The author/agent relationship can be a tricky one. There are good literary agents and bad literary 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.
Your literary 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.
Your literary 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.
Your literary 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.
Your literary 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.
Your literary 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.
Your literary 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.
Your literary 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
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.
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?
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Art: Japanese Lantern by Oda Krohg