What Does an Agent Do?
Or how to ask for what you need
A very wise friend of mine Glynnis MacNicol (and you should read her book) said on our group chat the other day: “Writers don’t really understand the role of the agent.” This was our writers group-group chat and we were talking about the things we normally talk about—our books, our projects, our agents, whatever book news is going around. (FTR we all love, respect, and understand all our respective agents.) But we’ve all been on various sides of writing and publishing, so we have unique perspectives on the industry as a whole. And what Glynnis said really stuck with me. I do consider it one of my professional goals to provide as much clarity and information about publishing to the broadest audience I can. That’s why I teach classes and write this newsletter and tweet too much. I can’t get everyone a book deal, but I can do what I can so that people better understand how all that works. But I’ve been doing this for years and years, and I was like wait, people still don’t understand?
Of course they don’t because no one is reading every word I write or tweet I tweet and new authors start their journey from step one every minute of the day. There’s no first day of school for writers. There’s no writing season that starts in September and ends in June. You just decide to write and eventually you need information and then you go looking for it. That’s why there are so many posts about query letters.
Anyway, this post is about agents. I went back to the very beginning of Agents & Books to find a post to link to so I could say I talked about this a long time ago but let’s do it again and I COULDN’T FIND ONE. Did I not do this? Did I not write a basic post on what an agent does? Maybe I didn’t title it very well and it’s buried behind one of my pithy headlines. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Let’s do it here, today, then. Even if you have an agent, even if you don’t want an agent, this will help to better understand what they do and why you do or do not want one.
What does a literary agent do?
A literary agent helps writers. That is fundamentally it. An agent helps you refine your work, edit your materials, match you with an editor, negotiate your deal, answer your questions, hold your hand, explain things to you, advocate for you, be honest with you, tell you the hard truth, hold you accountable.
These are broad things, purposefully so. I can be specific, but those don’t show the big picture. And not every agent does every specific thing a writer needs all the time. Most of those things are not a surprise, e.g. if an agent tells you they are not big on line editing manuscripts, you shouldn’t be surprised when they do not line edit your manuscript. But of course, an author can’t anticipate everything they need up front, and needs change. If an author’s needs don’t match an agent’s skills, then the agent can help the author get what they need and/or maybe it’s time to move on. That happens. It’s ok. People and careers change.
What doesn’t a literary agent do?
The list of things an agent does not do might be easier for writers to understand, if not easier to accept. What authors want agents to be able to do is make guarantees, but agents cannot do this. They want signing up with an agent to mean that they are definitely going to get a book deal, that everything will work out, that it will be smooth sailing. Even the most realistic and seasoned authors wish this were true. Tbh, agents want this, too! But it’s never smooth sailing. Even the books that sell 24 hours after submission have some kind of wrinkle—the rights aren’t what the author/agent wanted or it’s not the advance we expected or the contract is a beast or the editor leaves a year later or any number of annoying things. There’s no charmed book. There’s no charmed writing career. And an agent cannot make it charmed. The presence of an agent does not guarantee anything.
Then why bother?
Because everyone needs help. You might not specifically need an agent’s help in your writing career, for many reasons. But you probably needed help somewhere else—a tax accountant, a real estate agent, a plumber, a personal trainer. You can theoretically do your taxes, sell your house, unclog your drain, lift weights through your own research and volition. But you may want or need help doing any of those things, and the cost is worth the potential results. Hiring a personally trainer cannot guarantee you’ll PR on deadlifts, but they can teach you how to get there. And you can do it with them for a long time or a short time. And that’s ok. You can get your book published without an agent, but not in every venue, and possibly not in the way you hope to be published.
Maybe what Glynnis was getting at was that authors don’t understand the role an agent plays in their careers because they play many roles (editor, advocate, therapist, cheerleader) and you don’t know what you need until you get there. They will be your editor more one year and your cheerleader more another. Add money to that—since the agent is paid a commission on the author’s earnings, starting at 15%—then it begins to feel like an employee/employer situation (though who plays which role switches back and forth, too). An author might think what am I paying all this money for if I’m not getting X, or Y, or Z? Exactly! They should feel like the arrangement is worth it in the end. But it might be worth it in dollars one year, and expertise another, and then in dollars the next. Because publishing is a long game, and every book is different.
What should an agent do? Help you. How do you get that help? Sometimes you have to ask for it. How do you know what help you need? By talking to your agent like a partner, which is what they are. (If you’re querying, tuck this away for later.) Do not be scared of your agent. They are just a person, like you, who loves books. They may not always be able to get you what you want, but hopefully, they can help get you closer to what you need.
Speaking of asking for help—you should join this Q&A with bestselling author and MADonna Writing Retreats writing mentor Donna Freitas to talk about writing and the upcoming retreat in BARCELONA! Join them next Tuesday, April 12, 2022 @ 12:15-1 p.m. EST for this lively discussion. Applications are still open for the last few spots in the retreat and omgggggggggggggggggg I want to go to this! Sign up here!
Take care my friends,
US agents earn 15% of all domestic sales of an author’s rights. Commission rates can go up to 25% when co-agents are involved, i.e. other agents in other areas or territories who sell rights on the agent’s behalf. In those cases, the agents split the commission between them.