Literary Agent Tells All: 6 Things You Shouldn’t Expect From Your Agent

Literary Agent Tells All: 6 Things You Shouldn’t Expect From Your Agent

Many writers dream of signing with an agent, imagining it’s the first step on the road to becoming the next J.K. Rowling, with multi-book deals, film adaptations and a green light on any future writing projects.

While most agents are great at their jobs, sometimes writers build up unrealistic expectations for an agent’s work. Literary agents aren’t magicians; we hate to admit it, but there are some limitations to what we can do.

Since we’ve already reviewed what you can expect from your literary agent, here’s what not to expect.

1. Constant contact

Yes, in the age of smartphones, we’re never really unplugged. And as an agent, I’m connected in many ways: Twitter, my blog, LinkedIn, Facebook and more. However, all agents have personal rules about how we communicate with our clients and how often. Just because we tweet at 9 p.m. on a Friday, doesn’t mean we’re going to respond to your email at that time.

For my clients that have day jobs or live in other time zones, I make myself available during “off” times. However, you can’t expect that treatment every time, from every agent.

2. Editorial advice

Not all agents are expert editors or choose to spend their time as an agent doing rounds of edits. It’s no secret that many agents polish client manuscripts, but not all agents call themselves “editorial agents” and work through draft after draft.

If that’s something you’re looking for, make sure to ask this question when an agent offers you representation.

3. That they’ll put up with being micromanaged

There’s a high level of trust involved in an agent-author relationship — on both sides. Authors have to trust that their agent is doing their best, and agents have to let authors write. Don’t micromanage your agent by telling them how to do their job. Sign with an agent you trust and respect from the start.

Often I’ll consult with my authors on social media best practices, how to engage professionally with their editor, and what to expect from their relationships with their editor, publicist, and other partners in the process. However, I leave the writing to the writers — that’s their job, and they’re best suited to decide how to do it.

4. That they will love everything you write

This is a hard one to swallow: writers can’t expect that agents will love everything they write. Sometimes it’s a concept that isn’t working. Sometimes it’s a whole draft.

Be prepared that it will be a collaborative relationship. An agent’s job isn’t to pat you on the back and tell you you’re wonderful. An agent’s job is to manage your career to the best of their abilities. We’re on your side.

[bctt tweet=”Your agent won’t love everything you write. @carlywatters explains why.”]

So when we say that a concept or project isn’t working, it’s not to crush your dreams. It’s to help you get to the BIG idea that is going to take flight and make a splash in this crazy, competitive industry.

5. That they will sell everything you write

To some this might be a surprise: agents don’t sell everything they pitch to editors. Even the best of the best have to shelve projects sometimes.

It’s our job to explore all options, share editors’ feedback and consult on what the next steps should be. We don’t always sell debut novels, and we might go back and ask our client to write another one. We’re not magicians and we can’t make every experience a perfect one, but we use our judgment based on years of experience to steer things in the right direction, whatever that direction is: to a deal, or back to the drawing board.

6. That they’ll help you finish your book

We can’t make something out of a partial concept — unless it’s a nonfiction project, but that’s a whole other story. Novels have to be complete, and they have to compel us to sign them and get editors excited about them too.

Many writers think that once they get an agent, life will be easy. Unfortunately, signing with an agent is only one part of the puzzle. We aren’t going to save you, fix your writing or finish your book. We’re here to help professional writers get book deals. Once you get an agent, that’s when the work begins!

Have you worked with an agent? Was it what you expected?

Traveler and blogger Chris Guillebeau

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8 comments

  • Carly:
    Thank you for the information. I believe that having been a business person, I don’t expect too much from an agent. Probably the thing I would want most from an agent would be brutal honesty and advice. I certainly don’t have an ego to stroke, I came up from the very bottom in NYC, so I know how hard people work.

  • Carly:
    I have been using QueryTracker to send Query Letters to prospective agents. There is a whole gamut of them, from the ones that are very busy and tell you a time by which you should consider it a no (understandable), the ones that are very nice and respond with an actual email (rare), to one or two that were outright combative (not understandable).
    I think that landing an agent is hard, it depends on so many parameters, but probably the hardest part is finding the right agent. When I send a QL sometimes I wonder how I could find out it the agent is the right fit for me.

  • carlos says:

    Thank you Carly. After been reading on several forums, groups and website, I realize that, we as writers, often have unrealistic expectations of the process, because we all see as we were already selling tons of books (which would be great) Its good to know what we can expect from you. By the way, what is what you like the most, fiction or non fiction?
    😉

  • Very sensible and important to keep in mind so that I can enter an agent/client partnership with rational expectations.

  • You wrote: Not all agents call themselves “editorial agents”… Make sure to ask this question…

    Funny you should mention this. Not too long ago I asked an agent this question and he pretty much told me that I can assume that all agents are editorial (to some extent) because they want their writers to put out their best. He made me feel as if I asked a dumb question. It’s good to know that there are others who still feel its an important question to ask. Maybe I should reword the question to “how involved are you in the editorial process.”

  • Thank you for taking the time to help us understand an agent’s job. After 30+ years of writing creative fiction as a professional Realtor, it appears a literary agent does a job similar to my old profession. I most appreciated number 3, having suffered through one or two such types in my career. It is also very helpful to know that we need to ask about editorial involvement prior to working with an agent. Sincere thanks!

  • Saul says:

    Great tips! I’m going to go out on a limb and say that #6 is going to change in the near future. For many writers, trying to hold down a job and make a living while writing a book is near impossible. Having the backing of an agent or editor during that process could make all the difference between finishing or not finishing it.

    As alternative publication models arise (such as Inkshares or Patreon, which crowdfund from readers as a way to support the writer throughout the process), agents and publishers may have to “vouch” for an unpublished author and support them during the writing process, rather than lose material to the crowdfunding model.

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