Finding the right literary agent is just as important as finding a literary agent and getting signed in the first place. It might seem far-fetched to think about two or more agents wanting to represent you—especially if you’re a new author—but it can happen (for authors of all book genres). So, you should do everything you can to make it happen. This article explains why finding and choosing the right literary agent is so important, and it reveals how to increase the odds of getting multiple agents offering you representation.
Why Is Finding the Right Literary Agent So Important?
My best author coaching clients are those who’ve already been represented by literary agents and been disappointed. That’s because those authors understand: not all agents are created equal; not all agents are great; and, even if an agent is great, it doesn’t mean the agent is going to be the best agent for you and your book. Once you understand that, you’re more discerning. You’re also more determined to get more than one agent to choose from. And you’re more willing to do the work to make that happen.
What Can Go Wrong When You’re Trying to Find the Right Literary Agent?
Most agents are competent and committed. Some aren’t. That’s why I’m going to show how to “sniff out” the ones who are. I’m also going to show you how to avoid signing with an agent who’s competent and committed—but not the best fit for you. The list of 21 scenarios below is based on real-life situations I’ve helped my coaching clients navigate while they were focused on finding the right literary agent. Some details have been changed for confidentiality.
1. Career vs. Casual: One of my clients recently got offers from two of the best literary agents with two of the top literary agencies. One of the agents asked questions about the author’s other books and long-term future; she seemed like she’d be investing in the author’s career and shared his vision. The other agent just talked about the author’s current project. Which agent would you prefer? Finding the right literary agent means finding the right agent for the long haul, not just the moment.
2. Personal Representation vs. “The Handoff”: One of my author coaching clients pitched the president of a top literary agency and she offered to represent him. Then the agent dropped a bomb and said she wasn’t going to represent my client personally. Instead, she was going to a let a new agent at her agency do it–but the president was going to oversee everything. Not my first choice. If we wanted the junior agent, we would have pitched the junior agent. I would have preferred the president handle everything from day one. We had other agencies interested at the time, but this agency was the best one. If we’d had another agency interested that was just as good, where my client could have worked with a more senior agent, we probably would have gone with that one instead. Everything worked out well though. The junior agent got multiple publishers bidding against each other for my client’s book. Then the president of the agency took over and became my client’s agent. Of course. After the junior agent did most of the work!
3. Just Enough Experience vs. Too Much vs. Not Enough: Many authors I’ve worked with have said they don’t want to work with the agent who has the least—or most—experience. New literary agents can be good because they hungry, but they don’t have the knowledge or connections established literary agents have. However, young authors sometimes gravitate toward young agents who they’ll be able to grow with—and have a career with. Some young authors have told me they want to avoid querying old agents (in their 80s, etc.) because they don’t want their agent to retire (or worse) too soon. On the flip side, I’ve heard old authors say they don’t want an agent who’s too young. I’m not telling you what you should do—that’s up to you.
4. Committed vs. Uncommitted: Some agents will only pitch your project to one publisher. Others literary agents will show it to a couple, or a few. Most agents will pitch your project to 10-20 publishers before giving up. And, some agents will pitch your project to many more than that before calling it a day. Obviously, finding the right literary agent means choosing the agent who seems the most committed.
5. Focused vs. Distracted: Literary agents who are present and focused are better than those who reveal they’re: in the middle of moving from one agency to another; moving from one city or state to another; busy falling in love or getting married; going through a tough divorce; going through a big lawsuit; entering rehab; or anything else that might compete for your book’s attention.
6. Fast vs. Slow: Most literary agents will start shopping your book within thirty days of you giving them everything they need to do so. However, some agents might start shopping your book immediately. Others might take many months to get things moving (see Focused vs. Distracted above).
7. Big vs. Small Publishers: Some literary agents will (hopefully) believe your book has a good chance of being published with a major publisher. Others might not. Instead, they may say they only plan to pitch your book to small publishers—or a combination of big and small publishers. That’s okay, if that’s the only agent you can get. But, if you have more than one agent to choose from, bigger is usually better. Some literary agents will actually say things like, “I don’t think there’s a big market for your book and I don’t think we’ll get a good advance. Actually, I doubt I’ll be able to sell it all, but what the hell? I’m willing to take a chance and see what happens. Just don’t get your hopes up.”
8. Many Powerful Connections vs. Not So Much: One reason some agents only (or primarily) pitch projects to smaller publishers (see Big vs. Small Publishers above) is they don’t have connections with acquisition editors and executives at the big publishers. They’ve either been too afraid to try and form those relationships–or they’ve tried and failed.
9. Good vs. Inappropriate Boundaries: Agents have been known to: flirt with their clients (and prospective clients); try to get them involved with some type of venture not related to selling their book; ask them about their age, ethnicity, political leanings, etc. (unless it’s relevant to pitching the project, it’s inappropriate). Finding the right literary agent means choosing one who’s professional.
10. Too Busy vs. Not Busy Enough vs. Just Right: One literary agent recently spent 4-1/2 hours on the phone with one of my clients during their first phone call. Many (if not most) people would love that. It would make them feel special, and like the agent was really committed. Not me. Yes, I want you to be important to your agent. But, not that important. It’s a sign the agent isn’t successful or doesn’t have boundaries (see Good vs. Inappropriate Boundaries above). On the other hand, if an agent wants to sign you and isn’t willing to spend 30-45 minutes getting to know you and your work, it’s a sign the agent is too busy or that you and your work aren’t going to be a big enough priority (see High Priority vs. Low Priority below).
11. High Priority vs. Low Priority: It doesn’t matter if you decide to work with a new literary agent or one of the most famous literary agents. You can be a top priority or a low priority, in either situation. During your communication with prospective agents, look for clues about where you and your book will fall in the agents’ pecking order of priorities.
12. Even-Keeled vs. Something Else: Finding the right literary agent means paying attention to prospective agents’ track record of sales. But, finding the right literary agent also means avoiding agents who seem: impatient, hot-tempered, egomaniacal, narcissistic, or otherwise mentally unstable or off.
13. Fan vs. Agent: Literary agents don’t need to be their clients’ biggest fans. They need to believe their authors’ books are marketable, and they need to sell them. But the agent who likes or loves your work is certainly more likely to try harder to sell your book. And, he or she is more likely to be more persuasive with publishers when doing so.
14. Equal Partners vs. Ego Trips vs. Agents Who Just Roll Over: Few agents treat authors like gods, saying or doing anything to try and please their clients or prospects. Being catered to like that might sound good, but it isn’t. Yes, your agent should respect you and admire your work. But your agent shouldn’t be too much in awe or too deferential. It’s a sign of weakness or inexperience. Successful (and smart) agents are confident because they know they bring as much to the table as you. Agents shouldn’t think they’re greater–or less than–you. They should see you as an equal. Good agents (like good editors or coaches and consultants) are conscious of this dynamic. It’s important because doing so allows them to tell you things you don’t want (but need) to hear or consider so you can improve your work and/or achieve success.
15. Some Manuscript Changes vs. Major Changes vs. No Changes: Most authors would love to hear an agent say, “I love your book. It’s perfect. You don’t need to change one word!” But, if you hear that, it means the agent is inept or isn’t committed. Every book can be better. On the other hand, I don’t want you to feel you must sign with an agent who doesn’t share your vision for the project, or feel you must sign with an agent who wants you to do a total rewrite. For example, I’ve seen agents tell authors they want them to change their novel from first person to third person—and the other way around. I’ve seen agents pass on projects and tell the authors they’d consider representing a totally different book the agent would like more. And I’ve seen an agent tell a nonfiction author her style was too “journalistic,” that she’d reconsider the project if it was rewritten (thankfully, we had another successful agent who liked her style as it was). I’ve also had agents tell authors they need to shorten or lengthen their books significantly; if/when that happens, it’s nice to have another agent who’s fine with the current length.
16. Good vs. Bad Communicators: A small number of agents offer representation via email but don’t offer to get on the phone for a meet-and-greet…and/or you never hear from them after that until if/when they sell your book. Most agents, thankfully, are more communicative. But, to varying degrees. What you get in the beginning when you start communicating with an agent is a good sign of what’s to come. So, look favorably on agents who: are willing to get on the phone; clearly indicate how they work and what you can expect regarding their communication; and assure you they’ll let you know which publishers they’ve submitted your work to. In addition, pay attention to which agents are: good listeners, ask you questions, and seem willing to answer a reasonable number of your questions.
17. Good vs. Bad Contract: Most successful agents have author/agent agreements that look (for the most part) the same. However, there are important differences. Click here to see the most common literary agency contract clauses with definitions and things you’ll want to consider.
18. Successful in your Genre vs. Other Genres: Just because some agents are successful doesn’t mean they’re successful in your genre. Finding the right literary agent means, if possible, looking at writers’ literary agents who are specialists in your genre—or at least somewhat successful in your genre—instead of just wannabes or dabblers.
19. Subsidiary Rights vs. Traditional Rights: Finding the right literary agent means choosing an agent who’s likely to do a good job with subsidiary rights (international rights, feature film, merchandising, etc.). Not every project is suited to that, but some are. Some literary agencies handle the sale of those rights in-house. Others partner with “co-agents” or “sub-agents” who help sell those rights. It’s important, because some authors make more money from subsidiary rights than regular book sales!
20. Male vs. Female: Is the content in your book more relatable to a male or female literary agent? Or, do you prefer working with a male or female literary agent? If so, finding the right literary agent means factoring that in, too.
21. New York vs. Elsewhere: Location is also important to some authors focused on finding the right literary agent. But finding a New York literary agent isn’t the only way to go. Nine times out of ten, when I’m advising authors seeking representation, I tell them I’d prefer a book agent in NYC–but there are also many successful publishing agents elsewhere.
Finding the Right Literary Agent – How to Do It
What’s the best way to go about finding the right literary agent for you?
Like everything else in life, follow these three steps:
1. Be committed. Most authors (unknowingly) have a false sense of how easy (or difficult) it’s going to be to get a literary agent. As a result, they give up too soon. Don’t. As long as there are quality agents you haven’t queried, keep going.
2. Get educated. The more knowledgable you become about the publishing industry, the more confident you’ll become. Read the articles below for additional information (and inspiration) to help you get to the next level.
3. Get help. It’s faster, easier, and less stressful having someone to strategize with. You’re also more likely to get the outcome you want. Don’t try to do everything alone. Posting a question on our FAQ page here under The 50 Questions Authors Ask Most part of the webpage–or click here to Register for an Introductory Coaching Call.
Additional Resources for Finding the Right Literary Agent
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