Agent Myth Busters: 5 Common Misconceptions About Literary Agents

A mother-daughter pair of agents debunks five pervasive misconceptions about literary agents and the way they do their work.
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A mother-daughter pair of agents debunks five pervasive misconceptions about literary agents and the way they do their work.

By Cari Lamba and Marie Lamba

We literary agents do most of our work behind the scenes, advocating in unseen ways for our clients’ careers. While writers primarily know us as a channel to those coveted book deals, most never see the many other things we do, or how we operate day-to-day. Being uninformed might be holding your writing career back. Here, we dispel some of the more harmful myths about how agents work.

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1. PITCHING TO AGENTS AT A CONFERENCE IS MY ONE BIG BREAK.

Writers work themselves into a frenzy thinking that these in person opportunities are their best chance. But here’s the truth: Your pitch session will likely result in the exact same result you’d get from a query letter—an agent either requesting pages, or not. So relax! You will still have many future chances to query or pitch your work. If you have extra time during your face-to-face session, don’t be afraid to ask the agent questions, including whether she thinks your pitch needs improvement. The answer may help inform future submissions.

2. I SHOULD QUERY ONLY ESTABLISHED AGENTS.

Don’t limit yourself—send to long-established literary agents and new ones! Keep in mind that newer agents at an established firm still wield that firm’s reputation, and are often mentored by the senior agents there. Just be sure to check the submission guidelines to see whether an agent is a good fi t for your project. New agents can even have some advantages: They’re actively building their client lists, so odds are better that they will request to see your work. And because they represent fewer writers, they may have more time to spend on their clients.

[Discover new literary agents who are seeking submissions here!]

3. AGENTS WANT BOOKS THAT ARE TRENDY.

Please don’t write a book with a trend in mind. By the time it gets published, interests will have shifted. Agents can detect authors who are writing only what they think people will want to read. The results are often clunky and disingenuous—like when an ethnic character is plunked into a story to answer the call for diversity. What agents really want to see is the story that you really want to write. An amazing story that is brilliantly told will never go out of style.

4. AGENTS SHOULD ALWAYS RESPOND TO CLIENT MANUSCRIPTS WITHIN A MONTH.

One month can be an unrealistic timeline for your agent. Is she very editorial? Then she’s likely to proceed through the text at a more careful pace. Remember that agents have only so much control over their workflow. They may have received a slew of other client manuscripts just before yours. They also spend much of their days responding to editors, pitching books, negotiating contracts and attending meetings. Ask your agent when you can anticipate a response, and manage your expectations.

5. IF MY AGENT DOESN’T GET ME A BOOK DEAL, THEN SHE ISN’T A GOOD AGENT.

Oh, if only agents could sell every book that they pitch! But that simply isn’t realistic. Publishing is a subjective business and unfortunately, not all books get picked up. The potential reasons vary widely, and many are not a reflection on the quality of the writing or the ability of the agent. For example, the publisher may already have a similar book in the pipeline, or a shift in the market could make a particular genre unsalable. A “good agent,” then, is best defined as one who will do everything she can to get your book into editors’ hands.

And here are two truths we really want you to know:

ASK YOUR AGENT!

Have a concern about your agent? While many writers ask their friends and hit the message boards for answers, the first thing you really need to do is ask your agent directly. Don’t be afraid that it will spoil your relationship—just be professional and personable. Communication is key in the author/agent relationship, and you share an important goal: building your writing career.

PUT YOUR WORK OUT THERE!

For many writers this is the hardest thing to do, but you aren’t helping yourself by not sharing or submitting. We meet so many people who say they have something written, but are afraid to show it to anyone. Even starting small—by joining a writers group or enlisting a trusted peer reader—will help build your confidence and set you on the path to submission. So declare yourself a writer and start sending out your stuff. We want to see what you can do.

Cari Lamba (@carilamba) is an associate literary agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. Her mother, Marie Lamba (@marielamba), is an agency colleague and author of three YA novels and a picture book.

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