publishers are going to be able to hold the line indefinitely. We already have two of the biggest US book publishing conglomerates Random House and Hachette USA competing in the manga field, and important book publishers from Penguin to Scholastic, desperate for profits and new markets wherever they are to be found, want to get into graphic novels and "manga" too...and you can bet that they won't be doing it by licensing titles from Japan. In fact, they're probably going to go about publishing manga like they publish prose...or as close to it as they possibly can. And this is liable to mean an institutionalized reliance upon agents. Nobody likes to change, and these powerful companies are not going to learn new ways if they don't have to. If they decide to set the rules, chances are even mighty VIZ Media, ever the conservative company, is going to play by them.
So, as the so-called battle for talent ratchets up with more competitors entering the field looking to publish every conceivable sort of comics content, I think you will start seeing more literary agents who specialize in manga--and ones who are interested in shopping not just safe comics for kids, but stuff like BL and josei as well. So if you're a young man or woman (especially woman) who wants to break into the manga biz, look seriously at a career as an agent! The field is wide open! Granted, it's a high-pressure job for "people people" with broad competitive streaks, but the hours are flexible, and it can be quite lucrative. More so than being an editor, which is why editors often reinvent themselves as agents.
And, yes, in case you were wondering...I'm being selfish here: I want to see more agents in the manga field, not because I want to see my editor friends annoyed (an unfortunate outcome) or because I want to see my creator friends making tons of money (a fortunate one), but first and foremost because I'm a reader who loves manga. And I know that a functional manga industry, not a dysfunctional one, is more likely to give me the best of what I love.