10 Tips for Working with a Literary Agent (Manuscript Monday)

As I wrote last Monday, I’ve had an agent, Kathy Helmers, for quite a while now. We’ve been through ups and downs, and I think I’ve learned some things about working with an agent, both from my time with Kathy and watching my friends with their agents. Here’s my list of 10 Tips for Working with a Literary Agent:

1. Know why you have an agent.
Some of my friends have an agent because they hate the business side of publishing; they just want to write and have someone else take care of the details. That’s not me — I like the business side. Others have an agent because they don’t really like to write; they use an agent to help them fashion the book. That’s not me — I love to write. I have an agent because I work better on a team. I want a lot of advocates and various voices in the process of writing. Kathy is an important voice in the process for me, and she sticks with my book until it’s in print. Also, a part of that team is being friends with my editor, and tough financial negotiations can be hard on a friendship. Since Kathy does the negotiating, I can keep my relationship with my editor free of that.

2. Know what your agent brings to the party.
Your agent brings perspective and expertise in the market that you, as an author, don’t have. She knows what books have sold for recently; she knows sales figures on books that are similar to yours; she knows what particular publishing houses are looking for; she probably knows which editors you’ll work best with. These are all insights that most authors don’t have.

3. Remember that a book is a giant compromise.
Your book will not end up being about what you first thought it would be about. Your agent will shape and reshape your proposal, and then the publisher will have all sorts of opinions about what kind of book will actually sell. Trust your agent when she tells you to change aspects of your book idea.

4. Remember that your agent works for you.
That being said, you do have to stand on your principles. You are giving up 15% of your advance and your royalties to your agent, but in the end, it’s your name on the cover, not hers. Be ready to compromise and negotiate about your book, but don’t end up agreeing to write a book that you don’t want to write.

5. Know that your agent doesn’t work only for you.
Your agent has many other clients. If she doesn’t answer your phone call right away, or respond to your email within 24 hours, she’s probably neck-deep in a negotiation on another author’s book proposal. Your book is the most important thing in the world to you, but it’s only one of the most important things in the world to your agent.

6. Don’t ask your agent about her other clients’ deals.
Don’t ask what another one of her author’s got for an advance. It’s uncouth, and it puts her in an awkward position. That’s proprietary information, and it’s none of your business. You wouldn’t want her blabbing about your advance to other author’s, would you? Instead, trust that she’ll take all of her industry knowledge and recent deals into the negotiation on your book.

7. Don’t be afraid to bug your agent.
Yes, she’s busy. Yes, she has other clients. So you may need to send her a few texts to remind her that you’re out there, working on your proposal. Set up a phone call appointment with her; get a whole hour of her undivided attention to talk about your book. Take the initiative on this, or else her other authors will take up all of her time.

8. Don’t leave your agent out of marketing.
This is one of the most common mistakes I see authors make. After they’ve got their book deal, they stop talking to their agent. This is a big mistake. Many books rise and fall based on the marketing support that a book gets, and in your agent you have an industry expert who has skin in the game — if your book becomes a bestseller, she’s getting 15% of every sale. Ask your agent to bully the publisher into giving your book marketing support.

9. Tell others about your agent.
Agents don’t advertise. They live (and die) on word-of-mouth. If your agent has done right by you, tell others how awesome she is. Oh, I should add, Kathy Helmers is awesome!

10. Thank your agent in the acknowledgements.
Um, duh.

Okay, authors and agent out there, what tips do you have about working together?


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