At Writer’s Relief, we meet many writers who have dreams of landing a pie-in-the-sky literary agent for their book or novel. But let’s face it—that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, a writer is offered representation from a literary agency that isn’t in their top tier. Sometimes, a writer will receive an offer from a literary agent who is just starting out or who has a solid but not spectacular reputation. The question is always the same: Is a good literary agent—or an okay agent—good enough?
Each situation is different. Many variables play into a writer’s ability to get the agent of his or her dreams—including the quality of the writing, demand for the type of work in question, and the writer’s personality. But we hope our thoughts in general will help you make a good decision about your specific situation.
Before You Start Querying Literary Agents
If you’ve done your homework and you know that there are a handful of literary agencies who would be perfect for your book, then we at Writer’s Relief recommend you query those few agents before you begin querying your B-list agents. After you’ve queried your faves, then you can move on to querying others. This will save you from having the problem—later on—of having had an offer from your B list when you’re still waiting for a response from your favorite agent.
Getting Real About Good Literary Agents
Although perhaps your top handful of agents didn’t love your work, don’t lose faith. Keep in mind that a B-list agent might actually be a great literary agent who has the workhorse reputation and ethic that it takes to get the job done for you. Literary agents who are striving to build great reputations on the foundation of good reputations will often be passionate advocates for your writing—perhaps more passionate than if you were to be represented by an agent who has a “been there, done that” attitude. Your B list could get you high As!
What About Signing With a Not-So-Great Agency?
If you’ve received an offer from a literary agent that you suspect is not of a sound reputation and ethic, we recommend that you steer clear. Here’s an article that will help you know if a literary agent is trying to pull the wool over your eyes: Warning Signs: How To Spot A Bad Literary Agent: Part One.
That said, there are literary agents out there who might be set up legitimately and ethically, but who don’t yet have the connections, talent, reputation, and track record that it can take to negotiate good contracts with reputable publishing houses. You may want to proceed, but do so cautiously.
Remember: If a literary agent makes an offer to you, YOU are the one with the goods (the manuscript), and you don’t have to agree to anything you don’t want to agree to.
Take your time, ask questions (start with these), and let the other literary agents (those you prefer) know that you’ve had an offer of representation and that you would like a response regarding your manuscript within the next week or two. If you don’t get any bites, you might consider going with the literary agent who made the offer. Just be sure everything’s legit and in your best interest.
How To Put A Literary Agent On Hold
Some writers want to tell a literary agent, “Can you just hold that thought until I wait to hear back from my first-choice agent?” It’s risky to do this, but not necessarily unwise, depending on the situation.
After speaking with the literary agent about his or her offer and seriously considering the situation, you can politely tell the agent you need some time to think about it (you might not want to mention that you are following up with other agents—but it’s up to you). A good agent will probably put some pressure on you to make a choice—agents are salespeople to an extent—but will hopefully also respect your wishes.
And if the agent in question is insulted, saying “it’s now or never,” then it’s up to you to decide how important chemistry is in your relationship. True, the literary agent might rescind his or her offer if you ask for more time—but we wonder: Would you want to work with an agent that puts so much pressure on his or her clients?
Finally, remember that some literary agents are busy enough without having to add you to their client list. They assume (rightly, we hope) that you’ve done your homework before querying and you feel they could be a good fit for your work. Because of this, some agents will expect an immediate yes or no answer: They may not be inclined to take on a writer who seems like he or she is on the fence.
There Are No Easy Answers
Because each writer is different and each writer has his or her own goals, we can’t give you a one-size-fits-all answer to the question of “should you settle when it comes to signing with a literary agent?” However, we can pose some questions that may help you to make an informed choice. By knowing your own feelings on these questions, you might be able to determine how you feel about your second-choice literary agent:
1. Have you truly queried a good number of the appropriate and reputable agents for your particular book genre? If not, are you sure you’re ready to settle?
2. On a scale of one to ten (ten being most important), how important do you feel that mutual respect and trust are in a relationship? How does that apply to your situation with your potential agent? Do the scales tip slightly one way or the other? Now—what number would you assign for how much you would trust the agent in question? Is there a big disparity between how much you want to trust and how much you actually do?
3. Would you prefer to have an agent try to sell your book, and then, if it doesn’t work, you’ll self-publish? Or would you rather just self-publish now because you’re eager to see the work in print?
4. Is it very important to you to have a book that does well with national audiences? If so, would you consider revising and querying literary agents again—especially if you had any “close call” manuscript requests with literary agents that you really loved?
Looking for your dream literary agent? Writer’s Relief can help! We help writers make submissions—personalized targeting and advice for your submission strategy!
QUESTION: What do you think? Is any literary agent better than no agent at all?
QUESTION: What do you think? Is any liteary agent better than no agent at all?
Um…yes. As long as they’re legitimate.
Part of me thinks that it’s so hard to get an agent that even having a mediocre agent is an amazing feat.
I mean, every big-time agent was just starting out at some point…right? Just like writers have to start somewhere too.
Hmmmm. Is landing a lackluster literary agent better than landing no agent at all? Personally, I don’t think so. I think it may do more harm than good because if your work is really a great piece and you have a lackluster agent, then publishers could identify your work with the agent. Besides, after putting in all the hard work, I don’t think writer’s deserve a lackluster agent. So, I think the long run, it would be better to not have an agent than to settle for a mediocre one. After all, why walk the boulevard of mediocrity if all you will find is mediocrity. My hero is Richard Bach who was rejected over 250 times and look at him..another example is Rick Warren who didn’t get noticed until 10 years after he self-published his book which we all know as The Purpose Driven Life.
At one point I thought so as well. I had an agent that was recommended by another author and I was signed but had to pay a $20 a month fee for expenses for the 6 month contract. I was told its not uncommon for an author to pay office expenses so I went with it.
I learned NO ONE can sell you better than you. You have to sell yourself to the agent who in turn will help you sell yourself to publishers. The question is how MUCH of yourself are you willing to sell.
I know SELF PUBLISH is a dirty word in this business but is it really. You can control your work, can be involved, if you so choose. Now some authors just want to pound out the books and get paid, and that’s okay, but don’t knock self publishing.
I have 13 books that would never have seen the light of day had I sat around waiting for an agent. I got reject after reject after 80+ reject so I self published. Many of my fans are happy that I did and while it may be slow going, its going at MY pace.
Hope this is helpful.
I know, as a writer, who has had countless problems with getting my work published, that having a literary agent might make my writing career a whole lot easier, but if I’m going to pay for one then I want one that is the best at what they do. I don’t want them to pass up a deal, that could help me to get my work out there, just because they either are slakers or they have little to no experience. I can understand the concept, that literary agents start out being a little rusty, but if they continue, from client to client, being rusty, and there is no chance of improvement. Then wants the sense in having them as a literary agent?
My first and only book of poems was published by a local, encouraging, poet-himself publisher. It resounded well with local readers who did and do not even know me. Now that I am trying to broaden my readership I don’t know what will be. I am, however, optimistic that whoever sees my work will think it worthy of being read ‘somewhere’. Self-publishing is not good for me as I no longer have the inclination to go out there as a salesman after I’ve already done the writing. In that regard any legitimate, ethical agent is to be preferred.
A literary agent has access to publishing houses that do not accept submissions any other way. This policy blocks new writers or relatively unknown ones. Digital books seem to be the only way out.
Thanks for a thoughtful article.
A literary agent is always a good choice for a writer as writer could feel free of many worries…. but, still, it’s better to have no agent than to get a bad agent…
I think a good idea is to submit for a segment on the local news to promote yourself as a writer and promote your book(s). This will give your work credibility and visibility for literary agents to contact you and present an offer.
An agent is good to have than not having one at all. Having no agent at all your going nowhere. Having an agent (good or bad) can mean, ‘you haven’t even joined running the race yet!’
Basically if you are not a celebrity or an established author, you should forget these literary parasites. They are ignorant, often poorly educated and interested in cliches. The traditional publishing world is crumbling; and it is a good thing, because too many incompetent, greedy and ignorant people are involved in this doomed business. Every year the number of new titles published far exeeds the number of readers. Take a look at the biography of great, creative artists; without exception they had to fight all the way to get their “unacceptable” work published, thus making a milestone on the highway into nothingness.
Forget the literary agents, unless you are a parrot, willing to repeat what they tell you to get your work accepted.
Dear Felix, Thanks for your comment! Your tone certainly reflects the frustration that many writers are feeling these days. We’ve seen many of our clients go on to get successful, competent literary agents who help them go on to book deals. Helping writers succeed is our passion (and luckily, we’re good at it too!). As you point out, these days there are many more paths to becoming a professional writer than ever before! Regardless of which path a writer takes, we think Richard Bach said it best: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
I have had two literary agents in my life: an okay one and a great one. Here’s the story:
First agent: Connected with her when I was in my early twenties and didn’t know what I was doing. She was not a BAD agent, just wasn’t a great agent. But here’s the thing: my book wasn’t a BAD book…it just wasn’t a GREAT book either. So really, she was the right agent for me at that time. Lo and behold, she did not sell my first book.
Flash forward a few years.
Second agent: By now, I know what I’m doing. I’m a stronger writer. I know the market. I put in my time (years) studying my craft and reading everything I could get my hands on. I built up my bio and my platform. Now, suddenly, a great agent is interested in me. And lo and behold, she not only sells one book to a major publisher…she sells FOUR and counting, with sub-rights selling for overseas translations too.
So…should you connect with a so-so liteary agent? I did.
To this day I’m thankful for my so-so agent. She taught me the ropes. She gave me confidence that I was on the right track. Who knows? Maybe she could have sold it (if the work itself had been a bit stronger)! But she taught me a valuable lesson that I will take with me for the rest of my life:
If your writing isn’t getting noticed by the people you want to notice it, it might be time to step up your game.
My only experience with agents, was with one who had criminal goals. I am still smarting.She did irreparable damage. Now all carry the stigma and pose that age old question. Is this one honest or otherwise.
As Felix suggests…even the biggest, baddest A-list agent would have trouble negotiating “this doomed business,” because the realm of what the gatekeppers even contemplate is so narrow and constricted, therefore, the crap quotient rockets upward accordingly. I, too, am looking at more DIY means, if only to get some say-so back into the equation (and also, since the writer is lumbered with most of the responsibility, you may as well make sure that things get properly).
Considering what agents require of authors these days (you build your own platform?), I wonder what they do all day fo their 15%. A big NO from me. And let’s get current with trends. To self publish is no longer a sin. in the word of Internet there are many opportunities. Anne Crowder
Most publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. The best bet to get ones work seen is to have a literary agent, hopefully a respected one in the industry.
My writing coach told me not to be afraid to self-publish. He remarked, “Unless your name is Hilton or Clinton, your chances of getting your first book published by a big publisher is almost nil these days. Sensationalism is what sells today, … unfortunately.”