More Misconceptions About Literary Agents

Last week we did a blog post on writers’ misconceptions about the literary agents. Here are a few more.

1) I went with the agent who promised me the six figure deal. Most of the agents I know won’t do this, but I still hear about it from writers. It’s pretty hard to predict what kind of publisher advance a project will draw these days. What I can predict is that the advance offers will be a whole lot lower than they were several years ago. It’s important to have an agent whom you can trust. Anyone who employs this kind of enticement is pretty suspect.

2) A good agent can get me a lot more money.  This is a little complicated. An agent can work with you to develop a concept that is more attractive (and valuable) to a publisher and can help you compose a book proposal that will  generate excitement from an acquiring editor. If there is competition for your book from several publishers, an agent can employ some sophisticated  bargaining strategies to help improve a deal offer. And an agent can negotiate contract terms that may address issues affecting future royalties. But if you are in a situation with only a single publisher making an offer, one must assume that the publisher knows in advance how much she is willing to pay for a project. The job of the agent is to find out what that number is. In spite of what they may tell you, agents are not in possession of alchemical powers that will turn lead into gold.  An agent can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

3) A good agent can help me find a prestigious editor. This might or might not be true, but the real misconception is whether or not the writer will be better off with a “prestigious” editor. I believe that the best editor for a project is the editor who understands and believes in that project. This might be the editorial director of a large imprint, but it might also be a young assistant editor hungry for building a list. Recently I spoke to an author whose editor was one of these legendary guys in publishing. The author was unhappy, because he felt the editor didn’t give him the time he needed. I believe that.  I had one client who insisted that I only send his work to the most prestigious editors working at the most prestigious imprints, regardless of whether those editors had any interest in the subject being written about. One of the most common causes for rejection is: “this book doesn’t really fit my list.” A good agent will find you an editor who believes in your book. That is more important than having a superstar.

4) Never work with an inexperienced agent. Since I was an inexperienced agent not too long ago, I fully understand the downside of working with one. There are lots of things in book publishing that a person can only learn from experience. Fortunately I had been in the book business for 35 years when I became an agent and came onto the job knowing quite a bit, but there were still lots of holes in my knowledge. A lot of agents, many in the big agencies, can be pretty young and inexperienced. But this is not always such a bad thing. Some of these agents are pretty sharp and have a good eye for a project. And they are more likely to take a chance on a new writer. In the book business, developing new talent is a thankless but important job and it usually falls to the agents who have not yet built their lists.

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2 Responses to “More Misconceptions About Literary Agents”

  1. jack whitsel Says:

    Nice article. I’m certain the agent’s side of the literary process can be just as conplicated as the author’s.

  2. Gary Knutson Says:

    Very helpful.

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