4 Myths (and the Truth) About Getting a Literary Agent

Every time I turn the page on a new chapter of this wild author journey, I realize just how little I knew before. That continues to hold true even though I now have author friends a few steps ahead of me. Despite all their invaluable guidance and advice, each new stage still feels like a further initiation into the arcane mysteries of book creation.

Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor says "A mystery wrapped in an enigma"

Fanciful language, but publishing does often seem opaque to me. With each step, I only have a vague idea of what to expect. Then I move through it and think: ah, now I understand…until the next stage comes along.

Becoming an “agented author” is no exception. Perhaps that’s because this business is so subjective and individualized: talk to ten different authors and you will hear about ten different publishing journeys. Plus, different agents, agencies, and publishing houses may do things very differently.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a standard experience. That’s my disclaimer today: this is my experience and my non-exhaustive knowledge, and it may not generalize. However, my goal in this blog post is to demystify what it means to work with an agent as much as I can for newer writers, especially those currently querying or considering querying, and maybe a little for non-authors wondering why it matters.

Annie Murphy as Alexis Rose says "What's the big deal?"
I’m sure more than one of you are wondering this.

This is not a querying advice post, as there are many good resources out there for querying authors. This is about dispelling some of the mystique around what happens once you reach that goal.

So What IS the Big Deal?

I’ve written here in the past about choosing to publish with a small press without agent representation, and how you may not need an agent. All of that is still true, depending on your goals. But in short, the big deal about having an agent is that an agent can open doors for you in the publishing world that you cannot open alone. Many larger publishers and certainly most “Big 4” imprints won’t even look at your work if it’s not submitted to them by a literary agent.

Lucille Bluth of Arrested Development closes the door with a suspicious look
Publishing be like…

Beyond that, an agent acts as a buffer between the author and the “business side” of publishing. The agent submits your manuscripts to editors, represents your interests in book deals and rights auctions, reviews and negotiates your publishing contracts, and often (depending on the agent) offers editorial feedback on your work.

An agent can also review your book proposals or ideas and advise you on their marketability. They’re in your corner and they have a vested interest in your success: most agents don’t get paid unless their clients do.

Agent Myth #1: Having an Agent Won’t Change Anything

I knew most if not all of the above before I signed with my agent. What I didn’t expect was the relief of knowing that all those business details, research, negotiation, and decision-weighing moments no longer fall solely on my shoulders.

Because having an agent sometimes carries a certain cachet in the writing community, I will confess to developing a minor inferiority complex over not having one. With a hint of sour grapes, I had managed to partially convince myself over the past year that no, I didn’t need rep: my debut was being published, my writing career had started, I was making my dream come true. I could do it myself. I didn’t need anybody else. I could go it alone!

Jessica Jones says "I don't rely on anyone"
Jessica Jones style baybee! (Not recommended)

This is classic Erin bullshit, even though it was technically true. (To a point; I also had some invaluable advice and mentorship helping me along, so “I do it myself” was more my personal myth than anything else.)

Just to be VERY clear, having an agent absolutely does not mean you’re a better writer than someone who isn’t repped. But what it does mean is that you’re not in it alone anymore.

A good agent should bring a sharp eye for details, knowledge of publishing contracts, professional connections with editors, and industry experience to the relationship, things that most writers don’t have on their own. And that kind of expertise is frankly priceless to someone like me who has no taste for the business end of things. Even this early on, I’ve already benefited from my agent’s industry knowledge multiple times.

Caveat: you will hear “no agent is better than a bad agent” thrown around a lot in querying advice, and that is absolutely true. There are no prerequisites for calling oneself an agent, no licensing exam, and no certification. So definitely do your research and remember that your agent should bring value to the relationship. You already bring value, because you’re the one producing the stories.

But an agent worth having is definitely not just a gatekeeper looking to take a portion of your hard-earned royalties. Ideally, the relationship between agent and client should be a mutually beneficial professional partnership.

Agent Myth #2: Having an Agent Changes Everything

With all that said, getting an agent doesn’t mean your career is set for life, that you will get a six-figure deal, that you will suddenly become a bestseller, or even that your book will sell at all. It doesn’t instantly change the trajectory of your writing journey. It doesn’t mean you can quit your day job.

Peggy of Mad Men living the dream (quitting with a smile)
Maybe someday.

It’s certainly validating to have someone you respect “buy in” to your work, but it’s not an immunization against imposter syndrome or self-doubt. Whatever brain demons you had on board before, they will still yammer at the same decibel. Getting an agent doesn’t shut them up anymore than, say, publishing your first novel does, I’m sorry to tell you.

In other words, I am still exactly the same writer (and person) I was before I signed, for better or worse.

Honestly, the biggest practical change in my life so far is that I don’t feel awkward about casually engaging with literary agents on social media because I no longer worry that my responses will seem like an attempt to cozy up and get rep. That’s nice! The agents I follow on Twitter are funny, smart, creative people whom I have a lot of genuine respect for, and I appreciate being able to interact with them without worrying about being misread.

It does also mean I can stop worrying about querying and maybe even unsubscribe from Query Tracker. (Seems fake i.e. I haven’t been able to bring myself to do that yet.) On the other hand, going on submission is a lot like querying! You still face rejection, potentially a lot of it! And the stakes are even higher. Yay! Exciting! 😱

Dumb & Dumber "So you're telling me there's a chance!"
A pre-sub mood.

Agent Myth #3: Agents Are Taskmasters

I didn’t really buy this one before I signed, and I wouldn’t have signed with someone who seemed like they would drop me or respond cruelly if I didn’t comply with their timeline. To be honest, my internal deadlines are probably far harsher than anything Maeve would come up with, and when we set my editing timeline, she asked me what my reasonable turnaround time would be. But I’ve seen this misconception floating around a couple places recently.

Most dramatically, it appeared in one of my favorite silly Netflix Christmas rom-coms of 2021, A Castle for Christmas, in which Brooke Shields’ literary agent acts like a publicist, constantly calls her to harass her about her deadlines, and berates her for not writing the book the agent wants her to write. I watched this with a friend who is a writer and literary intern and we were utterly befuddled by this behavior.

That's not how this works! That's not how any of this works!
We’ll suspend disbelief for silver fox Cary Elwes as an English nobleman, but we draw the line at publishing fairy tales!

I’ve also heard from fellow authors worried that an agent will drop them if they can’t produce fast enough. Unless you’re actually on a multi-book contract with publisher and miss a deadline, that kind of behavior would be a red flag in my opinion. Some agents may have different expectations, but it’s my impression that most wouldn’t expect their clients to put out a book every six months or even every year.

(ETA: As Mike Mammay points out in the comments, even in the case of a missed deadline on a book contract, your agent shouldn’t drop you then, either. They should still advocate for you and negotiate an extension! No one benefits if you turn in a rushed project.)

An agent doesn’t lose money if an author isn’t producing, and it doesn’t make sense for them to expect all clients to be active all the time. Your agent is there to facilitate and support your career, not be your boss.

Also, once you go on submission to editors with your first book, the submission period might last far longer than a year! If it sells, it might not actually hit stores for more than a year! No joke: I hear that some editors are acquiring for 2024 right now.

Publishing is slow. You will have plenty of time to write more books while you wait.

Agent Myth #4: Your Book Will Go on Sub Immediately

This will vary vastly depending on your agent’s level of editorial input, but an agent isn’t going to push you to go on submission until the book is ready. Good agents will work collaboratively with you to make sure you’re prepared to go on sub, even if this means multiple rounds of edits, and preparation can take a fair amount of time.

Yoda says "patience you must learn"
Exceedingly slow, the wheels of publishing grind!

This isn’t to say you should ever query an unfinished or unpolished book with the hope that an agent can help you fix it. The book should be the best you can make it and your agent’s edits will likely aim at making it more saleable, not repairing major issues. However, your career doesn’t benefit by sending your manuscript to editors if it isn’t ready, and therefore, your agent doesn’t benefit either.

Some people may work with their agent for months on revisions before the first round of editor submissions. Others may go on submission more quickly. (You also might pause submission later and do more revisions!)

Did I mention that publishing is slow? Because publishing is slow.

Truth: what actually happens after you get an agent

After you accept an offer of rep, you sign a contract. You celebrate. You announce your good news. You update EVERYTHING, like social media profiles, the physical address in your newsletter (now properly a c/o [agency]), and your website’s contact page.

Seriously, don’t forget to update your website with your agent’s contact info. You are probably wondering, does anyone actually look at that? And while I can’t say any more about this, I can assure you that YES, they do, and you definitely want them to know who to contact for professional inquiries!

Forrest Gump says "That's all I have to say about that."
Just trust me on this one.

Sometime after that, you get an edit letter and the work begins anew.

Sometime after THAT, you prepare your materials and go on submission (I haven’t gotten to this part yet). Your agent handles the submission to editors. You can get updates periodically or every day, depending on preference, but the rejections (or offers, let’s think positively I guess) go to your agent, not you.

Then…you wait. The wait for news can be a long wait! Because (say it with me) PUBLISHING IS SLOW.

Zootopia sloth with an amused fox and impatient bunny
And it’s only getting slower!

During the wait, you hopefully write something new, because there are no guarantees in this writing life. You may not sell your first book, so having another one on hand is important. Or you may have editors ask about your next project! Or you may sell your first book, and then you’ll want to have the next one in the hopper. Either way, eventually the whole cycle will start over.

One of my 2021 lessons can be adapted here: before getting agented, write words, revise manuscripts. After getting agented, write words, revise manuscripts.

In conclusion: a writer’s work is never done. That work doesn’t change just because you have an agent.

I love hearing from my readers! Agree/disagree with what I’ve said here? Have questions? Want to share your own experience? Leave a comment below! 💖

7 thoughts on “4 Myths (and the Truth) About Getting a Literary Agent

  1. I would offer that even if you have a contract and a deadline to a publisher and missed it, your agent wouldn’t drop you. You’d tell your agent well ahead of time that you were going to miss, and she’d get you an extension. Like you, I can’t speak for every situation. But that’s what my agent did for me this year. Twice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great point, Mike! Thanks for sharing your experience. It makes sense, because an agent should be an author’s advocate, and that includes times when life happens and deadlines need to move.

      Like

  2. What an interesting POV. Here in Southeast Asia, we’ve totally abandoned the concept of agents. But I’d like to be published internationally someday, and that would require an agent, which will be something new to me. Anyway, thanks for sharing things from your end, Erin!

    Liked by 1 person

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