Publishing Advice: 6 Things to Expect from Your Literary Agent

Publishing Advice: 6 Things to Expect from Your Literary Agent

The idea of working with a literary agent is always appealing to debut writers, but what exactly does an agent do?

And if, after pitching and querying, you do manage to sign with one, what can you expect from this professional relationship?

As a literary agent, I’d love to demystify this process for the authors out there. Here’s what you can expect from your literary agent.

1. Honest industry feedback

An agent’s job is to be the voice of the industry for a writer. We explain what the market looks like for a genre, what editors are looking for, what’s happening on the business side of things with acquisitions and mergers and what all of it means to you, the writer.

We can’t always tell you what you want to hear, but we’ll tell you the truth, straight from the trenches.

[bctt tweet=”Literary agents can’t always tell you what you want to hear.”]

2. Timely responses

Agents usually have a lot of clients on their rosters at any given time, but you should always expect a timely response. If your request isn’t urgent, they should get back to you within a week or so. If it is urgent, your agent should get back to you within 24-48 hours.

Each agent has a different communication preference, whether it’s phone or email, so know what that is and work together to connect in a way that’s best for you both.

3. Contract negotiation

An established agent is considered a publishing contracts expert. It’s our job to know the ropes about contracts with each publishing house and be able to negotiate them well for the author.

When you buy a car, you have to know what the deal points are and where you can negotiate, right? Same with books! Agents know exactly what all those deal points are and where we can maximize our clients’ potential for revenue.

4. Attempt to sell subsidiary rights

I love talking about subsidiary rights. Sub rights cover audiobooks, translations, adaptations to film and TV, dramatic stage performances, and merchandising like toys. Writers don’t have do much more work to benefit from these other channels of income.

Agents licence sub rights for our clients as often as we sell domestic print rights. Once a print deal is in place, agents start to reach out to all our sub rights contacts and build excitement in other areas. We aren’t able to get all sub rights for all clients, but we always try.

5. Royalty vetting

When royalty statements come in, usually twice a year from traditional publishers, agents read them all very carefully — with a calculator handy — to make sure our clients are getting all the money they are entitled to.

6. Prompt payments

It takes seven to 10 days for most checks to clear, and money in the foreign market takes forever to be sent, but as a general rule, once your agent gets the check for your work they should disburse it within 30 days.

Now that you know what to expect from your agent, stay tuned for the flip side: 6 Things You Shouldn’t Expect From Your Literary Agent.

Have you worked with an agent before? What else do you expect from your partnership?

Traveler and blogger Chris Guillebeau

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16 comments

  • I recently read a post about “the day in the life of an editor” and the writer mentioned a manuscript she was trying to acquire that was “pre-empted.” What does that mean? That someone else bought it?

    • Pre empt means that an agent submitted the book project to a number of editors, but one editor jumped the gun to present an offer that was substantial so the agent would pull it off the table and accept, as not to entertain any other offers.

  • Thanks for sharing your advice, Carly! It’s great to have an explanation of an agent’s role straight from the source.

  • Robin Botie says:

    Thank you. 6 good reasons why I want an agent on my side. Cheers!

  • Gwen says:

    I have always heard that no agent wants to touch you unless you have a project being considered for a movie and that no movie house will talk to you without an agent. A catch 22. Is this right?

    • Hi Gwen,

      No that’s not true.

      I think you need to find more reliable sources of information.

      If I was a writer I would get my information from places like agent’s blogs, PW.org, Publishers Weekly, Query Tracker, and Publisher Marketplace.

      If you query an agent with your book, the good projects to rise to the top. I read every query that is sent to us. Agents are on the lookout for great, exciting, fresh voices.

      Literary agent’s first responsibility is to the book. Sub rights (like film and the above mentioned other categories) come next after that.

      Carly

  • I have published a half dozen high quality books that I never tried to send to a publisher because I was misdirected by the self-publishing guru Dan Pointer that self-publishing can work. What a mistake!
    I now have thousands of books that I don’t know how to move. I don’t care whether I make any money if I can just move them. (They are on my website)
    How could an agent help me? Could I send a number of books to an agent, the titles or the manuscripts? I do not want to put any more money up front, but an agent is free to keep whatever money he, or she, is able to make from them.

    • I would use that experience as a platform and query an agent with a new project. That way, if your work takes off an agent can then help you with your backlist.

  • Carly:
    Now I found the one where it shows what agents can do. Thank you again for your sage advice.
    One question I have is whether being self-published, and with low numbers would predispose the agent not to accept the QL.
    I haven’t tried self publishing because I am afraid it may be a trap. I had one contact me, they were hanging the bait, but I did not feel my novel was ready, and also they never, never asked to see the manuscript.

  • Anne B. Cole says:

    Hi Carly!
    Great advice! I read both lists:)
    I am a new author and have published my first Mature Young Adult/New Adult romantic suspense novel, Souls Entwined, through a small press. I also have an unpublished Children’s picture book that has received interest from another small press publisher. With this sudden interest, I have started a search of potential literary agents and found you.
    My question is…do you consider accepting multi-genre authors?
    Thanks!
    Anne

  • Joe Prevost says:

    Through an on-line company called Bookcountry I have recently registered a novel as an eBook. It is not working out very well, and I wonder if I should now look for a literary agent?

    • Hmm, I think it depends on what you mean by “not working out very well” and what support you’d like from an agent. Can you share more information?

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

      • J.C. O'Brien says:

        I too listed an eBook with Book country, and it didn’t pan out very well. For one thing, they listed the wrong web address on the book stubs, and they still haven’t corrected it.

  • Hi Carly,
    Love your site!! So helpful! What is the BEST way, in your opinion, to find the most appropriate agent for one’s specific work? Thank you.

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