2 things an agent isn’t

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Over the last few weeks I’ve had conversations with more than one writer who had little understanding of what an agent does. Their expectations reminded me about two ways would-be clients (or current clients, for that matter) misconstrue an agent’s role.

An agent isn’t a magic wand

An established author contacted me about representing him. As we discussed the current state of his career, I discovered:Magic hat Royalty Free Stock Images

  • he never had an agent because he never saw the utility of that relationship
  • he had negotiated bad contracts and bad deals for himself
  • he had moved to a new publisher despite the top-billing his old publisher had maintained for him
  • the new publisher wasn’t promoting his most recent release, and his sales numbers were in serious decline

The author was thinking that, maybe, an agent could get him some marketing bucks for his release and get him out of his multi-book contract. I concluded that said author’s career called for triage. Yet the author had  no idea how imperiled he was.

But one thing he did know: An agent could wave a magic wand and make it all better.

Nope. Ain’t going to happen.

Now, we can pull rabbits out of the hat…sometimes. We can rescue careers…sometimes.

Still, we offer no guarantees that we can fix what has gone dreadfully wrong and sometimes has taken years to get as bad as it is. We also can’t resolve problems with a book as it is being produced if the author doesn’t tell us things aren’t going well. If we hear about issues that forecast the book won’t do well only when it’s too late to step in and mend the problem. there will be no magic wands.

An agent isn’t a life preserver to be used only in case of an emergency

A friend recently connected me with an author who had written a book that had best-seller written all over it. But the writer was new to publishing and confused about why she needed an agent. She had, in fact, contacted a publishing house that was wooing her toward a book contract. The author riddled me with questions about what an agent could do for her, and I launched into a round of mini-workshops on what agents do that go way beyond finding a publishing home for a project. I explained that I was pretty certain several publishers would be interested in her project, and that it would be in her best interests to give me a chance to show the project around.

But the writer liked how excited the publishing house she had contacted was. She couldn’t see that she was short-changing herself by not signing with me and giving me free rein to do what agents know how to do: elicit significant interest from a number of publishers and choose the house that has the most enthusiasm for and willingness to invest  in a project.

Two days after the writer and I went our separate ways, I received a panicked email saying the publishing house she was so sure was perfect for her had turned down the project. I suspect because she insisted that the book be released in three months, which was another point I had explained to her was seriously off-putting to publishers.

“Take my project to other publishers,” she wrote in her succinct email.

I think she pictured me as a life preserver, and she had just realized she was in a storm-tossed sea.

Nope. Ain’t going to happen.

She already had shown herself incapable of trusting me to take care of her and her project. Once I started to work on  her behalf, she was chaotic enough to take over the process from me, once again muddying the waters with unrealistic expectations. I loved her project, but she was impossible to work with. I couldn’t be her life preserver.

The two takeaways I would suggest from this blog post are:

1) Realize your agent can only work with what you give him or her. If you don’t have a stunning project, if you aren’t building your platform, or if you don’t want to concentrate on writing manuscripts that build a brand, you are asking your agent to be a magic wand.

2) Understand that a writer’s unrealistic expectations about the size of an advance, the best way to move his or her career forward, or what a publisher can/should do for a project, put the agent in the role of a life preserver that is called into play only when it’s an emergency. And there will be an emergency; probably more than one.

Let’s turn the tables. What do you wish agents realized writers aren’t?

What do you do to keep realistic expectations of the publishing process? What’s the hardest thing for you to accept?


What are 2 things literary agents can’t do for you? Click to tweet.

What are realistic expectations of a literary agent? Click to tweet.

45 Responses

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  1. Sue Harrison says:

    Loved this post, Janet. What I need my agent to realize about me, a novelist? I’m not wise when it comes to business decisions. I need step-by-step instructions to keep me going in the right direction! AND I’m forever grateful!

    • Janet Grant says:

      We agents pretty quickly get a picture of how business savvy each client is and act accordingly. Fortunately you know your strengths and weaknesses. One of the hardest clients to work with is one who thinks she’s skilled at everything when clearly she isn’t.

  2. “What do you do to keep realistic expectations of the publishing process?”
    I come here. Everyday. Monday to Friday. Why? Almost ALL of what I’ve learned about the publishing industry I learned right here on this blog. This place is IT when it comes to well thought out lessons and a place for open and honest discussion. There are other industry blogs I read, but only a few I trust, and only one I won’t go without.
    Even while I was away, I wondered what I was missing from here. The day after I got home, I sat down and read every blog I missed.

    What’s the hardest thing for you to accept?
    It isn’t rejection, because each time I’ve had a rejection letter, it was also a means to improvement. Yes, it hurt, but I made sure I learned from each letter.
    The hardest thing for me to accept is being patient!! HA!! There, I admit it!! I’m about as patient as a bullet in a barrel.
    BUT, I’m learning.

    See? >> Smiling. 😀

    • “…as patient as a bullet in a barrel.” That really made me chuckle, and it hit home!

    • Jennifer, I concur with what you said about this blog. It’s the only blog I return to throughout the day so I don’t miss any of the comments from authors and agents. It’s full of valuable, trustworthy insight.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Thanks, Jennifer and Jenni for your comments about the blog. We work hard to write relevant posts, and your affirmation is a real encouragement to us.
        Jennifer, patience is bound to be close to the top of the list for most writers. Publishing is an excruciating process unfortunately.

  3. Janet, I don’t know how many times it must be said: the author and the agent are a team, each doing what he/she does best, both working together. In the instances you quote, the author was ignoring our good old Texas saying: “You don’t buy a dog and bark yourself.”
    Thanks for pointing this out.

  4. Wow. Just wow. It’s hard to imagine leaving a publisher when they’re doing such a good job. And the second author reminds me of that saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

    What do I wish agents knew that writers aren’t? I don’t have an answer for that one because agents are just as human as writers. And I agree 100% with Jennifer. Most of what helps me keep realistic expectations of publishing comes from right here.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks, Meghan, for your comments about our blog.
      Both authors that I wrote about assumed they understood publishing, but their actions belied their assumptions.

  5. Jeanne T says:

    Such interesting stories, Janet. Your points are well illustrated and well taken. I’m with Jennifer too. i cut my teeth on understanding the industry by visiting this blog. I’ve since referred other people here, because you ladies share such great wisdom and insight. I’ve learned so much about what’s realistic when it comes to each step of the publishing process.

    From what I’ve read, you all (here at Books and Such) have open communication with your authors so you have a grasp on writers’ strengths and weaknesses.

    Thanks for sharing this today, Janet.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jeanne, we hear from writers every day; we’d have to be pretty dense to not “get” what a writer’s life is like. But we aren’t actually living it, just as a writer can “get” what agents do; yet it’s not the same as having people believe you are THE magic wand that saves them from themselves.

  6. I love hearing stories about the industry so I can get a realistic picture of what goes on. It just goes to show me, again, that learning as much about the publishing industry will be beneficial to me. It also goes to show me that I need an agent, because for me, I can’t imagine spending all the time necessary to do what an agent does, on top of writing. I want an agent I can trust to do her job, and one who trusts me to do mine. Like Richard said, we’d be a team.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Lindsay, you are so far ahead of the the writers I wrote about today. That will pay you dividends through your entire writing career.

      • Thanks so much, Janet. As others have said, much of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned here. You ladies do an awesome job of making people feel welcome and not dumb when they ask questions. So appreciated!

  7. What to I wish agents knew that writers aren’t?
    I don’t like to do what everyone else is doing, which came in handy in HS when I shunned the party lifestyle of some of my friends and chose not to hairspray my bangs into new heights of skyscraper styles. I even balked at the recommended reading lists for my college courses because I preferred finding lesser known, out of print authors in the musty bookshelves of the used bookstore I worked at.
    All this to say, I’m realizing that there are certain criteria I need to follow as an author, and I appreciate the wise counsel that the B&S ladies give. I need to have patience with myself when I face the expectations to blog, twit, pin and fumble my way out of the introverted cave I sometimes occupy. One step at a time, never forgetting the power of story.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Being uniquely you is important in finding your writing voice. But in today’s very social world, inherently introverted writers have to pony up regular connections with readers. It’s an odd world we live in, isn’t it?

    • Were we separated at birth, Jenni? 🙂 I was listening to Chris Fabry’s program last week (Friday, I think) and he was talking about a speech he gave to a group of teens and telling them how different he felt growing up, even in his own family. I daresay most of us commenting here can relate to that. Individualists unite! Or would that be an oxymoron?

  8. Finally I’m in the right time zone and can be one of the first to leave a comment-very good post!

  9. I’m with Jennifer and the others who said this blog is the place to learn about the publishing industry and to maintain realistic expectations. It’s one of a very few blogs I read daily. One thing I appreciate about my agent, and the other agents at Books & Such, is that you all strive to understand both sides of the table. You know what it takes to be an exceptional agent and you have a grasp on what it’s like to be an author. The hardest thing for me to accept about publishing is the hurry up and wait process. I hurry to meet a deadline and then I wait and wait and wait. But, it can’t be helped and God uses it to teach me patience and trust.

  10. And one more thing that is very special about this blog? You answer almost all of the comments.
    One thing I try to do on my humble little blog is answer each comment as best I can.
    I appreciate that each comment is given weight and respect. That isn’t exactly an across the board experience.

    And in my humble opinion, writers aren’t normal.
    I mean, come ON, HOW MANY of your civilian friends sit around researching explosives, poisons, the rate of oxygen deprivation in high altitudes or even how to write a kiss so well that the reader scrambles for her spouse??

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jennifer, we do believe in engaging in conversation with our blog readers. That’s a natural choice for us given our collaborative spirit as agents and among our clients.
      I love your summary of what a writer does during an average day; it’s not exactly an assembly line kind of work, is it?

      • Ha! Nope. My husband never asks what I do during the day anymore. One day he came home and I said “Bob M—– told me how to burn down a house!!It’s really easy if you have the right chemicals and a really fine syringe!”
        “Heeeeey, awesome, honey. What’s for dinner.”

  11. Thanks for the article, Janet. I don’t have an agent but I’ve recently signed with a publishing company for my book. I hadn’t sought out an agent primarily I haven’t really been looking for anything until this opportunity came along. Now I’m researching everything and learning a lot.

    Whatever the outcome I know that I will learn from this experience and move forward to improving myself and my knowledge of the industry.

  12. Andrea Cox says:

    Hi Janet,

    Thanks for another eye-opening article. I didn’t realize a lot of folks expected so much from an agent. I always considered it like any other relationship: work on both sides. Writers do their thing with the writing part, and agents do theirs with the business part. And it all works together to bring home the bacon for both parties involved.

    What would I wish an agent would realize about me as a writer?

    That I’m not a word-producing machine. Most agents probably do understand this already, but some days it’s hard to get the words out of my head and onto the paper (or computer screen).


    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrea, it would be loverly if all writers saw the teamwork aspect of the author-agent relationship, but clearly not everyone gets that.
      It’s a good reminder that writers aren’t word-producing machines. We know there are tough days, but the missing that looming deadline has big implications for everyone involved. That means agents try to be sensitive to writing delays, but we also know it’s a big deal to miss the agreed-on deadline.

      • Andrea Cox says:

        Totally agree about missing a deadline! When I know I’ve got a deadline, I try to work my tail off at the beginning so I give myself more slack time down the line for those rough days.

  13. These are such great reminders. I think some authors think that an agent’s only role is to get them the best contract possible. I love the thought of an agent being a type of industry mentor and helping an author grow in her career. I know that’s what I need! It’s so much more than just getting a contract.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Amelia, I confess I’d probably be bored if my sole job was to obtain contracts for clients. I’ve always been the sort of person who likes to have as many fingers in as many pies as possible. An agent gets to do just that.

      • I can imagine just doing contracts would get boring!

      • Janet Grant says:

        Amelia, plus it’s a contentious process in which the agent always pushes for more and the publisher pushes back. That’s fine if it’s part of a relationship that goes beyond contracts, but if that’s the major part of a relationship…well, I don’t consider that the fun part.

  14. Sharyn Kopf says:

    I would have loved to find an agent first but it didn’t happen that way. I’ve always received more positive feedback and interest from publishers and editors than I have from agents. Which tells me I just haven’t submitted my work to the right agent yet. So, now I’m hoping that, once my books are released, the right agent will find me. Or I’ll simply continue on without one. It’s kind of like dating, isn’t it? When you meet the One, you’ll know? 🙂

    Yeah, I tend to be optimistic about dating too.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Sharyn, with a couple of projects under your belt, I suspect agents would be much more interested than they were before. We don’t always know what will connect with editors and readers, as hard as that is for us agents to admit. Unfortunately, publishing bears way too much similarity to the anguish of dating.

      • Sharyn Kopf says:

        I certainly understand that! My target audience is single women, specifically those over 40, and my main characters are single women over 40. The novel is women’s fiction not romance, which may be a hard sell too.

        Since there aren’t many books out there for this particular demographic, it’s hard to know how it will do. At least, in my research, I haven’t found many books directed specifically to older, single women. If you know of any such books, I’d love to hear about them.

        I have a writer friend who has a book coming out next year that’s targeting the same demographic and I mentioned to her recently that we were delving into a relatively untapped market. Only time will tell if it’s a viable one. It’s a little scary.

        Thank you for responding, Janet!

  15. One of the best things about having an agent is having someone proactively seeking opportunities to get your writing out into the world! I wouldn’t exchange that for anything. I just don’t have the contacts and the clout to do that myself. And something I wish agents understood about authors…hmm. Sometimes one phone call can clear up a myriad of misunderstood emails…contact is crucial, esp. with authors, who need to know one rejection might be hard, but isn’t the end of your career.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Heather, that’s a good point about agents, we often have publishers approach us when they’re looking for a certain type of project or want to line up a number of authors to write a series, etc. Unagented authors generally never find out about these possibilities.
      Thanks for the reminder that a phone call goes a long way toward keeping communication open with our clients. We agents can get so caught up in making it through our emails and long list of phone appointments, that we don’t always pause to ask which client would appreciate just a checking-in phone call.

  16. Judith Robl says:

    This blog is an invaluable resource for information on the publishing business. (And when I have something to offer an agent, I’ll be knocking at your door, hat in hand.) 🙂

  17. I’m a writer; a darn good one but I won’t lend you money and I won’t drive you to the airport. (Unless you pay for my gas)

  18. I get a lot of great stories from (seemingly smart)potential clients who want to send me their first draft, and then go sit by the mailbox to wait for a check. Um, no, it doesn’t work that way. Which sad, because with a little effort and humility they could truly succeed.

    No pixie dust over here, either.

  19. I just want to say that I think you have a great attitude and outlook!

  20. Oh, and I might need an agent…

  21. This is a really great post! I think as writers we often do feel like agents are the guardians of the gilded doors and, like The Doctor, can solve any problem with a bit of brain power and a few old gadgets.