A Literary Agent’s 13 Points for New and Experienced Writers

This fall will mark five years as a literary agent. I’m enjoying this aspect of my book-related vocational life and I’ve learned a few things I’d like to pass on to both novice and experienced writers. So here we go:

  1. A great advantage to being an agent over working as an editor is that an agent who finds an author he loves can stick with that author until an interested publisher is found. As an editor, if I got a “no” from the pub board, that would end my relationship with that project and author.
  2. Many agents, myself included, gravitate toward certain projects and are reluctant to take on other, often fine, projects that just don’t ring our chimes. Often when I tell an author “no,” I try to make it clear that it’s not a project I resonate with. Another agent may love it. One major reason for this is that an agent will often have to work for months trying to sell a beloved project. It’s no fun spending all that time on a project you’re not in love with. Too, an agent’s passion can be important in convincing an editor to take a strong look at a proposal.
  3. On the spiritual side, I’m convinced an author and his or her agent must entrust the project to God. Prayer for a client’s proposal is vital.
  4. Building a writing career takes time. Many writers understandably want success NOW or within the next year or so. It seldom happens that way. An author needs to learn patience and resilience in the face of rejection.
  5. Authors with the best chance of success are those whose passion intersects with the needs of a large number of people and who know how to present a proper proposal to an agent (or an editor).
  6. Good—even great—writing doesn’t guarantee a publisher will be interested. Nor does it guarantee strong sales if published. I’ve watched wonderful writers languish with poor sales or go unpublished altogether. Mediocre writing doesn’t guarantee rejection. And if published, a mediocre book may very well become a bestseller.
  7. If you trust your agent, listen to his or her advice. If you don’t trust your agent, find a new one. Or if you’re simply unhappy with the way your agent is working for you, part ways amicably and find a new agent. There should be no hard feelings.
  8. Don’t aspire to become a one-book author. Agents rely on helping their writers develop long-range careers. Publishers, too, are rarely interested in one-book authors. It’s often an author’s third or fourth book that finally breaks through.
  9. The dreaded “platform” is probably more important than ever. Platform is the way an author has of promoting his or her book. At writers’ conferences I teach “What to Do When You Don’t Have a Platform.” That workshop is getting harder and harder to teach—though there are still important strategies to compensate for the lack of a platform. That said, authors should commit to building their platform while writing their book or proposal. Most writers don’t like promoting their books. They just want to be left alone to write. I understand the feeling, but that’s increasingly unrealistic.
  10. I can’t underestimate the importance of networking by going to writers conferences and meeting agents and editors in person. Currently, that’s almost impossible due to the pandemic. In the meantime, read the blogs of agents, editors, and successful writers. Join a local or online critique group. Get to know the publishing industry and the people in it. It’s a huge leg up.
  11. An important asset for an agent is to be interested in his or her clients, personally; not just in their writing careers. I think this has been a strong point for me, but I’m still trying to improve in this area.
  12. Although I learned this first as a writer, then as an editor, I now see it through an agent’s eyes. I’m referring to the slow, slow movement of all things relating to publishing. Agents spend time helping writers perfect their proposals, editors take forever to respond to proposals, pub boards are notoriously slow to make decisions. And then to finally get a “yes” and have to tell the author the book will likely release in 12-18 months or longer. Yikes. But let me add that I understand the slowness, even if it is bothersome. It just has to happen that way (unless you or your book is “hot”).
  13. Make your submission to an agent (or editor) as professional as possible. Have it proof-read by a good proofer. You want it to be as good as the final manuscript you turn in.