What an Agent Does & Does Not Do

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You've landed an agent. Now what? You're probably wondering what a literary agent does and does not do and how they can help you. Discover the truth about what literary agents actually do for authors from today's writing tip. This excerpt from Your First Novel discusses the author-agent relationship.

novel writing | your first novel

What Does a Literary Agent Do?

The author-agent relationship has often been likened to a marriage--but so have business partnerships. There's the glowy honeymoon period where you both believe that only good things lie ahead. Then reality sets in, when you come to know the other person's strengthens and weaknesses, the things s/he can be relied upon to do and the things you're going to have to get on his/her back about. As long as you both accept that you're each going to have to row to stay afloat and to get somewhere, you'll probably be okay.

Communication is a key to this partnership as it is to any other. It's important to remember that while you have only this book, this contract, this editor, this publication, an agent has many of the same. I don't want to imply that your agent will or should be too busy to talk to you. But given the many demands on his/her attention, it's no good sitting around waiting to hear from him/her and hoping s/he'll read your mind. You've got to ask, and you've got to learn how to ask in a way that makes him/her, and eventually your editor and publicist, want to return your calls.

Unlike a marriage, where the roles of the two partners grow and change, merge, and divide over time, the agent in this partnership has a certain number of clear-cut duties. Yet there are also things you shouldn't expect. Here are some things a literary agent does and doesn't do:

What an agent does

  • attempts to sell your book to a reputable publishing house
  • keeps up-to-date with editors' interests as well as their contact information
  • negotiates the terms of your contracts with publishers
  • works on commission

What an agent does not do

  • guarantee fame and riches
  • sell every manuscript s/he agrees to represent
  • write the publishers' contracts for them

What an agent can do

  • offer guidance or suggestions for improving your book
  • get it into the hands of editors
  • secure an advance or sell your book at an auction

What an agent cannot do

  • rewrite it or make it perfect for you
  • guarantee those editors will read every word
  • guarantee anyone will come to an auction even when they've told the interested editors they're holding one

What an agent should do

  • return your calls and e-mails within a reasonable period of time once you've signed on together
  • give you realistic expectations
  • be as interested as you are in getting a good advance--the better you do, the better s/he will do

What an agent should not do

  • refuse to tell you anything s/he has done (Even if s/he has taken no actions at all, s/he should tell you that.)
  • promise you a fortune
  • accept or turn down advances without consulting with you

This excerpt is from Your First Novel written by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb. Learn more about writing a novel. Interested in finding an agent? Check out these resources and learn how to get published.

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