Five More Things Your Literary Agent Won’t Tell You
By Fern Reiss, CEO, PublishingGame.com/Expertizing.com
If you’re trying to publish a book traditionally, you’re almost always better off using a literary agent than going it on your own. Nonetheless, working with a literary agent is not always as idyllic as it sounds. Here are five things your literary agent probably won’t tell you:
We won’t jeopardize our relationship with editors. Working with a literary agent is much like working with a real estate agent: On the one hand, their job is to get you as good a deal as possible, and they don’t make money unless you do, since they make a percentage (usually 15%) of your sales. On the other hand, their relationships with publishers are complex, and although they’d like to get as much as possible for your book, they also need to stay on good terms with the publisher for all the other books they’re discussing. So in the same way that the realtor will try to get you a good price (but will be reluctant to jeopardize the sale by asking too much), your literary agent won’t ask for a killer sum just because you think your book is worth it.
We won’t play hardball with your publisher. Again, agents make their living by having good working relationships with publishers and editors. They’ll track your payments and make sure you’re getting a fair shake, but they’re not going to jeopardize those relationships by being obnoxious, aggressive, or overly demanding. So don’t expect them to play hardball. That’s not their job.
We won’t be your new best buddy. It’s important to remember that while agents need to stay in touch with their authors, that’s only a small part of their job. They also need to read the slush pile for new properties, read a lot of current books to see what’s selling, deal with contracts and lawyers and payments, meet editors and publishers for lunch to discuss other books, go to conferences and trade shows to keep up with the rest of the industry, and a myriad of other activities. And agents, unless you’ve gotten to know them well over a long period of time, are your business partners, but not necessarily your friends. So don’t expect your agent to stay in touch daily—or even weekly. Some agents are better at keeping in touch than others, but most agents are too busy to be as attentive as their authors might prefer.
We will probably run out of patience. It would be lovely if agents, once you finally find one who is dying to work with you, would be faithful and submit your work forever. The reality, however, is that agents tend to be excited when they first sign an author, and are able to maintain that enthusiasm only if they’re able to sell the book relatively quickly. It’s a rare agent who is incredibly responsive to your phone calls after 18 months of unsuccessfully peddling your book.
We probably won’t help with your publicity. This may be the single most common misperception of what a literary agent does. Literary agents help you get your book to a publisher. They oversee your payment. If you’re incredibly lucky with your choice of agent, they may even help to oversee your career, recommending books for you to read and conferences for you to attend. But one thing they probably won’t do is help you with your book’s publicity. Agents get paid (a percentage) because of the work, they do in brokering the agreement between you and the publisher. They don’t take any responsibility for the publicity of your book after a publisher has accepted it. (Unfortunately, neither do most publishers, these days, which means that most books are off bookstores shelves in just six months. See my book, The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days, if you want to learn how to publicize your book successfully on your own.)
Having said all that, having a relationship with a literary agent can be a valuable and rewarding experience. Just keep in mind what you can, and can’t, expect.
Fern Reiss is CEO of PublishingGame.com, offering books, workshops, and consulting on how to get a literary agent, publish, and promote a book. She is also CEO of Expertizing.com, teaching people how to get more media attention for themselves and their business; in the past six months, she’s been quoted in over 100 publications from the NY Times to Wall Street Week. Sign up at http://www.PublishingGame.com/signup.htm for her complimentary monthly email newsletter on how to get more media attention for yourself, your book, and your business.