The Job of a Literary Agent and How to Know if They're Good at It

Contracting with a literary agent and getting a traditional publishing contract remains the holy grail of many authors and aspiring authors, but getting the attention of agents and publishers is becoming increasingly difficult.

Most advice out there, including what I offer, is geared toward making you more appealing to agents. But there's something that isn't being talked about enough and that I cannot in good conscience ignore because I see authors waste a tremendous amount of time and money pitching to agents who are, in my opinion, bad at their jobs.

This post is designed to help you think strategically and make informed decisions about the people you do business with. What I'm about to recommend is exactly what I do on behalf of my clients and myself when deciding who to engage with and who to avoid.

It starts with thinking deeply about the system, the players, and how they relate to and can benefit or harm one another.

What Is a Literary Agent's Job?

A literary agent's job is to sell their clients' manuscripts to publishing houses and negotiate the best deal possible on behalf of their client. Put another way, a literary agent's job--how they make money--is to make money for their clients by selling intellectual property rights to publishers.

To be good at their job, they must recognize talent and have the professional network and business skills necessary to consistently negotiate good deals on behalf of their clients.

Recognizing talent and selling are two different skill sets.

Many literary agents are good at recognizing talent but lack other things necessary to do excellent work on their clients' behalf.

Many Literary Agents Aren't Doing Their Job

Part of what I do (one of my favorite thing to do, in fact) is to develop relationships with literary agents and serve as a literary matchmaker. When I find excellent writers and projects, I like to pitch them to agents I trust and who I believe would be a good fit.

This means that the author must be prepared and proactive (i.e. strong writing skill, solid platform, strategic marketing plan--all the things), and the agent must be professional and productive (i.e. reasonably responsive and consistently making deals).

What I've run into lately when reaching out to agents is a trend for new agents to be highly involved in the editing process. (Stay with me here because this isn't in and of itself a bad thing.) Several have told me that they don't recommend that authors engage with freelance developmental editors because they consider editing part of their job.

This sounds great. No need to pay for freelance editing or writing classes. Just show up with enthusiasm and a great concept, and your agent will "free of charge" help you craft a manuscript and proposal that appeals to acquisition editors at publishing houses.

Let's set aside for a moment the fact that those same agents are rejecting querying authors--often without specific feedback--on the grounds that their work doesn't meet a certain standard of excellence (something a freelance editor could help them meet).

The Potential Problems Associated with Editorially Focused Agents:

  • The more time a literary agent spends doing non-sales tasks such as offering editorial feedback, recrafting book proposals, and helping authors build their platforms the less pitching they can do.
  • The less pitching they do the slower their reputation, network, and sales skills grow.
  • And the less selling they do the less income they make.
  • The less income they make the less sustainable that stream of income is. (Many an agent must work several jobs to keep themselves and their goldfishes fed.)
  • The less sustainable they are the faster they're likely to burn out and go bust.
  • When they burn out and go bust, existing clients get shuffled to another agent in the agency or--if the agent is a sole proprietor--are orphaned.

Successful agents are intelligent, tenacious, and highly focused individuals who know which tasks to say "yes" to and which tasks to say "no" to. If they're saying "yes" to everything but actually pitching to acquisition editors, following up on pitches, and confidently negotiating contracts, they're saying "no" to making money for their clients.

Having said that, I'm aware of several editorially focused literary agents who I'd love to see some of my clients work with.

The trick is finding the overlap between your writing chops and author platform, what acquisition editors want, a literary agent's time and expertise, and everyone's financial needs and long-term goals. It also means that authors must do a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to paying a freelance developmental editor up front versus seeking a literary agent with a strong editorial focus.

There's no one-size fits all answer. Regardless of where we are on the publishing industry map, we each much understand the landscape, chart a course, and choose travel companions with similar goals and complementing skillsets.

But how do you know who to trust? Surely writers conferences are a safe bet, right?

Do not Trust that the Agents at Writers Conferences Are good at Their Jobs

I would love to tell you that all writers conference organizers have your back and that if you're going to pitch in person (and pay extra to do so) that you can trust that the agents on their lists are good at what they do.

Unfortunately, experience tells me otherwise.

It may be true that you have a better chance of getting the attention of an agent and even getting signed if you go to a conference and pitch in person, but the uncomfortable question is Why?

To be clear, I love writers conferences and recommend that you pay the money to go to them. I also recommend that you pay the extra money to pitch to agents while there, but understand a few things before you do:

  • Not all writers conferences are of equal quality.
  • Pitch-for-fee sessions support the cost of putting on writers conferences, so the more agents and slots available the more money the conference can bring in.
  • Often agents aren't paid for their time, so the agent list at any given conference may lean toward less experienced (less busy) agents.
  • Signing with an agent doesn't mean you'll get a publishing deal.
  • Signing with the wrong agent will cost you time and money.

Before I move on, I want to speak directly to ranty, anti-traditional publishing people. Do not use this to support your claims that traditional publishing is bad and the system corrupt. Do not use the word "scam." I haven't and won't. That's an oversimplification and demonstrates a lack of understanding of how the industry works and what motivates different types of authors to choose different publishing paths.

As with any industry, there are good and bad players. We must take responsibility for educating ourselves about how the system works and do our due diligence. I have a very low tolerance for authors whose whining and almost complete lack of platform and discernable branding and marketing strategy shows that they haven't bothered to spend a few hours doing internet research about an industry they expect to succeed in. (Related: A Freelancer's Take on Gatekeepers, Literary Snobs, and Naysayers)

Now back to our regularly scheduled program: So, how do you go beyond the glossy headshots, well-crafted bios, and writers conference guest status to vet the agents you think are a good fit for your work?

How to Know if a Literary Agent is good at Their Job

Subscribe to Publishers Marketplace and verify the credentials of every agent you're interested in pitching to.

  • Click the Dealmakers tab on the homepage menu.
  • Select Agent from the Dealmaker Type dropdown menu.
  • Enter the agent's name in the Keyword box.
  • Click Search.

You will then be able to view all the deals they've entered under their account. You can look at their 6 months, 12 months, 1 year, and lifetime lists. There's even a section for the number of six-figure deals they've made.

Consider how long they've been an agent and how many deals they've reported. (Be aware that agents must enter the information for it to appear on their list, so agents may have more deals than are shown.)

Pretend you own a business and need to hire a salesperson. Ask yourself if you'd keep a salesperson with that agent's track record around in your company. Actually, there's no pretending necessary. That's exactly what you are and exactly what you're doing.

The definition of "good at their job" is subjective. Only you can decide if an agent qualifies.

I can only tell you with certainty that the longer I'm in this industry and the more experiences I have with authors and agents the more selective I am and the more I see areas in my own business where I need to step up my game. I can also tell you that the more agents I talk to the more sympathetic I am regarding their workload and the more adamant I become about an author's responsibility in the publishing game.

Authors Must Also Understand and Be Good at Their Jobs

Many aspiring authors add agents to their pitch lists based on the agent's qualifications but give too little thought to their own track record of success.

It's unreasonable for authors (especially nonfiction authors) to expect their agent to edit their work, coach them, and get them a big-money publishing deal when they don't come to the table with documented expertise related to the topic of their book and proof that they are regularly in front of their ideal audience and actively seeking and ready for the many promotional opportunities out there.

Publishing is a group effort. The number of teammates, when and how they fit into the process, and the success of any given project varies and is based on many factors. I hope this post has provided insight into the industry and helps you choose the literary agent that's the best long-term fit for you.

I wish I'd had this information earlier and want you to have it now because when everyone is operating in their strengths and holding themselves to the highest professional standards more excellent books will get published and more people will want to read and be willing to spend money on books as a form of education and entertainment.

And the more people that buy and read books, the easier it will be for all of us to make a living doing what we love.

Related: Quick-Reference Publishing Stats You Need to Know!

Related: Which Publishing Model Is Right for You: Traditional Big 5, Traditional Indie Press, Self-Publishing, or Hybrid/Partner?

Related: Why You're Probably Writing Your Nonfiction Book Too Soon

Do you want to talk before you pitch to a literary agent?

If you're considering pitching your fiction or nonfiction book to a literary agent at a conference and don't have access to Publishers Marketplace, contact me to schedule a free, 20-minute appointment to discuss your project, goals and expectations, and vet up to three agents on your list.

Ready to talk to an experienced and results-oriented ghostwriter/book collaborator, book doctor, and developmental editor? To schedule a free, 30-minute consultation, click here.

CI Communication Strategies