Writers’ Misconceptions About Literary Agents

Let’s face it. Most of you who have never worked with a literary agent probably think that the 15%  agency commission is  sort of …well…unfair. A kind of baksheesh paid to the  middleman in the literary souk  who can use his connections  to get you access to  the celebrity editor at Knopf. Most published writers will tell you otherwise. Check out the acknowledgements page at the back of any book.  Authors love their agents, and recognize that the agent’s work goes far beyond dickering over deal points.

I’d like to address the subject of  the misconceptions about agents that seem to be going around in writers’ circles.

1) It’s better to be represented by a New York agent. Obviously I’m annoyed by this surprisingly widely held belief, since I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. A lot of writers seem to think that getting published is all about the agent’s physical  proximity to editors and the number of times per month they have lunch with them. The famous “publisher’s lunch” is from another era. And it is unclear that this was an important ritual in the acquisition process  even then. All of the editors I talk to  will tell you that the key consideration  of an acquisition decision is whether the book has commercial potential. Publishers are under incredible pressure from their multimedia conglomerate parent corporations to make money on every book they publish. If your book is a bad business proposition, no amount of martinis at lunch is going to convince the publisher otherwise. I talk to a lot of book editors even though I work in California.   They tell me that the most important thing you can provide them with  is a convincing book proposal.  You don’t have to be in New York to do that.

2) It’s better to be represented by a big (prestigious) New York agency. There are no good or bad agencies. There are just good or bad agents. That said,  there are some advantages to having one of these big agencies on your side, but not the advantages that you might think.  At the end of the day a celebrity agent isn’t  going to give you an edge, and can’t  deliver a contract for a project that would not otherwise get published. If you have a big book with lots of subsidiary rights opportunities (movie deals, foreign markets, merchandise tie-ins), it would be nice to have a big agency that could seamlessly handle all these deal elements. But even there, most good independent agents can serve you well.  

And  there is a downside to working with these  big agencies as well. They are extremely selective in the projects they take on.  A lot of these agencies are not looking for new writers. If you aren’t a literary superstar, you might be better served by a newer agent who is building a list and  is willing to take some chances by seeking out new talent.  And always, always, you are better served by an agent who has the time and the imagination to help you shape your ideas and the passion to believe in your talent. You want an agent who will not just flip a contract but who will work with you to develop your career as a writer.  There are some very good agents at the big New York agencies who will do this and other agents who are just too busy. The same is true of independent agents.

3) The agent’s 15% commission is a rip off.  It’s nothing more than payola to help you  get your foot in the door. Actually, sometimes that’s true. I’ve heard a lot of stories about agents who have done very little other than send your proposal around (usually to the same ten editors they like to work with) and then either drop you or flip a contract and disappear. That’s a bad agent. If you are going to give an agent a 15% commission, you might as well make sure that they are earning it. The work of an agent is a lot more than sending out your project and dickering over deal points. A good agent will help you refine your idea in a way that will make it easier to sell, will lead you through the book proposal process, may even provide detailed edits on your novel or memoir, will negotiate the contract, will be your advocate during the publishing process, will help you exploit all the subsidiary rights opportunities for the material in the book,  and will advise you on promotion when the book comes out. A good agent will earn that 15%. So try to find one of those.

I’ll talk about some more misconceptions on my next blog post.


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13 Responses to “Writers’ Misconceptions About Literary Agents”

  1. Paul J Gardner Says:

    Thanks Andy, helpful insight!

    “A good agent will help you refine your idea in a way that will make it easier to sell, will lead you through the book proposal process, may even provide detailed edits on your novel or memoir, will negotiate the contract, will be your advocate during the publishing process, will help you exploit all the subsidiary rights opportunities for the material in the book, and will advise you on promotion when the book comes out.”

    Sounds a lot like finding a good advisor or board member in the technology startup business!

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Paul. Thanks for weighing it. I’ve never heard the book business compared to Internet start ups. But, yes, what makes a good agent is the same as what makes a good consultant, a good teacher, or even a good taxi cab driver, I guess.

  2. Mike Roloff Says:

    All very sensible say I who for several years represented Suhrkamp Verlag and several smaller German publishers via the Robert Lantz-Candida Donadia Agency. Just thinking of how Candida agonized over her writers and her stomach pains gives me a stomach pains!


  3. Ilana DeBare Says:

    Just to further validate your point from a writer’s point of view: At the Squaw Valley Community of Writers last month, I asked a panel of editors if they felt it made a difference for a writer to have an agent based in NYC. They unanimously said it did NOT.

    (As long as the agent knows what s/he is doing, is up to date on the industry, maintains contacts with the publishing houses etc., of course.)

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I think you’ve convinced me I do NOT want a NY literary agent! I even know one personally. She is a workaholic with a NY mentality that is foreign to me. It would not be fun. Plus, I think the Bay Area is exploding with talent. Dave Eggers and his crew are one example. We’ve always been ahead of the pack in the Bay Area. I also thought at one time I should have been living in New York. Now, older and wiser, I’m glad I never lived there. California has given me a much wider variety of experiences and an openness to the world.

    By the way, thank you for meeting with me. It was worth every penny and more (hope you got my payment). I’ll never forget chatting with you under Jack London. For a newbie like me that was a happy moment. (My son has slogged his way through Call of the Wild and now he has to annotate it…poor guy..Hemingway would have been much better, esp. since we lived in Spain last year).

    One practical questions: who do you use for web hosting and technical questions? I need to find a person who does this. It would be wonderful if they worked in North Berkeley. There is nothing like face-to-face contact.

  5. Allison Cowley de Laveaga Says:

    oops…forgot to give my name.

  6. G. Guilford Barton Says:

    Thanks for the info Andy. I also live and work in the SF Bay area and wondered about the NY thing. I’ve been published before but looking for an agent for my first novel. G. Guilford Barton

  7. Allison Cowley de Laveaga Says:

    I know an agent in NY….I could pass on her name to everyone. I don’t know her specialty but she has years and years of experience. In addition, if anyone knows of a good web hosting person…someone who could host a web site and do some minor tinkering, that would be great. I live in No. Berkeley and would love to find a neighbor that does this. There must be at least a dozen people around me but since these types of people never come out of their houses I will never meet them. The other day I asked a woman on my neighborhood’s e-mail list whether she wanted to get together for coffee and talk about some neighborly issues. Her response: I don’t have time for new people in my life!!! Wow, something is wrong with our culture if people have no time for a cup of coffee with a neighbor. Maybe I should move to Pakistan…at least by the third cup I’d be a great friend of someone….

  8. Allison Cowley de Laveaga Says:

    One more comment–sorry if this is off topic, but if anyone is interested, you can join my Michelle Obama for President 2012 Facebook group…I think she’d make a brilliant president…she could pair up with Colin Powell.

  9. Aaron Paul Lazar Says:

    Hi, Andy. Thanks for a great piece (and for the followup with more myth breaking information). I wonder if you’d like to combine these two blogs for a reprint at our Writer’s Digest Best 101 Website, Murderby4.blogspot.com? We’ve had some great agents, publishers, authors, and other industry experts weigh in over the past few years, and have a super following. Would love to feature you sometime in October. Contact me at aaron dot lazar at yahoo.com if you’re interested. Best, Aaron Lazar

  10. Eliana Biller Says:

    I admit, I have not been on this blog in a long time, however it was joy to find it again. It is such an important topic and ignored by so many, even professionals! I thank you for helping to make people more aware of these issues. Just great stuff as per usual!

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