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.
- 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.
- A plan. He or she should have some idea of editors who might like your work.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Payments from publishers should be passed through promptly, after agents deduct their commission.
- 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.
- 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?