7 Things to Look for in a Literary Agent #amwriting


Two questions constantly circulate in the writing world.

  1. Which publisher are you going through?
  2. Which agent are you going to hire?

Those questions make me laugh now, but when I was new to the writing world, they made sense.

Pick a publisher or agent.

Write a letter telling all about yourself and your book.

A publisher will publish it.

And they’ll write you a $10,000.00 advance too.

That’s not how it works.

Back then agents weren’t a necessary part of getting your foot in the door at a large publishing house, so I didn’t read up on how to acquire one. But when it finally hit me that having one might be beneficial, I thought the process would be easy. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that acquiring an agent was just as hard as acquiring a contract with a publisher.

If you’re just getting started in the writing world, you may be wondering what’s so ridiculous about the above questions. You see, you can’t just “go through” a publisher unless you choose a printing house who you pay to print your books (a vanity press). Small houses and print-on-demand publishers are easier to get a contract with, but still not effortless. It’s a long and arduous process that could take years.

The same level of difficulty presents itself when searching for an agent. And while it’s true that you have to impress them with your work, your charm and your platform (especially for non-fiction), question two above holds a lot of truth.

When it comes down to it, you ultimately are the one who “hires” the agent. The agent doesn’t hire you. Yes, you must hear the beautiful words, “I would like to represent you,” but you’re the one who chooses if the agent is the right one to do the job.

When I first began my search, I already had two traditionally published novels, and the requirement I had at the top of my list was ANY AGENT WHO WOULD TAKE ME! In fact, that was the entire list. I didn’t need to know anything else. I sent out zillions (not really) of query letters and was ready to sign on the dotted line of the first one to offer me a contract. I felt the same way about publishers at the time. It’s not the best approach.

One glorious day at a conference in 2012, the clouds parted, and the sun beamed down on the table I sat at with a revered man in the industry, Les Stobbe. We had a sweet chat about mutual friends in the industry and about my work. I wanted to pass out. He wanted to read my full proposal while I sat there across the table from him. He still remembers this moment just as well as I do. It was a God-moment in my life that I’ll never forget.

I’d never queried him because he was a GIANT in the industry, and I didn’t think he’d ever sign a little old gal like me. But I was wrong, and I’m so glad my friends encouraged (forced) me to make an appointment with him that day.

CLICK TO TWEET: 7 Things to Look for in a Literary Agent

So what should you look for in an agent?

  1. An agent does not charge his clients.

If an agent has offered to represent you but says you must pay him for a critique or some other service, RUN! A real agent receives payment when you are paid. That’s what makes him work so hard for you to find a publisher.

  1. An agent should be someone you connect with personality-wise and on a personal level.

It shouldn’t be a strained relationship, one that intimidates you.

  1. An agent should be passionate about all things WRITING.

If your agent doesn’t understand what it takes to craft a good book, or he doesn’t have time to read books EVER, then you might need to pass. If you’re going to be a success in this industry, you need to be on fire for books. You need to feel as though your last breath can’t be taken until you’ve achieved your goals. You want your agent to feel the same way.

  1. An agent should have a working knowledge of your genre.

If you write fiction and the prospective agent primarily deals with non-fiction authors and doesn’t know her way around a fiction proposal, nor does she stay abreast of what’s happening with fiction publishers, then this wouldn’t be the agent for you. You want an agent who is passionate about the kind of work you create. It’s this passion that drives the agent to stand in the gap between you and the publisher, to fight for your project to make it all the way through the publishing process.

  1. An agent should know the business.

You want an agent who understands publishing contracts (so you don’t end up in a deal that ties you to this publisher for your lifetime). Someone who knows the market and the current trends and should be able to offer insider information to help you make wise decisions about your writing projects. If you’re working on a story type that’s not selling currently, an agent can encourage you to write something else and put that project on hold. It doesn’t mean you have to do it, but it helps to know what publishers are looking for.

  1. An agent should encourage you but not pump you full of empty accolades.

You want your agent to be real with you. If your writing stinks (which it probably doesn’t if he signed you as a client) or needs improving, he should tell you your strengths and weaknesses so you can improve. If you’re pliable, you’ll grow in your writing and will most likely one day see a contract with your name printed on it.

Part of this encouragement involves your agent helping you with decisions about self-publishing also. You may have worked on a project that you’re passionate about and it’s a great piece, yet it’s not something publishers are looking for right now and may never be. A good agent will be able to help you decide if this project is worth self-publishing. He won’t see the project as competition for his earnings, but instead he’ll see it as a “splinter” that you need to dig out of your mind, publish it, and move on to the next project (because sometimes writers can’t move on until a certain project is completed).

  1. If you’re a Christian and you’re seeking a Christian agent, then this quality should be at the top of your list: An agent should pray for you and with you.

Cell phone pics 088I speak from experience. There’s nothing quite like having your agent email you prayers and scriptures and words of encouragement when you want to give up the quest. There’s nothing like sitting across from your agent in a bustling 100,000 square foot exhibit hall during the International Christian Retail Show and having him take both of your hands in his and say a prayer of blessing over your family and your career. There’s literally nothing like it!

If you’re currently seeking a contract with a traditional publisher, strap yourself in because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. You’ll most likely need to acquire an agent first. Spend your time researching which agent would be a good fit for you. Then query that agent with the best proposal you can write. While you’re waiting, study the craft and perfect your writing. Write, write, and write some more.

I hope this has helped you in your quest for an agent.

CLICK TO TWEET: 7 Things to Look for in a Literary Agent

Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.com

Published by Sherri Wilson Johnson

I am a wife/mother/writer/speaker looking to be used by God!

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