10 Things Writers Should Expect From Literary Agents

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Gone—long gone—are the days when writers finished their manuscripts, wrapped them in brown paper and mailed them to Mr. Doubleday or Mr. Lippincott. These days, major publishers rely on literary agents to prescreen manuscripts, and most won’t accept direct submissions from writers. That means that the first step for writers who seek mainstream publication is to seek an agent. As seasoned query hounds know, this is not as easy as opening the Yellow Pages; in fact, it’s often the hardest part of the publishing process. There are, at any given time, a few hundred agencies with the ability to get books looked at by these publishers. Last year, some 250,000 books were published in the U.S., as well as another 650,000 or so that were self-published, which gives you an idea of the number of aspiring writers out there.

You do the math. With so much demand, it’s no wonder aspiring writers obsess over the best way to catch a literary agent. The internet is full of advice for doing this, including my own articles and blog posts. But there’s precious little said on what to expect once you’ve snared the elusive beast—specifically, what to expect from it.  In the heat of the search, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the agent-writer relationship is a two-sided, mutually dependent relationship. As someone’s who has worked on both sides of the street, I thought it might be useful to assemble a little list of what writers can expect from their agents.

  1. Enthusiasm for your book. If they don’t love it, they won’t have the fortitude to stick with it even if it doesn’t sell immediately. This enthusiasm should be accompanied by a realistic appraisal of the book’s prospects. In general, part of the agent’s job is educating the writer about how the industry works.
  2. A plan. He or she should have some idea of editors who might like your work.
  3. Commitment. If a book doesn’t sell in the first round of submission, the agent should have a back-up plan. If she’s received some “close but no cigar” responses with useful feedback from the editors who declined the book, or if she has some editorial suggestions of her own, the agent and writer might want to consider a revision before making additional submissions. Otherwise, the agent should send the book out to additional publishers. How long to keep going can be a point of friction between writer and agent, as top agent Gail Hochman explains in this frank interview. Writers often want to keep going long past the point of no return, and naturally so; they have a lot more skin in their books. But at the least, those first few rounds of submission should cover a substantial number of publishers. Agents who conclude on the basis of a mere handful of rejections that the book is not worth submitting further do their clients a great disservice.
  4. Execution. I knew an agent once who took on a writer with no clear idea of how to sell her. The ms. sat gathering dust on his shelf for a full year while he deliberated. This is inexcusable. Once an agent accepts your book, and you have a “final” version ready for submission, he needs to send it out.
  5. Communication. Writers have the right to know to whom their work has been submitted; if the agent doesn’t offer this information, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask. Writers also have the right to be kept informed of the results of those submissions, including, if they choose to see them, copies of the rejection notes.
  6. Contract negotiation and vetting. This is one of the most important functions of agents. Publishing contracts are long and complicated, and good agents are experts in them. Their job is to negotiate on your behalf, obtain the best terms possible, and then vet the contracts thoroughly.
  7. Sub Rights. The agent is responsible for submitting the book to whatever subsidiary markets (film, translation, etc.) they’ve reserved on behalf of the writer, and the writer has the right to know what the agent is doing in that regard and to offer input, while bearing in mind the agent’s expertise.
  8. Payments from publishers should be passed through promptly, after agents deduct their commission.
  9. Advocate. The agent should continue to act as the writer’s advocate throughout the publishing process, staying involved in all phases of the process. A great deal of friction between writer and editor can be avoided by funneling questions and concerns through the agent, who can act as a sounding board and let the writer know what’s realistic and what’s not. If there is a real problem, the agent has more clout and in-house contacts than the writer.
  10. Career guidance. Some writers want it, others just want to be left alone to write what they want to write. Either way, the agent should be the first person to whom the writer turns for education and advice about the publishing business. To this end, there needs to be good communication between them. Writers need to respect the agents’ time—the good ones are always harried, and calling them just to chat about the state of publishing or personal matters is not considerate behavior.  But they also need to feel free to address professional concerns with their agents, and to be confident of getting a timely, thoughtful response.

Notice what I did not include on this list: editorial feedback. Some agents give extensive notes, in an effort to get the work into the best possible shape before submitting. Others accept only work that is already polished and salable, and leave the editing to editors. I’ve had agents from both camps. Neither approach is right or wrong; each agent decides according to his or her strengths and time limitations.

Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from agents as well as writers. Do you agree, disagree? What have I omitted?

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
This entry was posted in Literary Agent Search, Mainstream publishing, Submitting and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to 10 Things Writers Should Expect From Literary Agents

  1. StoryG27 says:

    Barbara, thank you for all this great info! All writers getting ready to query should read this.

  2. Linda G. says:

    Great list, Barbara! It’s good to go in with realistic expectations of the writer/agent relationship, and to remember, no matter how friendly, it IS primarily a business relationship.

  3. This is very timely for me. A NY agent (well respected but not on my top ten list) tracked me down last week and asked to see the first three chapters of my novel. So, I hurried up and posted a video about myself as a writer on YouTube so that she would have some context and be able see me as a spokesperson for my work. I forgot that YouTube automatically posts to Facebook so 50 or so of my friends also saw and commented on the video; one of them sent the video to her agent and lo and behold, a different NY agent contacted me the next day and asked to see my work. I responded to Agent #2 and said I’d be happy to send him initial chapters at the same time I sent them to Agent #1. He seemed really miffed and said I should close out with the other agent before talking with him. I was surprised since he contacted me. Was it a bad move to say that I’d send them both work at the same time? I look at your list above and see the Guidance bullet. Barbara, would you weigh in here?

    • Glad to weigh in, Cynthia, though I’m no longer an agent. I do find the second agent’s attitude a bit surprising. Maybe he was just annoyed that someone else was quicker than he is.

      You were honest in your response, if a bit more forthcoming than you needed to be. I might tell an agent that someone else is reading a full ms., just to give him a heads up that he should read quickly if he thinks he might be interested. But I wouldn’t bother telling one agent about another’s request for a few chapters–it’s not relevant and may feel like pressure.

      Still, you did nothing wrong, and I suspect that if the second agent was miffed, it’s because he wasn’t first. Anyway–it’s a good problem to have, one agent waiting in the wings while another reads. Good luck–do let me know how it works out.

  4. deniz says:

    Very comprehensive list, Barbara! I just want an agent…

  5. Thanks, Barbara. I see my misstep now; I didn’t need to volunteer more info than necessary 🙂 It did give me a little window into Agent #2 and his patience level! One more question if you don’t mind: neither of these agents are on “my” top ten list. If the first agent wants to read the whole mss, do I just get rolling and send my queries to the top ten and hope one of them bites?

    • Cynthia, I would definitely recommend that you keep submitting, right up until the moment that some agent slips a ring on your finger.

      • Lisa Cunningham says:

        Good advice, Barbara. Since we writers often are clueless about business negotiations, having an agent you can trust is vital. It’s a good idea to shop around, just as you would for a best friend or husband. Until the contract is signed, a writer should consider herself a free agent.

  6. Ella Quinn says:

    Great post, Barbara. Getting an agent is only the first step. The really hard part, at least for me, has been waiting to hear from the editors. Though I guess I shouldn’t complain. There have been a lot of rejections.

    • Hi Ella. I sympathize, having been there. Any day now you might have good news; I hope so. Still, writing is (as you already know) a profession replete with rejection, and rejection leaves scars. But hey, it beats cutting yourself.

  7. jasmine says:

    Great information, thank you for this nice post.

    Book Publishing Agencies

  8. renemarie says:

    Hi Barbara,
    This is so tricky! Thanks for your attentive and caring cyber-demeanor. You are very approachable and warm.
    Re: what to expect from an agent: Help!
    I signed with a literary agent who has yet to read my feminist manuscript, but believes he can sell it. He has a ‘day job’ and does the agent thing on the side. When he emailed the full MS to 10 majors, it seems he did not include any ‘hard sell’ or cover letter; just a line in the body of the email that read: ‘extraordinary work from a new author.’ He sends me cc’s of the responses (about 4 so far) but other than that we don’t communicate. I don’t know how to proceed since our six month contract/commitment is up in a week or so. What say you?

    • Hi Renemarie,

      I think you know what I’d say based on my post. He hasn’t read your book, but he’s still sure he can sell it? Then he sends it out blindly with no cover letter and (apparently) no relationship with the editor in question?

      I’ll be restrained and just say that it doesn’t sound like he’s doing you much good. Luckily, you’re only committed for a little longer. Good luck!

      Barbara

      • renemarie says:

        Thank you Barbara. Your candor is appreciated (albeit restrained.) I don’t know how you figured out that he didn’t have a “relationship” with the editors in question; he actually did send the MS to the wrong genre. Your experience has ‘called it’ and I needed to hear it. THANKS.

        • You’re welcome. No agent is better than an ineffective one, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed you find the right one. Just be careful who you approach–they should be members of AAR or, if not yet eligible, subscribe to their guidelines.

  9. renemarie says:

    One more question: Must I wait before I actively query new agents until the termination date of our agreement/contract?

  10. I too enjoyed the opportunity to see just what to expect when I receive that call. I do expect too because I write good books!
    regards,
    James M. Copeland

  11. Barbara:
    It’s been another month and no acceptance yet! I read and reread all the post and your answers to questions concerning agents and editors. I even learned something new. I have a question. When you know full well that you have good reading books written that have been corrected many times for punctuation and spelling, then, the next time read out loud to find any misinformation or wrong-headed lines how do you propel this to someone in the agent field? Bad question, I know. I’m not a new writer, I’ve been writing since 1991. These last 8 years I have written and rewritten 14 manuscripts from crime mystery to love story. I even have a series on journalism as well as a stand alone book on a journalist who was retiring and his subsequent downfall and rise to perfection. These aren’t small potatoes, their all novel length real good reading books.
    Sorry to cry on your beach towel, but I’m getting exasperated!
    I follow you all the time on LinkedIn.
    Regards,
    James M. Copeland

    • Hi James,

      At a certain point you cut your losses and make a decision: stick the books in a drawer or self-publish. I think there are advantages to trade publishing for writers who have a choice. But if you’ve done a smart agent search, geared to agents who work in your genre, and tried a bunch and gotten no joy, then it’s good to have that option. Self-publishing works best, as far as I can tell, for genre writers whose work is well-edited and professionally designed, and who have a large body of work, so readers who like one can immediately order others. It sounds as if you have that body of work, so self-publishing is something to consider, if you’re willing to undertake it and do so with reasonable expectations. I wish you success whichever road you take!

  12. Kathryn S. says:

    Hi, hope I’m not too late to ask a question. I signed with an agent almost a year ago. At the time I’d completed three MS in the erotic romance category. She had read the second and asked if I had any others. It was my just finished third MS she fell in love with. She had two editor friends (not working in that genre, but fans of it) read it and their reviews were overwhelmingly positive, only suggesting a minor tweak to the opening scene. My agent went to New York in May and pitched it there, with the MS ending up in the hands of six editors. I communicated with my agent around August and she said she still hadn’t heard back, but would give them a nudge if she hadn’t heard anything by the end of that month. I also knew she was heading to Frankfurt in October to pitch it to UK editors. At the end of October I e-mailed her to tell her I had completed my fourth MS and would she like to read it. Absolutely, she said and I sent it along. I have heard nothing since. I e-mailed her asking if she had an update regarding the submissions of the third MS (I wouldn’t presume to think she’s had the time to read my new MS yet), and, after ten days, I have heard nothing.

    Is this unusual? I should point out that she has been very good at responding to my e-mails in the past. I don’t want to be a pest, but I would like to know what’s going on as I am new to this process.

    Thanks for your time!

    • Kathryn, One of the things agents owe their clients is good communication. Your agent should be prepared to share information upon request—as long as you’re not requesting it every 3 days, which you’re clearly not. If she offered the books back in May and doesn’t have a response yet, either they’ve been rejected and she hasn’t passed that along (or hasn’t followed up herself and thus doesn’t know) or they haven’t yet been read. I know agents who don’t follow up assiduously until and unless they get an offer, in which case they contact all the other publishers considering that book and give them a chance to bid.

      I’m assuming the agent is legit and experienced, a member of the AAR, and that you checked her out on all the usual sites (“Writers Beware,” “Absolute Write”) before signing. If not, would advise you to do that immediately, because anyone can call himself an agent.

      You sent her the new ms. at the end of October. I’d give it another week or two, time to recover from the holiday’s disruption, and then write to her asking for her thoughts on the new book and an account of who’s seen the old one and how they responded. If she ignores that too, well, then you’ve got an agent problem. But my guess is that she’s just overworked and overwhelmed.

      Good luck!

      • Kathryn S. says:

        Thank you so much for your insight. She is definitely legit, was a literary assistant at a reputable Toronto agency where she first read my MS. She left that agency to become an agent at another reputable Toronto agency, where she contacted me to offer me representation (the first agency liked my work, but weren’t prepared to offer representation as they rarely deal with romance).

        I’m hoping a lot of this is due to her lack of experience, but I will follow your suggestions. Thank you!

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