Before You Hire a Literary Agent

A while back, I received an email from one of our authors, notifying us that he had hired a new literary agent. My first thought was, You’ve got to be kidding! Of all the agents out there, why would you pick THAT one!

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/akurtz, Image #8128807

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/akurtz

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against agents. Not only was I a literary agent for six years, I have been represented by an agent on all of the books I have personally published. And, of course, as a publisher, I deal with agents on a daily basis.A few of these agents are close, personal friends. Many of them add real value to the publishing process. However, some of them do irreparable harm to the author’s reputation. Like most professions, it is a mixed bag. You owe it to yourself to do your homework.

As an author, the most important thing you need to understand about agents is that they represent YOU. If an agent has a good reputation (i.e., a brand), that reputation will accrue to your benefit:

  • If the agent is knowledgeable and well-read, publishers will assume that you are a person of literary merit—someone to be taken seriously.
  • If the agent is prompt and responsive, publishers will assume that you are cooperative and low-maintenance—someone they want to work with.
  • If the agent is reasonable in the terms they request, publishers will assume that you are committed to a win-win paradigm—someone they want to invest in.

However, if an agent has a bad reputation, that reputation will also accrue to your detriment:

  • If the agent isn’t well-read and isn’t conversant with your topic or proposal, publishers will assume that you don’t know what you are talking about either.
  • If your agent is disorganized and unresponsive, publishers will assume that you are uncooperative and high-maintenance.
  • If the agent is unreasonable and greedy, publishers will assume that you are committed to a win-lose paradigm and just in it for the money.

Frankly, I am amazed that so many authors hire agents without checking references. To be blunt, this is just stupid. You wouldn’t do this with an employee; why would you do it with an agent?

In hiring new employees, I have found that checking references is the single most important thing I can do. Prospective employees will tell you all kinds of things in an interview. They will spin their story to their advantage. But, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “trust but verify.” You never know for sure until you check the references. The same is true in hiring a literary agent.

Before you hire a literary agent, I would encourage you to:

  1. Contact at least three authors whom the agent currently represents. Ask the agent for a list, including telephone numbers. Obviously, these will be clients the agent thinks will speak well of him. Regardless, you will still learn a great deal by talking to these clients. If possible, talk with them on the phone. People will tell you things on a phone call that they will not put in writing.
  2. Contact at least three publishers with whom the agent has recently done business. Again, ask the agent to provide a list. Ask the publisher, four questions:
    • “Did the agent present a compelling proposal?”
    • “Did the agent provide you what you needed to make a good decision?”
    • “Did the agent respond to your calls and emails in a timely manner?”
    • “Was the agent fair and reasonable in the negotiating process?”

If you already have an agent, it is important that you monitor how you are being represented. Check in with your publisher from time to time and make sure that you are being well-represented. Keep in mind that the publisher will be reluctant to be candid unless he can count on your confidentiality.

By the way, I maintain a “List of Literary Agents who Represent Christian Authors” here.

Question: How do you want to be represented? How ARE you being represented? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Luigi Rossi

    I received a contract to sign with Tate Publishing, Mustang Ok.  I will have  to invest  $3,990. at 15% from sales. ouch!  I am 71 and have written on small topics like depression,forgiveness, etc.  This has been my  first time walking on water.
           My son edits and publishes a business magizine and has offered to edit & print it for $2.25 a copy (paper back book). But is unable to promote it ??? Luigi

  • Estherkamps

    How DO you check up and verify that the agent you are thinking of hiring is good, efficient, knowledgeable etc?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      It’s pretty much like you would hire anyone else: ask for references and then check them. I would also do a Google search and check some writer forums.

  • http://twitter.com/MichelleHughes_ Michelle Hughes

    Thanks for the post.  My biggest dilemma of late is do I need an agent?  I’m a self-published author and my book currently rests at #420 on Amazon and I’m just wondering is this as far as we can take it?  I wrote with a co-author and all our earlier promotions were set to get the book to where it’s at right now.

  • Jessica Robinson

    Great advice!  these are certainly questions I should of asked prior to hiring my last agent.

    She represented me for over 2 years.  She seemed to talk a good game and knowledgeable.  However, turns out she didn’t have any major contacts at any publishers.  I believe she was using me to hopefully use my work to gain her exposure to publishers.

    I pushed her to provide a list of where my books were under consideration and she did not want to produce this list.  She was rude and offended that I even asked.  I told her that I simply wanted to evaluate where I was at this point in the game.  She ended up canceling my contract.  AND never produced any list.  Probably because she had NEVER submitted the manuscripts to anyone.  If I had asked more questions initially- I would not be where I am now.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      You did the right thing by asking. Any reputable agent would happily provide this kind of list. Thanks.

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  • Karenlalaniz

    I didn’t have an agent for my first book. I know…I know… So many other writers thought I wasn’t all that smart. Luckily, I landed a wonderful publisher. I have no regrets at all. However — I am now working on books 2 and 3 and I want agent representation this time around. I was recommended to an agent by an author-friend. We’ve emailed back and forth. She is very open to my questions, and she has seen the proposal for one of the books and is interested. I feel like we’re courting. Is that what we’re doing? I’m serious. Karen   http://www.storymatters2.com

  • JGuest

    Hi Michael, thank you for this article; it is very helpful. As a first-time agent, I have had 3 interested agents who provided excellent feedback, but 2 were “overloaded” with clients at the moment and  I am left with 1 interested.  She is asking me to do a ton of things up front before a contract is printed, like research on the target market (to send her), along with revising my proposal to her template. Is this normal?  She did come recommended to me from another author but I’m not sure how much more work I should be doing, as I’m not positive I want her to be my agent yet.  Thank you!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Yep. This is pretty normal. Welcome to the publishing world!

  • JGuest

    I meant to say – as a first time author, not agent.  :)

  • http://dalemelchin.wordpress.com/ Dale Melchin

    @428d3304e42e0488424b878e2f1df43b:disqus , I just wanted to tell you picked a good stock photo for this post.  It reminds me of Michael Myers… not the comedian, but the evil antagonist of the Halloween series.  Just sayin… point made. *hides*

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  • ScottMichaelPowers

    I really appreciate your advice. I’ve included it, including a link, on my blog, The Naive Optimist (www.scottmichaelpowers.com) and included some thoughts and observations of my own, from an unpublished novelist trying to get started in this process.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Scott. I appreciate that.

  • Pearlrodgers

    Thanks for the information I selfpublish my first novel and haven’t sold but thirty books, I have complete writing a young adult short novel and looking for a publisher maybe you can be of some help, to become a successful author you have to be  rich are have a lot of money believe me I know this for a fact thanks Pearl Rodgers

  • http://www.facebook.com/melinda.dupreekewley Melinda DuPree

    Michael, I know for a darn fact that I can write a dang good book. Can I get this out there without an agent?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Absolutely. But you will have to self-publish.

  • U. B. Red

    Here it is in a nutshell: Literary agents are no more than the real estate agents of the writing world.

    Some of them are lawyers (and even when not, they are far, far too like lawyers). They are just as often failed writers who have gravitated to this relative position of authority whereupon they can put their bitterness to its truest and best use. They are former editors who couldn’t make the grade at a publishing house and were fired. Some are copy editors who’ve risen as far as they can go in their profession.

    To each of their delight, they have now become kings of their own particular hill. They’ve hung out their shingle along with tens of thousands of others just like them, each hoping to rake in a little piece of as many of us writers as possible—to take part in the Las Vegas of Manhattan, this lucrative racket—and like any other racket, it’s a numbers game. They wheel and deal. They make canny arrangements that serve themselves above all (naturally). They are frequently pompous and arrogant. They claim to be harried and overworked yet still seem to find time for cocktail parties and lavish editor lunches. They make promises that are never kept. They ignore queries. They neglect to read requested submissions. They don’t return e-mails. They stall. They make excuses. They use meaningless euphemisms in their rejections like “it just didn’t draw me in as much as I’d hoped” or “it really didn’t jump off the page” or “I wanted to fall in love with your characters, but alas, it didn’t happen” or “I couldn’t get on board with the voice…” I could go on and on.

    But paramount to any of those things is this: they have become jaded and desensitized to good writing. They have long since forgotten the difference between tripe and tenderloin.

    It is not quality and creativity that motivates literary agents to take action, to request pages, to offer representation. No, it is instead one magic ingredient (over which you have tremendous control). And that is where my methods come in.

    Read my book I HATE LITERARY AGENTS by U.B. Red, available on Amazon.

  • http://twitter.com/QuantumAlmanac The Quantum Matrix™

    I’ve chatted with Westbow’s Jon Lineback, and although self-publishing is not right for me; he’s the type of professional I’d want representing me.

  • Heather

    Seeing as you were an agent and are now a published author and publisher, I suppose it would be incredibly presumptuous of me to inquire as to whether or not you might suggest an agent or two? Or even a site where one might find a list of credible agents? I need an agent….BADLY!!!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      No, not at all. I maintain a list here. I don’t recommend specific agents and I don’t recommend any particular agent on my list. However, they are all agents who are active. Thanks.