How to Manage Your Literary Agent

Friday, November 16, 2007
by Wendy Keller

I used to tell people there are three kinds of literary agents:

The ones who will be your best friend. They’ll take your calls any time of day or night. They will take you to dinner, they’ll help you make hotel reservations or have you stay in their son’s bedroom when you’re in town, they’ll even take a year or so of their lives to line edit your proposal. After nearly 19 years in publishing, my observation is that those kinds of agents – and there are many of them – are not really selling books for a living. They are either housewives earning pin money or a rich husband; living off a trust fund or otherwise employed at other jobs as well.

There are agents who won’t return your phone calls. Ever. They will be abrasive. Some of them smoke fat cigars – and that’s just the women! Some of them, who represent some of the biggest names, have so many employees, if you ever speak to the agent again after you sign the contract, you can consider yourself lucky. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you when the book is sold.” No updates. If it doesn’t sell, you’ll be the last to know. Who are you again?

Then there are the rest of us. We’re out here pushing books every day. Making the editors into friends. Working to sell the best books at the best price to the best publishers, and encourage our authors to become supremely gifted self-marketers. Some of them smoke cigars (not me!), some of them return your calls when they can (sometimes not me), and some of them will find a way to take you to dinner when you’re in town – usually after your book has sold and there’s revenue attached to you.

The next thing for you to know before signing an agent is if this agent has sold and is selling books like yours. If so, that means that they know the same 25 or so editors for your topic that all the other agents who sell books like yours also know. There aren’t a whole lot of people. It’s a small, small world. In fact, going around Manhattan meeting all the editors in your topic area is sort of like the Disney ride, except that darn song doesn’t get stuck in your head. Oh - and there’s no gift shop at the end. So if all agents who sell in your genre sell to the same people, how do you know which one of us to choose?

Your job, should you be so lucky as to have a choice, is to find an agent who works like you do. Our client and motivational speaker Jim Cathcart’s book, The Acorn Principle, talks about “personal velocity.” Velocity is one factor to consider when choosing an agent. Does this person work/think/talk/move at the same speed you do? If not, are you comfortable with the speed they accomplish things? Some folks like it slow, some like it fast. What feels good to you?

Next thing is to ask yourself, “Do I trust this person?” Your “baby” will be in her hands for a long while. You must believe this person has your best interests at heart, and that your best interests and hers are the same. If you can’t trust her in your gut, don’t sign the contract! If you like the agent’s personal style, you trust him or her, and you believe they know all the right editors, sign the contact.

That contract should be clear. No fancy words that require $800 in legal fees. It should not lock you in forever, unless the book sells. (In which case, you belong to that agent as long as the book is “alive”.) You want to get answers – clear, honest ones – from the agent or their staff about anything you don’t understand before you sign. You don’t want to find yourself way out there. Many agencies list their contracts on their website, for your perusal beforehand. You can read mine at Most agency agreements are fairly similar. I’d be frightened to sign one that was radically different if I were you.

Once you’ve signed, make sure you have a counter-signed copy for your files. Then recognize that you have entered into a team. Perhaps you see it as a tandem canoe trip up Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan. Chances are good your agent sees it as a relay. You’ve just handed her or him the baton, and she’s off and running! You get to take a moment to catch your breath while your agent takes over the sale of your book now. Take a deep breath, because the fun is yet to come!

© 2007, Keller Media, Inc. Want to use this article in your publication? Reprints welcome so long as the article and by-line are reprinted intact and all links made live.

Wendy Keller is a published author, professional speaker and literary agent. She helps authors and speakers make a difference in this world and she is behind the scenes supporting their efforts every step of the way. Wendy has developed some of the best writing tools and seminars for authors available at

To read more of Wendy Keller's articles, please visit our Articles page.


Anonymous said...

Hello Wendy and Sue,

Thank you for sharing this informative post. I will visit the links when time permits.


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