Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 11, 2014

What Should an Author Expect from an Agent?

SusanSpann_WITS Susan Spann

Mismanaged (or mismatched) expectations are a fundamental cause of problems in the author-agent relationship. Authors can  often avoid many problems—before and after signing with a literary agent—by establishing realistic expectations about the author-agent relationship.

Step 1: Know What Agents Do … and Do Not Do.

 A literary agent can wear many different “hats” and fill many roles in an author’s world. Some of the common ones include:

- Line editing client manuscripts (essentially, doing the job a private editor might do).

- Pitching manuscripts to publishers, and negotiating contract offers.

- Consulting with authors about new ideas, series development.

- Discussing short term and/or long-term plans for the author’s writing career.

- Marketing advice (but not usually helping with the marketing itself).

- Helping promote the author’s work on the agent’s social media feeds.

- Acting as an intermediary between the author and publisher, allowing the author to be the “good cop” in the relationship.

- Selling foreign, translation, and other subsidiary rights, either directly or through sub-agents.

Not all agents fill all of these roles. Some prefer to send clients to outside editors for manuscript help. Some agents don’t have active social media feeds. (For example, my agent monitors social media to ensure her clients are active there, but doesn’t engage social media on her own.)

All agents should review the client’s manuscript, pitch and negotiate deals with publishers, and act as an intermediary between the author and his or her editor on some level (some do more of this, and some do less). Beyond that, agents’ preferences vary. They may do some of these things, or all of them, or even additional things not listed here.

 Step 2: Know What You Want YOUR Agent To Do

Consider the list above, and other business-related tasks you want your agent to do for you. Do you want an editorial agent? A contract specialist? Someone who’s active on social media?

Beware the temptation to say “I want it all” without more thought. Think about how you want to run your publishing business (remember: a writing career is a business) and how an agent fits into that business plan.

 Step 3: Find an Agent Who Matches Your Expectations

 This is the part where “doing your research” matters. After you know what you want from your agent, you need to focus on finding an agent who matches your expectations.

Authors often can’t determine whether or not an agent matches the “expectation needs list” before an agent offers representation. That’s okay! “The call” is a perfect time to talk about expectations—the agent’s, as well as yours.

Obviously, authors are limited to selecting from the agents who actually offer representation. That’s why it’s so important to do as much up-front research as possible. If you don’t like the way an agent does business, or think it’s not a good match for you, it doesn’t matter how “famous” or talented the agent is…you have the right to pass. On the other hand, you should query every agent you think might match your expectations (again, regardless of status), in order to maximize your chances of finding the right one.

Step 4: There is No Magical Ring That Rules the Publishing World—Which Means Your Agent Doesn’t Have One, Either.

 No matter how well an agent matches the author’s list of expectations, it’s important for authors to remember that no one can guarantee a publishing contract or a place on the bestseller list. Sometimes agents try to sell a manuscript, but it doesn’t work. Sometimes books don’t sell as well as anyone hoped or expected.

It isn’t necessarily the agent’s fault if your book won’t sell. That’s an expectation authors need to manage, too.

On the other hand, if your agent isn’t living up to expectations, an author has a right to consider a change. Just make sure, when you make that decision, you make it on the basis of an objective, honest evaluation—what has the agent done and not done, in comparison to industry standards—and not on the basis of emotion or subjectively unreasonable expectations.

Ultimately, managing expectations in publishing works a little like herding cats or nailing Jell-o to a tree: you can (and should) try to keep them in check, but nobody does it perfectly, and no matter what you do it’s going to be messy sometimes. Still, it’s worth the effort. The more you know about publishing, and treat the business side as a business, the more likely you are to transform your writing dream into a successful publishing career.

What do you expect your agent to do for you? Was there anything on the “agent job” list that you hadn’t considered before?


 BladeCoverSusan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014. Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website, http://www.SusanSpann.com, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).


21 comments on “What Should an Author Expect from an Agent?”

  1. Thanks, Susan. I didn't realize that some agents did some of these jobs, like editing. . I primarily think of agents as connections to the big publishing houses, which don't accept direct author submissions. I have no experience with agents, so forgive me if this is a stupid question.
    Can an author have input with an agent as far as which publisher to sell to? In other words, I don't want to have a contract with an agent who will then pitch my work to the small indie ebook publishers. I have already sold work to them. But I need an agent for submitting my work to one of the big houses. Do you think specifying which publishers an agent should pitch to is a problem?

    1. Hi Brenda!

      A lot of authors don't realize how much more an agent can do for a career, in addition to pitching and selling completed novels.

      There's absolutely no problem offering input to your agent as far as which houses, or types of houses to pitch. Some agents are more open to this than others, but most of them want you to be involved and interested in the process. When you get "the call" one of the questions or topics to bring up is the fact that you're interested in pursuing the larger houses, and whether the agent has a similar vision for your career. That's the kind of career decision most agents appreciate you having considered, and which you definitely want to make sure to discuss to ensure you have a match.

      As far as specifying specific publishers or editors - the agent usually needs to have some freedom to find a match, but it's definitely an area where many agents are open to the author's input. (It's all about the way you present things, like everything else.) You're definitely OK talking about which publishers you absolutely don't want to publish with, however - and the agent may have a list like that as well.

  2. Susan, like your books, your posts here are always stellar. In the muddle of submissions, it's often difficult to hone in on what we want in an agent. We tend to just want one and not think past that one desire.

    I could live without line edits since I have a good friend and reader who does that. I might not be too excited about an agent being hip on social networking ... since that is one area where I will need to pump up the volume myself.

    No, there are no magical rings and yes, sometimes this process is exactly like nailing jello to a tree ... but what I keep getting from you and a few others is that this business of publishing is a business. That is the hardest for me. I was in business, and I have no delusions about what it takes to make something work ... but it is hard to separate myself from the emotional attachment of the work to the practical cerebral side of getting it done. Thanks as always for giving us a reality check 🙂

    1. Thank you so much!

      The big takeaway is definitely that publishing is a business, and that smart authors remember to separate the emotion from the business side as much as humanly possible. With practice, you'll get better at it with time.

      The key is that you're keeping it in mind and thinking through the issues now, which will prepare you to deal with the issues when it becomes essential.

  3. Susan, excellent post. When I was in the submission wars, I didn't consider this - in fact, most aspiring authors don't have a choice in the matter. After all, we're not the one accepting the 'ring' in this relationship. We offer, but the power is in the agent's hands. And if the agent who chooses you isn't your 'type', it can be painful. I know more than one author who felt that pain.

    I was very lucky. I wanted a business partner - not an editor or a hand-holder (though my agent has talked me off the ledge a couple of times). That's exactly what my agent is to me.

    But even if you don't have a lot of say in this matter, it's a good idea to ask yourself what you want in an agent - that way you'll know if the one who offers is 'the one'.

    1. I'm very similar in my relationship with my agent, Laura - she's a solid business partner, with great career input, who shares my dedication to the industry and to building a career that benefits us both.

      I actually agree with you that authors often don't have a lot of choice in some ways - because the agent has to offer representation -- and that since the author does get a lot of choice in the decision who to pitch and query, it's important to think things through and do the homework up front, so that the ultimate choice is made from people the author at least believes will make a good match!

  4. What I would hope for in an agent: Be a good negotiator, have real connections and a strong reputation in the business, and be a client advocate/career adviser. Be active in doing what you say you are going to do for me.

    What I would offer in return: Met deadlines, openness to ideas and suggestions, professionalism, and an understanding that this is a business arrangement and that publishing is about making money and moving units.

  5. I think this is a great post! I've had the same agent for over 20 years, and I feel so blessed--his most important role is to be honest with me about my work. His second most important role is to get my work out to editors who would be a good "fit" both for my books and for ME. Meanwhile, I agree with Eric, that we must meet our obligations, too, to always be professional, open to critiques, and understanding that nobody really can predict what the publishing journey will be like.

    1. I'm looking forward to the day I can say I've had my agent for 20 years. That seems like a wonderful milestone, and a testament to the strength of the business partnership you've developed.

      It's so true that a professional demeanor is critical to success in this industry - from interacting with readers, to the relationship with the agent (and editors, and everyone else) - we get a lot farther with a professional outlook and attitude.

  6. I'm selling my house and just realized how much agents are like realtors good and bad. Realtors will put your house on sale but some want to sell it to the first offer even it's low-ball because they just plain want a sale under their belts. Others who know their business better, will negotiate the best deals and that may mean passing on offers. Now that market is more competitive. A good realtor will tell you how to pretty up your home to make it appealing to buyers and literary agents can do the same in their own way. 🙂 Agents know authors have many choices and I appreciate that they are more willing to actually help an author's career these days. Authors may be offering the ring but these days we don't have to depend on that offer and that's good. Sort of evens things out. 🙂

    1. This is a great analogy, Sharla. Just as homeowners benefit more from an experienced realtor's help and guidance, authors need an experienced professional to maximize the success of a publishing career. Especially now that one size no longer fits all authors and projects, it's important to have an experienced, flexible agent in your corner.

  7. Nailing jello to a tree - what a wonderful image! As someone who has yet to start the submission process I love posts like these. They provide real insight into the "world" I'm about to enter.
    I hadn't thought about an agent being their to advice on future projects, or works in progress. The agent knows the market, they know what might sell best in the short-term future. It all makes sense to me!

    1. Thanks Casey, I'm glad this was helpful (and that you liked the image too - it's long been one of my favorite metaphors for futility). A lot of authors don't have a clear picture of all the things agents do before signing with one, and I know how helpful it can be to make decisions with more information rather than less!

  8. Finding an agent that matches your expectations can be the toughest of the above. What they've done before with others isn't always an indicator, finding someone to talk about their experience isn't always possible; past success isn't necessarily an indication of what will happen this year or for you or in spite of a spin down into depression on their part, etc. Also, from one year to another how an agent operates can even change. I have had several agents representing different types of books, career and single book contracts... I found each one is different and the most important question for my sanity has become, are they ethical. Thanks Susan for your always wise words.

    1. So true, Karen - and you make a really important point. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to find an agent who is not only successful, but ethical and honest also. Success is important, but it's no substitute for honesty - and without an honest, ethical agent, the author will always have trouble in the end.

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