One of the commenters on this post talked about why s/he had progressed through several Australian agents - the implication being that Australian agents are unprofessional - and now had a US agent.
S/he said, 'What I do want is my emails replied to, say, within a week. And my mss read within two months. I want my agent to have some kind of idea when he/she should be following things up with my publisher (option clauses etc.) and actually give a rats about selling my rights on elsewhere when they become available.' And then went on to say that her US agent could do all those things brilliantly.
So I thought I'd clear up a little something about why agents in one territory may be behaving differently than those in another. The reason is money. Advances in Australia are smaller than those in the US, as a rule, simply because the volume of books sold here is smaller. With fiction, not drastically smaller for first novels, but significantly smaller for the successful authors. And the same is true for non-fiction. Australian agents are therefore not working with the same amount of cash per author, on average. So we have to take on more authors than our US/UK counterparts in order to pay the bills. And that means less time for each client overall. We are also less likely to be able to afford to have assistants or admin help of some kind. Less likely to have a slick office with the latest computer and database.
Australian agents usually also don't have the luxury of being able to specialise. In the US it's not uncommon for agents to specialise even down to one genre of fiction (e.g. romance). If we tried that in Australia we'd need to have a trust fund. It means that Australian agents are probably better versed about the whole market - fiction, non-fiction and children's - but, again, it means that our attention is somewhat scattered.
There's also the simple fact that most of our day-to-day job is taken up by administration, when admin is usually not what we're good at. We're good at finding stories that publishers want to publish, we may be good at giving our authors editorial feedback, we're good at understanding how the publishing game works. I think it's safe to say we didn't go into agenting to do administration. Yet because of the aforementioned cash squeeze, admin is what we spend a lot of the day doing. And, unfortunately, it's what most authors notice most - the email answered days late, the manuscript read late because of the time taken up in admin. Any deal that's done, any support that's given, could vanish in the haze of why-didn't-you-answer-the-three-emails-I-sent-two-days-ago. [Note to commenter: yes, I'm being hyperbolic, but I'm trying to illustrate an extreme case, not the usual case. And it's Friday and I'm excessively tired, so I am barely restraining my snark.]
Agents also spend a lot of time talking to publishers - again, work that is invisible to authors - and these days many of us spend time trying to keep on top of what's changing in the industry, specifically in digital publishing. Two years ago we spent a fair bit of time on the Productivity Commission business. Again, this work is invisible to our clients - until such time as we can use it to help them, and that time is still coming in respect of digital publishing.
As far as I can tell, yes, US agents will do a better job of answering the emails quickly and following up the clauses, because even if they're working on their own they tend to have fewer clients, and if they have fewer clients and have admin help, they are freed up considerably. Even having someone to send out your post and write letters can help enormously.
Given that this sounds a bit like whinging, I shall anticipate the question, 'Why are you an agent then?' I'm an agent because I get up every day believing in stories and authors and publishers, and every day I hope that I'll be able to get through the admin more efficiently and read the client manuscripts I need to, and then maybe at the end of the week I'll get to submissions. It can be a frustrating game - and, as anyone in the industry can tell you, it's been a demoralising year - but I'm in it because I love reading, fundamentally, and I love what the act of reading brings to me and to the world. It just doesn't make me any faster at wading through my inbox. But it does help me find publishers for authors.