The (Mutual) Care and Feeding of Authors and Agents

Aside from “Where do you get your ideas?” questions about agents and a writer’s relationship with same are amongst the ones most frequently asked of pro and newly-pro authors who are lucky enough to actually HAVE one.

There are plenty of things that are bandied about out there. You might hear, “Hey, the agent works for YOU – what they do benefits you, and they get paid out of your slice of the pie, technically they are your employee” – and then in the very next sentence you will hear, “The agent is GOD, you are so lucky to have one, don’t do anything to get them mad at you, worship them, bribe them, sweet-talk them, do whatever it takes to keep them.”

As usual, the truth is… somewhat less dramatic. The truth is this: you and your agent are partners in a joint enterprise. The agent is the face that the partnership shows the world; the writer is the heart of the relationship, the spirit that moves it. Without a writer to represent the profession of literary-agenting loses the reason for its very existence; without an agent, a writer aiming for a career… well… will find it a lot more difficult (not wholly IMPOSSIBLE, but a *lot* more difficult) to grab a hold of one. No, you as the writer don’t have to worship at the agent’s altar – and the agent will not play the obsequious employee to your lord and master, either. But balance this relationship properly, and, together, this team can be a formidable force.

The getting of an agent can be a long and frustrating experience. These days many if not most of the bigger publishers won’t even look at unagented manuscripts so you won’t even darken the door of a Harper Collins without the password that an agent will provide – and while the big publishers are by no means the only game in town (not any more, not in the day and age of the flourishing small press, especially where genre is concerned) they are mostly the places where the big bucks are. If anyone is going to shell out a five or six figure advance for your novel, it’s these guys – the smaller presses with good reputations will get you plenty of prestige, a stellar reputation of your own, and quite probably better publicity and promotion than you might expect from an overworked publicity rep at a publishing conglomerate – but if you get the same sort of money from these folks, it will be a trickle that comes in over months and more likely years, and your bills will not be considerate enough to wait for that to happen. An agent will get paid by taking a percentage – usually 15% – of the advance against royalties that is offered you – and although it might sound a lot, a high-five-figure-advance minus the agent’s 15% cut is still probably twice or three times what you could expect to get, agentless, from ANY kind pf publisher at all. With foreign deals – translations and such – an agent will negotiate the complicated foreign contracts (usually by having sub-agents on the ground in various countries) and the agent’s fee goes up to 20%, half to the primary agent and half to the subsidiary one, and this might sound even worse on the face of it – but do take a moment to consider the fact that these kinds of sales hardly ever even happen without an agent’s involvement in the matter. If your alternative to getting four-fifths of an advance to getting no advance at all because no deal was ever made, you start doing the maths pretty quickly. A good agent pays their own way, and they have a vested interest in getting you a good deal because the more you get… do the maths again… the more THEY get. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve just chalked up my thirteenth foreign-language edition in five years. Without my agent, this would have been a pipedream.

A good agent is a pearl beyond price. I think of mine as my friend, as someone who believes in what I do and who is willing to go in and bat for me in the editorial halls of power where I not only cannot go, but have no influence to speak of. She does – she is a reputable agent with good contacts and name recognition, and she regularly phones me up and we have update chats about where my career is now and where it’s headed. She’s my guide through the publishing jungles. In return, I sent her flowers for our fifth anniversary together, and I’ll send her things like my photographic calendars at Christmas (last year she got Alaska, this year she’s getting the one from Japan). We have a relationship that has shaken down into a comfortable one where we know our roles and are what is expected of us each by and from the other. She expects me to keep producing material she can offer to publishers. I expect her to continue to do this to our mutual benefit. I expect updates and news at reasonable intervals, I do not expect to be phoned and indulged with weekly recorded messages about the current status of every project and I don’t expect her to respond to everything I send her or ask her within the hour or even within the same day – I know that she has other clients besides myself, and that her time is shared between us all. I don’t get antsy when I don’t hear from the agency for three weeks or a month. Things are in motion. When there is something to tell me, they will tell me. WIth the advent of email and the instant gratification that it provides, there seems to be a prevalence of heightened expectations – that an agent is somehow obliged to respond to an author’s email far more quickly than that same agent would have been given as a reasonable time interval when we were still doing snail-mail – but the nature of the business hasn’t changed, just the speed of communication, and it’s unreasonable to expect an agent who spends his or her waking hours working on contracts and meeting with editors to respond to every author’s email as soon as (s)he receives it. Publishing, as a friend of mine once put it, is very much a “hurry up and wait” business – I, as an author, am very much aware of how frustrating that wait can be, but no amount of expectation or entitlement on the part of the author obliges an agent to do the equivalent of balancing on a circus ball while juggling five contracts, four editors, three foreign sales, two overlapping lunch meetings, and an annoyed author yapping for attention all at the same time.

So, then. Here’s the basics.


1) Repeat after me, there are no short cuts. There are no secret passwords. There are no secrets at all. An agent is won by the act of having written something that that agent thinks that (s)he can sell. So, before you even think about casting your fishing lure out there – especially if you are a beginner just starting out – write the best damn thing you know how to write. And FINISH it before you do anything else. The agent needs to know, needs to be able to convince an editor, that you are a finisher. You’d be surprised how many people start a wonderful novel which then… somehow… gets eaten by life and living and never quite gets done. So. First things first. Write. Finish what you have written.

2) KNOW what you have written. Know your genre, your field. Know whether you’ve just rehashed an old idea in an unoriginal way. To achieve this, the other thing you need to do often and on a regular basis is READ.

Yes, I know. So far this has nothing to do with the getting of an agent. But bear with me -

3)FIND OUT WHICH AGENTS REPRESENT WHAT YOU WRITE. You dramatically decrease your chances of finding an agent if your approach is scattershot and you just send everything out to everyone and hope for the best. Make a list – find out who represents your favourite writers, go to Literary Market Place (your library will have one) and look up agencies and what they are interested in. Make a list of people you can address by name in a cover letter. Letters that don’t get addressed to real people get read by interns in the mailroom and seldom make it to the agent’s desk at all and if they do they are bottom of the pile. Which brings us to

4)WRITE A KILLER QUERY. This is where it gets hard. You will find a jillion websites and magazine articles telling you how to write a query. Some of them might contradict one another. That’s okay, we’re in the real world now, there is no One True Way. In the end, write the kind of query that will catch the eye of the agent you want to represent you – don’t be cute, be professional, be honest, be proud of what you have done. Send these queries out to a number of people. You may have heard mutterings about simultaneous submissions being a no-n0, but mutlple queries are not sim subs. This is just fine to do. With your query, send in a sample of your work which is compatible with the guidelines that you have found in your agent research. With a bit of luck, you will get a nibble from one or possibly more agents.

5)Some agents might ask for an exclusive – i.e. a period in which they and nobody else is looking at a full requested MS. As I said, you will find plenty of etiquette guidelines everywhere – but as far as I am concerned you are perfectly within your rights to grant such an exclusive for a limited time, if other agents are also interested in the project. Always be open with your dealings. Tell agent A that you have also queried agent B, and that you have received requests from both, and that you are happy to grant agent A an exclusive reading period because they asked first but that you would like a response within a reasonable time. Tell agent B that agent A is having a limited exclusive, and that you will be in touch again the moment you hear a verdict (and then do that, even if it’s just to tell agent B that you have your representation and are withdrawing your MS from their consideration).

If this doesn’t happen instantly, rinse and repeat. As many times as it takes. As many times as necessary for success.

In the meantime, don’t sit back and wait with folded hands. Agents and publishers are looking for careers these days, not single books. Start on your next one while you’re waiting for word on the MS-in-submission. It’ll keep you busy, it’ll keep you from fretting, and you’ll have something new to show to your agent once you get one.

So, let’s say everything goes well and you get one.


1) Remember that your agent isn’t representing just you. Don’t be inconsiderate with your demands, with requests for prompter repsonse times, with daily phone calls asking about the status of your project.

2) This is a relationship based on mutual respect. You respect the agent’s business acumen and the ability to sell your work. THe agent respects your ability to produce the kind of thing that makes an editor sit up and take notice. You complement one another. Be kind to each other. Allow leeway for communications and build in a little wiggle room for deadlines if you have to. If you absolutely cannot meet a deadline through force of outside circumstance, that isn’t a firing offense – remember that your agent is your ally in a tricky situation.

If there is one thing to remember in all this it’s this – you need each other. This is a relationship based on trust and on mutual understanding, and on respect. You each have something the other needs. Be as generous with that thing as you can be, because your agent is your friend, but also don’t forget that you are business partners who each have to pull their own weight or the relationship will collapse. WIth proper care and feeding a partnership like this can last for many happy productive years.

Filed under For Novelists, learning to write, the business of writing. You can also use to trackback.

There are 4 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Marcella Glenn

    I had two agents that just wanted money, in my opinion.
    I searched for a publisher on my own, found one. My
    novel, Grave Street House, is for sale at thedigitalword.

  2. 2. Kelly McCullough

    Very smart post, Alma. I linked it from Wyrdsmiths.

  3. 3. David Louis Edelman

    I second Kelly. Great post. One thing that I think needs to be added to the “getting an agent” section is, Make sure you keep an eye on the “Preditors and Editors” website for scam agents who are just out to bleed you dry through upfront editing fees. I got approached by one of them and almost fell for it.


  1. More About Agents at SF Novelists

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.



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