What Should an Author Expect from an Agent?

In the months between now and Colorado Gold, my guest posts here at the RMFW blog will take a lawyer's eye view at some issues that may be relevant to authors trying to choose a publishing path or figure out who (and how) to pitch their work at conference. Today, we'll kick that off with a little introduction to some the things agents do...and a few they don't.

Mismanaged (or mismatched) expectations are a fundamental cause of problems in the author-agent relationship. Before signing an agency contract, authors should understand the business and try to establishrealistic expectations about the author-agent relationship.

Know What Agents Do … and What They Don't.

A literary agent can fill many roles in an author’s world. Some of the common ones include:

- Line editing client manuscripts ("editorial" agents do this, but not usually at the first draft stage).

- Pitching manuscripts to publishers, and negotiating contract offers.

- Consulting with authors about new ideas and series development.

- Discussing short-term and long-term plans for the author’s writing career.

- Marketing advice (but they don't do the marketing - that's the author's job).

- Mentioning clients' work on the agent’s social media feeds.

- Acting as an intermediary between the author and publisher (especially when conflicts arise).

- Selling foreign, translation, and other subsidiary rights, either directly or through sub-agents.

Not all agents fill all of these roles. Investigate agents before you query, and talk with an agent who offers representation (before you sign!) about his or her preferences and business practices.

All agents should review client’s manuscripts, pitch and negotiate deals, and act as an intermediary with publishers on some level (some do more, and some do less). Beyond that, your mileage may vary.

Know What You Want YOUR Agent To Do (Within Reason)

Consider the list in the heading above. Do you want an editorial agent? Someone who’s active on social media? How involved do you want the agent to be in your long-term plans?

Beware the temptation to say “I want it all” (or "I don't want any of this") without more thought. Publishing is a business, and authors need both a business plan and a solid concept of how an agent fits (or, in some cases, doesn't fit) within it. Make a list, and be reasonable...it doesn't much matter whether or not you want your agent to give you a magical glitter-and-book-deal farting unicorn. You're not going to get it. 

Do Your Research, and Find an Agent Who Matches Your Expectations

After you know what you want from your agent, you need to focus on finding an agent who matches your expectations. If you only query agents who aren't editorial, you have only yourself to blame when the agent you sign with doesn't edit your manuscript.

It can be difficult to determine, with certainty, whether an agent's business model matches your own before you receive an offer of representation. That’s okay. “The call” is a perfect time to talk about expectations—the agent’s, as well as yours.

Obviously, authors only get to choose from the agents who actually offer representation. That’s why "doing the research before you query" is such a critical step.

If you're planning to pitch agents at conferences (including this September's fabulous Colorado Gold - registration is open now!) do your research in time to choose your pitch appointments wisely. Don't limit yourself to the conference website. Google the agents and editors, visit their websites, and find the ones who seem like a match for your preferences and your work.

Realize: There is No Magical Ring to Rule the Publishing World. You Won't Get One - And Your Agent Won't Have One, Either.

No matter how well an agent matches the author’s business expectations, we have to remember that no one can guarantee an offer, a publishing deal, or a place on the bestseller list. Sometimes a manuscript doesn't sell, no matter how hard an agent works. Sometimes publishers drop a talented author.

Publishing failures often aren't the agent’s fault - and the possibility of failure even if you do everything correctly is a sad but real expectation authors need to manage.

On the other hand, if the agent isn’t living up to the author's expectations, authors have the right to consider a change. Just make sure, if you make the decision to terminate an agency contract, you make it on the basis of an objective, honest evaluation—what the agent has done (or not), in comparison to industry standards—not on the basis of emotion or unreasonable expectations.

Managing expectations in publishing is a lot like herding cats or nailing Jell-o to a tree. It's a constant process, and it's going to get away from you at times. 

Even so, it’s worth the effort. The better you know the industry, and treat publishing as a business, the more likely you are to find an agent who meets your needs and becomes a beneficial partner in your publishing career.

What do you expect your agent to do for you? How do you manage your "agent expectations"?

 

Susan Spann
Susan Spann is a California publishing attorney and the author of the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, released on July 14, 2015. Susan is honored to be the 2015 RMFW Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

One thought on “What Should an Author Expect from an Agent?

  1. I so wanted that farting unicorn to get my book published, and now you’ve crushed my dream. I guess I’ll just have to make sure I have a really, really solid pitch and query, right? Your blogs are always so helpful, and you give so much to RMFW. Thank you! See you at Gold!

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