Developing a Healthy Author-Agent Relationship

Developing a Healthy Author-Agent Relationship

So, you’ve signed with a literary agent. Congratulations! If traditional publishing is your career goal, you’ve just taken a huge step forward. But that doesn’t mean your work is done—many authors get so focused on landing an agent they forget to think about what happens after they sign the contract—how they’ll work with their shiny new agent. Because, like any relationship, author/agent partnerships need tending, need to be productive and healthy—and can go wrong. So it’s paramount to not only know what a healthy author/agent relationship looks like, but also to know how to spot the danger signs that might mean you and your agent need counseling, fast.

Getting an Agent Is Only Step One

If you’ve been signed by an agent, you probably have a completed novel that’s in pretty good shape. That might lead you think that your work is done, that your agent will take over and do the rest of the work—selling your book to a publisher and catapulting you to fame and fortune. And while a book sale can certainly happen very quickly, because agents aren’t in the habit of signing books they don’t think they can sell, there’s no guarantee. Even a fantastic book that’s perfect for a specific publisher’s list can fail to sell, and the best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

For example, my agent signed me for a book called Chum. Ten years later, we finally sold that book. Ten years! To be fair, a lot happened in-between, career-wise—she sold seven other books for me—but that first book, the one that was supposed to kick everything off, took much longer than anticipated. And over the course of those ten years, my agent kept revising her strategy for Chum, and kept talking to me about it, sending over suggestions on how to potentially revise it for different markets. One time she even had one of her assistants read the book and write a report on how I could reposition the book as a Young Adult novel if I wanted to.

I didn’t, but I appreciated the input—and the creativity behind the suggestion. None of this was about trying to force me to do anything, it was about thinking outside the box. The main takeaway here is that I actually began working harder on that book (and my other books) after signing with an agent. Suddenly I wasn’t working just for myself, I wasn’t following my own schedule exclusively. And those other books that did sell? There was a lot of work to do on those as well—everything from reviewing offers and contracts with my agent’s advice, planning promotion and marketing with her, and looking ahead to my next move and the next book I wanted to try to sell.

Once you start working with an agent you begin to realize that the relationship is about more than just selling a book and cutting a check. If that was the case, agents would be one-time engagements—but they’re actually long-term relationships. They can even be for life. Which makes fostering a healthy relationship a priority—and it starts with you.

How to be a Good Author

The agent-author relationship is a two-way street. Which means you need to take your role as the author seriously. There are several absolutely crucial things you should always do in terms of your working relationship with your agent:

Clean up your manuscripts

This really should go without saying, but it’s important to remember that you and your agent are business partners. While many agents aren’t adverse to doing a little light editing and proofreading (my own agent tends to assume I am a sleepy, distracted moron in a hurry and treats my manuscripts as the incoherent ravings of a madman until proven otherwise), but not taking the time to ensure your work is clean and well-organized is rude and counterproductive.

Aside from the fact that sending anyone a messy manuscript is unprofessional, it also makes your agent’s job harder. Considering their job is to sell your work and make you money, why would you do anything that makes that more difficult?

Make your deadlines

If you tell your agent you’ll have something to them by a specific date, make sure you do that. If you have a contractually-mandated deadline (e.g., a revision is due on a specific date), make sure you hit that date. If you can’t for reasons beyond your control, communicate that as soon as you can.

Again, this should be simple professionalism and courtesy, but sometimes a friendly relationship with their agent makes authors think they can get sloppy. You can’t always rush creativity, but that doesn’t mean you can just ghost your commitments and leave your agent to field the angry phone calls (unless you’ve become incredibly successful, in which case maybe you can do that, but you still shouldn’t do that). Don’t forget that your agent is your representative, so your behavior reflects on them—and even if your agent is willing to forgive you for antics like that, publishers probably won’t.

Be respectful

Agents often have to tell us things we’d rather not hear. I can still vividly recall meeting my agent and her assistant at a bar in Manhattan, where she informed me that the sales for my new book were … underwhelming (she may have used a different, more colorful phrase). It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but instead of seeking blame or getting angry, I appreciated her honesty—and we got to work on a plan. Being a good author in the author/agent relationship means always treating your agent with respect and appreciating their efforts on your behalf even if they don’t always pan out the way you hope.

Be patient

Selling books can take time. There are examples of books that have gone from “I just hit spellcheck” to “here’s a three-book deal” in record time, of course, but that’s not always (or even often) the case. More typically, selling a book—especially by a new author—can take a long, long time. In fact, everything about a writing career takes a lot longer than you might wish. The time between having an idea for a book to seeing that book in print can be years.My agent suggested I think about the project that would eventually become Writing Without Rules in 2016—the book published two long years later.

And your agent probably has other clients, which means you’re not always going to be their #1 priority. As a result, significant time can go by when you’re not actively engaged with your agent—that doesn’t mean you never hear from them, or that they’re impossible to contact (both very bad signs). It means that the publishing industry is often “hurry up and wait”—you go full speed to deliver a revision on time, and then it takes weeks or even months to hear back from an editor. As long as you’re satisfied that your agent is doing their job and the delays aren’t due to neglect or incompetence, don’t take your frustrations out on them (though it is always fine to ask for updates and to ask questions about delays, timelines, or where your manuscript is currently sitting).

Take criticism and suggestion

Part of your agent’s role is to evaluate your work. You might think that if an agent signs you based on the manuscript you sent them, they must think the book is perfect! Sadly, the answer is: No, they probably do not. Even more surprising, sometimes, is when an editor buys your book for a surprisingly large amount of money and then sends you a disturbingly long letter detailing what’s wrong with it—but the point is, don’t be shocked if one of the first things your agent does is send a list of suggestions on how to improve your book.

And this will happen repeatedly, because everyone will have thoughts on your work. These thoughts will come through different lenses, which is where the disconnect often happens—while working on the book you were likely thinking entirely about the artistic side: Is this a good story? Are readers surprised when they’re supposed to be? Does the plot work? And your beta readers were probably similarly focused. But now your agent and potential editors are also looking at your work through a sales and marketing lens—and that can lead to significantly different feedback and notes.

You don’t have to take any of these suggestions. But to have a healthy relationship with your agent, you do have to take them seriously, think on them, and respond thoughtfully.

The agent/author relationship is a partnership, and part of your job is to be a good partner so your agent can do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

What a Good Agent Looks Like

Of course, you shouldn’t be doing all the work. As with any partnership you have every right to expect certain things from your agent as well. It’s important to remember that every agent/author relationship is different, because they involve individuals with unique styles, personalities, and professional goals, so don’t make the mistake of observing another author’s career and assuming that’s how all agent relationships should work. But there are a few universals that always apply when it comes to judging the relationship you have with your agent:

They’re available

As noted above, you’re probably not your agent’s only client. So it’s unreasonable to expect them to pay exclusive attention to you at all times. That being said, your agent should be available to you. Calls and emails should be returned in a reasonable amount of time. Questions should get answered. And when surprises pop up—like sudden opportunities, unexpected disasters—they should be on the spot ready to guide you, advise you, and protect your interests.

For example, I do a lot of freelance writing and I sell a few short stories every year, and each one of these opportunities comes with a contract. My agent is always willing to run her eye over that contract—and while she’s not a lawyer, her decades of experience means she usually catches major problems right away. I rarely wait more than a day for a response on her on these things, even though these are contracts she doesn’t receive a penny from—because a good agent only gets paid when they sell the work.

They’re in-sync

You should feel like your agent is a partner and wants similar things for you in terms of career and sales. This doesn’t mean you should never disagree with them—disagreement is part of a partnership—but you should always feel comfortable discussing things with them, and you should always feel like they understand what you want. It’s your career, after all—you should have confidence that you’re both more or less on the same page.

Relationships evolve, and so does a writer’s goals and approach. As time goes on you might drift towards different genres or career goals that don’t match up with what your agent does, in which case a voluntary and amicable parting of the ways might be in order. But while you’re working together there shouldn’t be any unwelcome surprises.

They have a plan

Crucially, your agent should have a strategy for your success. There are no guarantees it will work, of course, but there should at minimum be a coherent approach to selling your work to publishers. And just as importantly, they should execute that plan. It’s one thing to have a list of potential editors to send your book to, it’s something else to actually do that, and then follow up on those submissions—and then have a Plan B in place if the main list of editors proves disinterested. Your agent shouldn’t be making stuff up as they go, in other words.

They’re a fan

This is frequently overlooked, but your agent should actually like your writing. You shouldn’t be a cog in their success machine, you should be an artist they believe deserves more attention. Of course more practical concerns like marketability or potential sales are important—plenty of agents turn down books they absolutely love because they simply can’t figure out how they’ll sell them. But your agent should be really excited to read your new work simply because they think you’re a great writer.

For example, every time I call my agent she answers “Hello, Jeff Somers fan club, president speaking!” and I don’t hate it.

They’re knowledgeable—but unafraid to admit ignorance

Part of what you’re paying your agent for is their experience and knowledge. They should know more than you do about a broad range of subjects: The publishing industry, editors, contracts, the market and genre you hope to publish in. And you should feel confident that when you ask them questions they have smart answers for you.

At the same time, a good agent also knows when they lack knowledge—and be willing to admit that and find someone who has the information/experience you need. For my money, nothing instills confidence like an agent who says “I don’t know about that, but I know someone we can conference in to find out.” And in point of fact just knowing how to identify the right person to ask those kinds questions is part of what a good agent brings to this relationship.

It’s key to remember that every agent/author relationship is different. They most important aspects are mutual trust and respect. If you’re on the same team—and feel like you’re on the same team—you increase your chances of success.

Warning Signs and How to Deal with Them

We all know that if you ignore your significant other, your romantic relationship can become troubled. If you don’t pay attention to your pets, you can wake up smothered under five cats who are starved for affection (that last one might be a little specific to my life, actually). The same goes for your agent relationship: You should never take it for granted, and always monitor that relationship to ensure it’s still healthy and productive. While every relationship is unique, there are a few warning signs to watch for:

You’re unhappy

Authors often get trapped in a subservient mind frame where they feel lucky to have an agent. As a result they’re unwilling to “rock the boat” or complain when they’re unhappy. But a sense of frustration and dissatisfaction with your representation is definitely a warning sign you should track. At a minimum it should prompt you to think critically about how things are going, and maybe set up a call or meeting to discuss the relationship.

Lack of communication

As discussed, you probably won’t hear from your agent constantly. And you might not hear from them for long periods of time. But there are two things your agent should always be doing: One, keeping you informed so you know what’s happening with your work, and two, responding to you when you reach out with questions. That doesn’t mean a weekly phone call, necessarily, but it does mean your voicemails and emails shouldn’t fall into a black hole, never receiving a response.

And those responses should be prompt and filled with information. If your agent acts like answering your questions is a burden, or is cagey about simple facts like who’s got your book right now, or what the feedback from editors has been, or where your royalty payments are—that’s a very bad sign.

Different goals

You and your agent should be on the same page when it comes to the types of books you’re writing (and that they’re trying to sell) and the overall approach to your career, your brand, and building your readership. If they push you in a direction you don’t want to go and resist when you push back, you might have drifted into incompatible visions of your future.

The wrong deals

Your agent’s job is to sell your work, and part of what they bring to the table is experience, familiarity with the market, and a broader idea of what’s even possible in terms of selling your work. But sometimes that creativity can lead to a deal that you disagree on. Whether it’s your agent pushing you to sign a contract you don’t like, or advising you not to sell a story to a certain market for reasons you don’t understand (or agree with), it shouldn’t be a regular occurrence. Even the best partners will disagree once in a while—but if you’re always fighting over whether to take offers or not, that’s a problem.

No deals

If you’ve been with your agent for a while and have nothing to show for it, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad agent—or that you’re a bad author. It could just mean that the strategy they employed didn’t pan out. The key, then, would be to come up with a new strategy. If your agent hasn’t sold anything after a significant period of time and hasn’t discussed how to adjust their approach, that might mean it’s time to think about changing agents. You want to know that they’re committed to selling your work, not to a specific strategy or approach.

Client churn

Keep an eye on your agent’s other clients. If a large number of them have moved on to new representation, it could be a warning sign. It might be worth it to reach out and ask about their motivations for making the switch.

The key thing to remember is that your writing career is yours and yours alone. An agent can help you achieve your goals, yes, but only if you have a good business relationship with them based on communication and respect. And if you choose to partner with a literary agent, you’re choosing a relationship that requires a lot of care and feeding.

The key is to remember that it’s a business partnership and not a friendship (though it can be very friendly in nature) and to regularly audit the status of that partnership—and be prepared to take action if you’re regularly unsatisfied with the results. Because if your goal is to work with a publisher, the only thing worse than having no agent at all is having a bad relationship with your agent.

Further Reading


Developing a Healthy Author-Agent Relationship
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