On Writers and Agents
As a former long-time literary agent and as a writer, I've
seen this vital relationship from both sides of the desk. Here,
in Q and A form, are a few suggestions on the acquisition, care
and feeding of the North American Literary Agent.
Q: Is it necessary to have an agent in order to sell your
Depends what sort of book you're writing and to whom you want to
sell it. Scholarly works or those of interest to only a small,
specific readership may be sold to university presses, which
accept submissions directly from writers. Agents are interested
only in commercial properties, books they can sell to publishers
and publishers to the general public. When agents first came
along, they were fiercely resisted by publishers, who preferred
to work and negotiate directly with authors. But that
relationship has evolved, and publishers have come to value
agents as sieves, without whom they would be inundated with
unsuitable material. In the U.S., most of the big commercial
publishers will no longer accept unagented submissions, so if you
consider your work to have serious commercial potential, your
quest to be published should begin with a quest to find a
literary agent to represent you.
Q: How do writers go about finding literary
If you have friends who are writers or work in the publishing
industry, ask if they would be willing to recommend some agents.
Nothing gets agents' attention more than a referral from a client
or publishing professional---but it's got to be real, because
they will certainly check!
Use books and the internet. Invest in a guidebook. I like GUIDE
TO LITERARY AGENTS, published by Writers Books, which lists not
only contact information but also the agents' preferred genres
and submission guidelines. Sign up for Publishers Lunch (the free
version) on the internet, and read it daily. Start reading the
magazine Publishers Weekly, especially their rights and new deals
columns. Look for agents who are selling fiction, particularly
for new writers. Keep an eye out for agents who have just left
their old agencies to start one of their own - they're usually
hungry for clients. Are there fiction writers you particularly
admire? You can find out who their agents are (often the writers
thank them in the acknowledgments, or look up the writer in WHO'S
WHO OF AMERICAN WRITERS) and put those agents on your list. Use
some of the many excellent websites designed to help writers find
agents. (See my list of Resources for Writers.) Then check the
agents' own websites for more information.
Go to writers' conferences and sign up for meetings with
One way or another, you should come up with a list of at least 30
names and a reason why you want to submit to each. Make sure you
check them all on the excellent Preditors and Editors website,
http://anotherealm.com/prededitors/. Stick with agents who belong
to the literary agents professional society, AAR, whose members
must adhere to a strict code of ethics. (New agents may not yet
be members, since they need to sell a certain number of books to
join, but they should undertake voluntarily to adhere to those
standards.) Anyone can call himself an agent, and there's a lot
of sharks in them thar waters.
Write a great query letter (See Query Letters that Work), check
what material each agent prefers to receive with query, and start
submitting. Don't forget to enclose an SASE (self-addressed
stamped envelope) with your queries. Keep five or six submissions
going at all times. If you receive rejections, send out a new
submission the same day.
Q: What sort of things can an author reasonably expect
from one's literary agent?
A literary agent is the writer's business representative. The
agent's primary responsibilities are to find an appropriate
publisher for the writer's work, to negotiate the best possible
deal for the writer with that publisher, to examine and if
necessary make changes in contracts, and to follow through by
representing the writer's interests during the entire publishing
process. In many cases the agent retains and sells, through
various subagents, subsidiary rights to the writer's work,
including movie and foreign rights. The agent can also help by
educating the writer about the realities of the publishing
Literary agents make their living through commissions, usually
15% of the writer's income. This means that their financial
well-being hinges on that of their clients, which is as it should
be. Agents who demand "reading fees" or offer to edit your work
for a fee are considered unethical and should be shunned. For
more on this topic, see this post on my blog,
In Cold Ink.
Q: What are some DOs and DON'Ts in the author/agent
DON'T expect services outside the agent's scope. Sometimes
friction in agent/writer relationships arises from the writer's
misunderstanding the limits of the agent's job. A literary agent
is not a publicity agent. There are publicity agents for hire (at
rates far beyond what most writers can afford) and most
publishing houses have their own staff of publicists. Nor is the
agent a psychologist, social worker, marriage counselor or
banker, which leads us to no-no
DON'T ask your agent to "advance" you money. That's the
publisher's role, not the agent's.
DON'T negotiate or discuss terms with your editor. That is the
DON'T be unrealistic. Agents aren't magicians, and they have no
magic wands. They can't cast spells on editors to make them love
your work. They can't control the ups and downs of the market.
While they can and should advocate for your book during the
entire publishing process, they don't control crucial
print runs and promotional budgets.
DO respect your agent's greatest asset: his time. Keep emails and
phone conversations short, infrequent and businesslike.
Personally, I'd worry about an agent who had time for long, cozy
chats on the phone. If you have larger issues to discuss, set up
a meeting, either face-to-face or by phone.
DO deal openly and honestly with your agent. If issues arise,
address them; don't let them fester.
DO expect the same openness and honesty from your agent. Busy
agents can be hard to reach, but writers should expect to have
their phone calls and emails returned in a timely fashion. Your
agent should keep you informed of submissions and responses and
should share editors' comments with you if you desire.
For more info on the etiquette of author--agent relationship, see
this post on my
Q: What is the process an agent goes through when
submitting an author's manuscript to publishers, and how much
input can/should an author have in that process?
Depends on the agent. Some will make editorial suggestions to the
writer before submitting the work, to ensure that they're going
out with the strongest possible manuscript. Others do no editing;
they accept or decline a manuscript based on their ability to
sell it as is. Once the book is ready to submit, the agent draws
up a list of editors who he feels would be interested in the work
and begins to contact the editors on the list. If he feels
strongly that the book is a perfect fit for a particular editor
or house, he may give that editor an early, exclusive look and
the opportunity to make a preemptive bid. More often, the agent
may decide to make multiple submissions.
Once the agent has an offer in hand, he conveys it to the writer
and they discuss their response. The agent will also contact any
other editors who are considering the book. Often the news that
one publishing house has made an offer can induce others to
follow suit. In the best of all possible cases, several offers
come in and the agent is in a position to auction the book to the
highest and/or best bidder. Without the leverage of additional
offers, the agent must negotiate from a weaker position.
If the writer has any thoughts or suggestions on where the book
should go, he should by all means share these with the agent. But
the writer should also recognize the agent's expertise in dealing
with the various publishing houses.
Q: What's the relationship/process during contract
negotiations among agent, publisher, author?
This a period of high anxiety for writers, and it can last for
weeks. Sometimes writers have exaggerated ideas about the terms
they're likely to get for their work, but the more common
scenario is that the writer, in his eagerness to be published,
will settle for less than the publisher is actually willing to
Smart writers keep their heads down during contract negotiations
and let their agents earn their commissions.
I hope these notes are helpful. If you have other questions about
either the business or the craft of writing, drop me a line and
I'll try to address them here. You can also check out my blog,
In Cold Ink, and use
the Category widget on the right to find posts on whatever
publishing topics interest you.