Working With a Literary Agent: 6 Things You Shouldn’t Expect Them To Do

Working With a Literary Agent: 6 Things You Shouldn’t Expect Them To Do

There’s a lot of things that agents do: sell books, edit, negotiate, offer advice and consultation. However, there are a lot of things that don’t fall within our purview. We hope to help guide you on your career path and offer suggestions when to consult other experts (lawyers, accountants etc).

While most agents handle a wide range of support to their clients sometimes writers build up unrealistic expectations for an agent’s range of 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, Instagram, and email in the palm of my hand. 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. I do this on a triage system. Most things in publishing can wait until Monday at 9am.

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 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.

When I’m editing with a client I tell them: “My background is an agent, not an editor. I will edit this to the point where I think it is saleable and then we’ll need an editor to take over.” I want every project to be in the best shape possible and I will work through 1-3 rounds with a client to get it there, but I am agent first, always.

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.

I’ll always consult with my authors on social media best practices, how to engage professionally with their editor, marketing goals, and what to expect from their relationships with their editor, publicist, and other partners in the process. Bring up any issues and we’ll work through them, but the minutia of the job is best left to the expert: the agent—that’s why you hired us.

I’m always, always here to have conversations about your vision for your career; I want to hear your goals and dreams. However, remember that I will be doing lots of work behind the scenes at all times so just because you don’t hear from me doesn’t mean I’m not working hard for you.

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 and we want what’s best for you in the moment and long term.

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. We can’t control the industry. We can only control what we represent.

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?

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Photo via Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock 


  • Karen says:

    Wondering if there ought to be another level of professionals who could help match writers and agents so that this tricky, grueling and potentially disappointing process were easier on the vulnerable creative? Having just finished writing my first picture book (I’m over 60) I don’t know if I will have the stamina to go through what it takes to do this piece. I’d rather be writing and illustrating! I have seen websites and blog posts about various agents but couldn’t there be a simpler system that maximizes everyone’s time?

  • Chris MAHON says:

    Carly, I already have a book fuly edited and available. It has been favourably reviewed and the reviews are part of the text. I have full copyright. I need help marketing it.can you help.

  • Why is it so hard for unpublished writers to get a break tried writing competitions and the conditions of entry seem to be only published writers can enter seems like a closed shop

  • Hope says:

    Hi! So, this might be a dumb question; I’m not entirely sure.

    I’m a high school writer with pretty low funds. I’ve never published before. I’m in the process of editing my manuscript for the second time in order to make it as interesting and accurate to my vision for it as possible. I had one editor in the past, but I could only afford her beta reading option.

    If I bring my manuscript to an agent, and they say I need an editor, what can I do if I can’t necessarily pay for one? Would this be something that was decided before they accepted my manuscript? On the submission guides I’ve seen, I’ve never seen any notes about how editing once they have my manuscript works.

  • Kim Marie says:

    Hi Carly,

    Interesting article. I have a question about published authors getting agents. I have had 13 non fiction books commercially published through a small press that is part of a major publishing house. On a new book project that I am working on, I have a PBS station interested in seeing a TV pilot as well as someone who has worked on major cooking shows, interested in working with me.

    I am past the point of just wanting an agent….I now need an agent. The negotiations, presentations, etc., are getting a bit beyond my expertise, and I don’t think I’m doing myself any favors by pretending I’m handling it all fine.

    I would like to see if I can get other interest besides PBS, to make sure I have the right fit for the show as well as look at other publishers, as this companion book doesn’t fit into the genre of the publisher of my other books. And an agent can sort through all of that better than I can, as well as negotiate better than I, because I’m beginning to feel like I’m flying blind with all of this.

    So, my question, do I just throw in the towel on an agent and do the best I can on my own, even though I don’t know my way around a lot of these areas and fear I will really short change myself, or keep trying and hope I can find an agent before I have to try to tackle any negotiations myself?


  • Hi Carly, you just described everything I do for my clients who are all gear writers. Yet I don’t have any formal education in this field. Myself , I have been published many times in 4 genres, and I train other writers to be successfully published. When I had business cards made I was told I would have to use writer’s consultant . My question is is there a certificate or degree I need to add this title to my bizz cards

  • I enjoyed the article, Carly.
    So much is written about how to land an agent or what an agent can do for you and why do you need one. Not so much about what an agent cannot do for you. Quite an eye-opener.
    I will guess most of these rules also apply also to other types of agent-client relationships like a sport’s agent, musical, film, modeling agent, etc.
    Excellent article!

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.”

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

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

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