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?
Susan 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).
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