Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, April 7, 2014

8 ways to know if you have a good agent

The author/agent relationship can be a tricky one. There are good agents and bad agents out there, and yet from the author's perspective it can be very difficult to know which type you have. Many authors talk themselves out of their reservations about their agents simply because it's hard to know if your concerns are warranted. And, of course, many writers just feel lucky to have an agent in the first place.

So how do you know if your concerns are justified?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some things to consider:

1. Your agent should have a proven track record of sales and/or works at a reputable agency.

This is far from the only criteria for determining whether you have a good agent, but it's a mandatory starting place. A good agent should have either a track record of sales to major publishers or have a good deal of experience cutting their teeth at a reputable agency or both.

Remember that every agent starts with zero sales and young agents can often be a good fit for authors because of their ambition and hunger, but they should still know the ropes and have mentors they can draw upon.

Avoid agents who are well-intentioned but are just hanging out a shingle and hoping to learn as they go.

2. Your agent should be a good communicator.

By good communicator, I don't mean that they necessarily reply immediately, though that is always appreciated. Agents are very busy, and even some very good agents can be afflicted with publishing time. The publishing industry can sometimes move slower than a line at the DMV. (For the record, I always tried to get back to my clients within 24 hours and I know many successful and busy agents who stick to a similar timeframe).

What's more important than punctuality is that when you have a question, your agent answers. When you ask for something, your agent delivers. When you want to have a serious conversation, the agent is there to have it.

A good agent doesn't dodge, doesn't hide, is straightforward with you and tells you things you may not always want to hear. If you feel like you are constantly pulling teeth to get the most basic questions answered, you may not have a good agent.

3. Your agent should either live in New York or visit on a regular basis.

An agent doesn't necessarily have to live in New York -- I didn't when I was an agent, nor does my agent. However, we both visited on a very regular basis because there is no substitute for occasional in-person networking and meetings.

4. Your agent should be able to explain every question you have about your contract or your royalty statements.

Publishing contract clauses can be confusing, royalty statements borderline indecipherable. Your agent should know exactly what they mean and be able to explain them to you.

5. Your agent is completely ethical in how they approach their job.

A good agent will act ethically and advise you to act ethically. If you see your agent act unethically it's only a matter of time until you're on the receiving end.

6. Your agent should pay you on time and send you contracts in a timely fashion.

Most agents have clauses that stipulate that publishers send payments to them, then they take their commission and send you the balance. This is normal.

However, that means it's all the more important that they send your payments and contracts to you on time. Be very wary if you encounter strange delays.

7. Your agent charges you a commission of 15% on domestic contracts, 20% on foreign contracts, and deducts very transparently for reasonable expenses like postage and copying. That's it.

No agent should charge you up front. They only make money when you make money and only charge you separately for things like foreign postage and manuscript copying.

8. You feel comfortable.

This is key.

You have to trust your agent. You have to have a good feeling about them. The communications lines need to be open.

Go with your gut. Don't be overly paranoid, but if you have a bad feeling it behooves you to try to figure out what's wrong. Try to resolve it, and if you can't, part ways as professionally and as amicably as possible.

At the end of the day, having a bad agent is worse than having no agent. You have to be able to have faith that your agent has your best interests at heart and is good for your career.

Any others to add to the list?

Art: Japanese Lantern by Oda Krohg


The Dieselpunkette said...

How big a red flag is it if an agent or agency doesn't report sales anywhere you can find? I'm looking at one like that, and all I've been able to find is that they discuss that with authors at the offer stage. Is that normal?

Nathan Bransford said...

I think it's okay to discuss at that time, and it's important to bear in mind that some agents are very discreet about their sales as a general policy (I didn't report all of my sales).

Just make sure you have that answered and you're comfortable with it before you sign.

Angela Adams said...

Helpful list. Thanks for sharing...

Richard Mabry said...

Nathan, I'm multi published by traditional, royalty-paying houses, and am represented by an excellent agent (with whom you are familiar) who neither lives in New York nor visits there frequently. I write Christian fiction, and she maintains personal contact with publishers in Nashville and in Colorado, where most Christian publishing houses are located. Don't you think your #3, either live in New York or visit on a regular basis, is more applicable to an agent who focuses on he general market?

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes definitely, this advice is mainly geared toward people looking for one of the traditional NY publishers.

kathrynjankowski said...

Thanks for posting these. I don't have an agent yet, but I did get a request for a full within an hour of contacting my first one, so I'm hoping.

Tracey M. Cox said...

Thanks! You are putting my mind at ease. I was checking off thimgs on your list.
Now to get ot done!

Bruce Bonafede said...

I've only had an agent once, and she was a theatre agent, one of the best in the business. One day I got a call from a friend who had a friend who wanted to produce my play. This producer was complaining my agent wouldn't compromise on any of the generally accepted deal was so unfair...his theatre was poor...yada yada. My friend said, "He's asking if you can tell your agent to give him what he wants." I said, "Give him what he wants? I'm gonna increase her commission!" My opinion: there is nothing better than having an agent who's got your back.

DonnaGalanti said...

Excellent list Nathan! And I'm so lucky to cross all these off with my wonderful agent, Bill Contardi of Brandt & Hochman.

It's also good to have some interview questions for the agent-to-be when you have your first call together too to make sure they are a good fit.

Here's a great list of Qs from Literary Rambles I referenced before my call with Bill.

I also recommend researching the agent on Publishers Marketplace for deals as well as Google their name to find any interviews on them that could give you a sense of how they work.

wendy said...

It would be nice to have an agent who helped impart confidence, who got you, and who believed in your work as having something worthwhile to offer; someone who was encouraging, while being constructively critical, about, well, anything.

Great list, Nathan. Something to keep in mind.

Marc Cabot said...

#4 reads, to a lawyer, as "Your agent should be able to provide legal advice."

It's generally illegal for anybody but a licensed attorney to provide legal advice.

Even when it's not illegal, it's a really bad idea.

Ellen said...

I would add one more thing: the agent should love your book! I know that not loving it is the classic excuse for not taking on a project, but it actually is essential. (Also wanted to add how much I enjoyed meeting you at the Madison conference this past weekend. Your talks were really helpful. Thanks!)

Ellen said...
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Ellen said...
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Anonymous said...

I see a lot of thing written where people are hoping agents will someday take on clients for set fees...I guess it's almost like an attorney.

Here's one good example how it might work. An author who has sold thousands of e-books with a digital publisher and has a backlist of at least 50 titles starts having issues with the digital publisher. This main issue is that the author submitted four full length novels to the digital publisher as far back as last July and so far none of those digital books have been released. The author doesn't know why, and is afraid to ask because he/she wants to keep a good relationship with the publisher. But if the author had an agent he/she could hire to inquire for him/her, it would be so much easier.

It might not be the traditional way agents and authors work together, but many digital authors right now NEED agents for some things and they would be willing to pay fees for that kind of support.

If any agents are doing this, it would be wonderful to know. (I could sure use one right about now.) I would also imagine this might be an interesting way for a former agent to take on a few clients on a fee basis to help these writers not be taken advantage of. (Hint)

Liz Mallory said...

So I'm curious...if you ended up with a bad agent but had already signed a contract, what would you do about it?

Nathan Bransford said...


I'd first try to resolve the issues but if they're unresolvable it would be time to terminate the agreement.

Maria Ashworth said...

Love your blog. Question is where do you find an agents recent sales information?

Nathan Bransford said...


Publishers Marketplace is a good place to look.

Swati said...

I love my agent and trust her completely. One of my favorite things that she does, and perhaps I'd add to your fabulous list, is that she helps me manage my expectations. So , for instance, she will tell me if I'm getting a good publicity/marketing and knows when and how to ask for more and when and how to tell me not to ask for more.

Jan Thompson said...

#9. A good agent understands not only traditional publishing but also keeps up with indie publishing and knows how to maximize her client's potential in both paths to getting books to readers.


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