How a Literary Agent Acquires Clients

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

What process does a literary agent use to acquire clients? That question popped up in the comments to my blog last week, in which I discussed how a publishing committee decides if it will offer you a contract.

1. Find a Client.

Although this step is obvious in many ways and those writers without a literay agent think they’re making themselves clearly available, locating the project and person that are the right match with the agent is deceptively difficult.

All projects looks alike.

Sadly, much of what we literary agents receive over the transom and at writers conferences is mind numbingly the same. We’re on the lookout for a fresh approach to a perennial topic. If, say, I’m open to finding a historical fiction writer, I want more than someone who writes well, has a strong sense of character development, and showcases how to incorporate research into a story without overwhelming it.

In addition, I want a hook that differentiates this historical novel from everything else I’ve seen–yes, everything else. For those writers who have wandered off into a corner to swoon, let me assure you that’s not as difficult as it sounds.

One of my clients, Tara Johnson, wrote a Civil War novel in which the heroine had epilepsy. Apparently the belief during that era was that an individual with this medical condition was simply seeking attention. Nothing physical caused a spell; it was a choice. The heroine in  this story is viewed as willful because of her epileptic attacks. Unable to make her stop, her parents are mindful of one thing: They must marry her off before anyone in the community discovers their daughter’s negative trait.

How’s that for a delicious conflict to center the novel around? And how’s that for a hook that made this literary agent sit up and take notice? And so did her publisher. As soon as I read the book’s hook, I was fascinated by the idea and wanted to dip into the story to find out more–and to find out what happens to the protagonist.

Is there more where that came from?

While it’s all well and good to come up with an idea that grabs an agent’s attention, the next step is to show that you have more than one book in you. It takes a lot for a literary agent to launch a writer’s career; we don’t want to make that investment only to discover the writer has one good idea, which he has labored over for ten years. But none of the author’s additional ideas have the same level of merit.

Are we simpatico?

Even if the writer has an attention-getting idea and a list of other great potential manuscripts, if the agent’s personality and working style don’t match the writer’s, this relationship is unlikely to work. I once had a writer tell me that she decided to go with a different literary agent because I was too nice; she needed someone who would crack the whip over her head periodically.

At first I was disappointed, but then I realized the writer was right. If niceness didn’t motivate her in a relationship, then we weren’t a match. I hate cracking whips, even though I have been known to do so on occasion.

2. Consider the Agency.

Different agencies have different policies of what happens once an agent decides she has found a potential client. Some simply leave the matter up to each agent. Others have a policy that all agents in the agency must agree this is a good client to acquire. Still others require that the agent clear the decision with the agency’s president.

Books & Such operates using the latter procedure. An agent will discuss with me the writer’s merits, why the agent thinks she can successfully sell the current project, and what about that client suggests he or she would be a good fit within our agency.

As an agency, we are an exception in that we care if a client will be a positive contributor to the community of our authors. That’s because we bring our clients together whenever a group of us attends a writers conference; we create events for our clients to attend; we hold periodic educational webinars that connect our clients with each other; and we have a secret Facebook page where they regularly write about their publishing questions, issues, triumphs, and trials as well as personal happenings.

Many agencies believe their clients should have walls that separate them from each other so no one can compare how much attention they receive from their agent. No publishing experiences can be shared either.

But I’ve always believed that writers, who work in isolation, flourish when they have the chance to develop long-term relationships with other authors. And each of them brings unique experiences and talents to these relationships that add up to everyone benefiting.

3. Formalize the Relationship.

The final step in bringing a new client into an agency is for that person to sign a representation agreement. This agreement delineates how the relationship works, who is responsible for what, and if the relationship disappoints one or both parties, how it will be ended.

While I say this is the final step, it is, of course, just the beginning. For now the real work of finding a publishing house for the new client begins…

What do you wish agencies did differently as they consider potential clients? What part of the process puzzles you?

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35 Responses

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  1. Interesting post, Janet. I would have hoped that augury would have been involved somewhere, but so much for idle and picturesque daydreams.
    * I do have one question – having read a couple of recent nonfiction works with factual errors that range from the technical to real howlers, I wonder how you differentiate between solid research and research which merely seems convincing? What, in your experience, has given the insight to detect the latter? (And, if I may ask, what effect does research that is later shown to be shoddy have on your relationship with an author?)
    * The errors in question –
    1) A very good historian (and superb writer, on a par with Ambrose) claimed that a 30-06 bullet has a diameter of 0.3006 inches. No, it was a .30-caliber bullet introduced in 1906, along with the Springfield 1906 bolt-action rifle. The bullet’s 0.30 inches in diameter. Small mistake, understandable given current ballistic nomenclature, but irritating.
    2) A recent book on what should have been a fascinating story of survival kept getting the number of engines on various aeroplanes wrong. This is just painful, shows (to me) that the writer isn’t really interested in the historical milieu, and calls into question the veracity of the whole story.
    3) In the autobiography of a Soviet cosmonaut is found the claim that he met Ernest Hemingway in Cuba in 1965. That would have been a pretty good trick; Hemingway left Cuba for the last time in 1960, and killed himself in 1961. I put the book down at that point. Firmly.

    • Mary Kay Moody says:

      Such errors can certainly ruin a good story, Andrew. And more egregious if it’s non-fiction. Seems you’d be a crackerjack editor. 🙂

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Andrew, as long as the number of working engines on an aeroplane is greater than zero, is there really a problem?

    • David Todd says:

      In a history book about my wife’s family, one of her ancestors was said to be born in 1663 and died in 1795. It was an obvious typo for 1695, a date confirmed by other sources. Nothing to worry about. Redline the book and move along. It’s just as likely that was a typo in the book you read, unless the full context suggests otherwise, something I can’t assess without having the book in hand.
      .
      As to the bullet diameter, as a gun non-enthusiast I could care less. I suspect the number of people who care about that is relatively small, like the error in the bullet diameter.

      • David, those are good points.
        * The “I met Hemingway” claim was wrong in the context of the author’s previous travels; he didn’t get to Cuba until after the writer had died. I wanted to believe the guy, but after that, I just couldn’t.
        * Right on target about most people not caring about bullet diameter. My question, poorly phrased, was along the lines of “what would an agent do if she recognized an error that would only matter to a few?”
        * Would it raise a red flag, and beget concerns about possible errors she did NOT see, or would the author be given a pass based on credentials and the quality of the current work. (There were, actually, other issues related to writing from a modern perspective. The book deals with D-Day, but employs organizational terms that only came into use after the war, and uses the term ‘friendly fire’, which was not in the parlance until Viet Nam.)

      • David Todd says:

        Andrew: One of the benefits touted for trade publishing over self-publishing is the resources the publisher will pour into books, which would include fact checking. While it’s the writer’s responsibility to get their facts correct, it’s still the publisher’s job to verify facts. I would suppose that any agent would be concerned if they saw factual errors in a partial or full they were reviewing. The writer has just given the agent a reason to say “No,” something you don’t what to do.
        .
        The Hemmingway stuff, if the agent knew recognized the falsehood, I suspect he/she would then check to see if the submission was from Jayson Blair via a pseudonym. Or more likely Brian Williams.

      • David, it does seem logical to me that trade publishing would have that advantage, that a deeper effort is made to verify facts.
        * And they can be extremely important – for example, The Battle of Midway in 1942 was written up using the assumed ‘fact’ that Japanese carrier doctrine was functionally similar to that of the US – I mean, how many logical ways ARE there to operate aircraft carriers?
        * Turns out that it was far from the truth, and much of the significance of the American victory on that June day hinged upon the differences in doctrine. Walter Lord’s stellar book “Incredible Victory” is an outstanding read, but its conclusions about a nick-of-time victory won by a hopelessly outnumbered American force are just plain wrong.
        * Interestingly, it took one photograph that had been widely published, but never closely examined, to set history on its ear. A picture of the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu, taken about an hour before the cataclysmic attack that destroyed the First Carrier Striking Force, showed a paucity of aircraft on dec…when the accepted ‘fact’ was that the Japanese were readying a strike against the American fleet. That led to an in-depth examination of Japanese carrier doctrine and rearm/refuel cycles that cast the battle in a new light. In retrospect, the information was there all along in far more basic form, but there hadn’t been the critical examination needed.
        * But none of it would matter if it were conjecture. Parshall and Tully, in “Shattered Sword”, changed the thinking on Midway, but they could only do it convincingly with extensive references, and these made accessible to the reader through a LOT of footnotes.
        * So I guess that’s a long circle back to the original question, as to how convincing an author’s facts have to be, how are they best presented for verification, and what happens if an agent realizes that at least some of the details are wrong?

    • Janet Grant says:

      I don’t go looking for factual errors when I’m reading a manuscript, but if I stumble upon one, that raises an orange flag for me. I worry about the writer’s research.
      And, yes, traditional publishing is supposed to check writer’s facts, but the author is considered an expert, especially in nonfiction, so editors tend to make assumptions about the details being correct.

  2. Terrance Leon Austin says:

    Hi Janet.
    Just when I thought I learned most of what I needed to know about this business, I find out there is much more.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Mary Kay Moody says:

    Thank you for shining the light into some of the shadows for us, Janet. I can see why finding the right fit might take a lot of searching. I appreciate your agency’s practice of encouraging an author community, and hear from some authors B & S represents how much they value that.

    I do wonder ~ when an agent meets an author at a conference, evaluates the project and determines it isn’t a fit with that agent, is it acceptable to query another agent at that agency? Or does a rejection from one constitute a rejection from the agency? Thank you.

    • I have that very same question. Thank you for asking, Mary Kay.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I would suggest you ask that agent if you could submit to another agent in the same agency. Sometimes a project isn’t right for one person but another would view it differently. Although, if the first agent decided against representation due to a lack of platform or because the manuscript wasn’t ready, well, then it’s clear the writer has more work to do.

  4. Great post, Janet. The model of your agency’s set up makes a lot of sense. Personally, I really like how Books and Such nurtures relationships between their authors. In an industry that requires a lot of solitary time and tends to create dusting for writers, having a safe community to work through all things publishing must be a gift for your clients.
    *All that you explained makes sense. I think the trickiest part for a writer is to find that unique hook for a story that will catch an agent’s (and then a publisher’s) eye. 🙂

  5. Janet, I have a second question, if I may:
    * Say that you fall in love with my novel about an ISIS soldier who flees the nightmare he has become to work as a tennis pro in Westchester County, and finds himself falling in love with a Jewish orthodontist who was widowed when her husband was killed by a terrorist bomb while on a pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall. It has that gut-wrenching hook, and you can’t help but want to offer representation…will you then ask what manuscripts or ideas I have to back it up, and make your decision to offer representation at least partially contingent on the latter?
    * Or can a single work be strong enough to compel your reaching out with an offer, not knowing what might be up the blue in that author’s future?

  6. Janet, I would pray long and hard before deciding it is a misfit. God often surprises me.

  7. 1. This was a fascinating post, Janet. The challenge to differentiate oneself from the monotonous choir of queries and proposals that cross your desk is significant, and I found myself suppressing a tinge of anxiety as I read the posting and pitched the challenge against the stringent guidelines for queries and submissions. It is not an insurmountable task, and the onus is upon the author to come up with that substantive hook that will stand out, grab the agent, and compel him/her to want to read further.
    2. I was told, just recently, that I need to be careful about mentioning the desire for relationship beyond representation, very much like the author community you have described, because mentioning that desire has the potential to make me appear to be a “high maintenance” writer, when the reality is I simply recognize how much I do not know, and I want to be teachable. Books & Such seems to be welcoming to that kind of mentality where others just want to represent a book. Do you believe Books & Such is fairly unique in this approach?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Damon, I know of no other agency that forms a community of its clients, nor one that offers webinars, etc. to help its clients be successful. I, of course, don’t know the inner workings of all agencies. When you have the chance to dialogue with an agent who is considering representing you, I think it’s fair to ask if the agency provides such support, adding that you’re eager to learn more so you can become more valuable to the agency. I can’t imagine phrasing your desire that way would come across as high maintenance.

  8. Janet, thank you so much. It all makes perfect sense to me. I think it’s like finding a best friend … you meet someone, and you just know. I think the hard part is getting to know each other … knowing who would be the right fit … time is so short and little opportunity to meet. But little things surface, and I think the Lord just helps make it clear over time, showing the things/passions you have in common, etc. Conferences are key for those opportunities. Will you all possibly be at ACFW this year? Seeing you all is like a once or twice in a lifetime happy moment for me. 🙂

    • Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, sometimes it’s obvious during a phone call with a potential client that this isn’t going to work. The conversation doesn’t flow, the person is aggressive or even belligerent, doesn’t ask questions in an appropriate way, of clearly has a different set of goals in her writing career than I care to support. But in other situations it does take time to figure out just how good we are at working together. But that’s true of dating too, right? Eventually whether the relationship is a good one becomes apparent.
      We a couple of our agents attending ACFW this year; so you’ll get some happy time with them.

  9. Gayla Grace says:

    Hi Janet, thank you for offering your expertise on this subject. I signed with an agent last year after attending a writer’s conference. I’ve been pleased with representation and we’re still searching for the right publisher for my book. A question came up in my critique group, however, that I hadn’t considered. Another writer mentioned that some agents offer representation for only a year and if a book contract hasn’t been signed within a year, the author-agent contract expires. Are you aware of that happening? Thankfully, my contract doesn’t have an expiration date but I’m just curious how prevalent that is in the industry. Thanks!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Gayla, congrats on finding an agent who’s busy working on your behalf! Some representation agreements do have a set time period (I’m assuming they specify the agreement can be renewed by mutual agreement). I don’t think this type of agreement is typical, but it’s not substandard either. An agent with that arrangement believes that, after one year, if the project didn’t sell, it’s not going to. But it also means there’s a lot of weight on that one concept. Sometimes an author needs the chance to come up with one or two additional projects for the agent to sell before a publisher is found.

      • Gayla Grace says:

        Your point makes sense, Janet. The first project might not be the initial one that sells. Thank you for helping me understand this further.

  10. Jerusha Agen says:

    Thank you so much for this information, Janet! I appreciate being given this behind-the-scenes look at B&S, specifically. I love that B&S understands the importance of building a community of authors, rather than separating or pitting them against one another. One question for you, I understand the agent’s desire to be sure the author has more than one book in him/her, but is that something that needs to be indicated in the proposal? Or do you find the answer to that in the interview if you’re interested after reading the proposal and sample chapters? Thanks!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Often the proposal mentions other concepts the writer is interested in, and if the writer is creating a series, that definitely should be in the proposal.
      But, even if nothing about future projects is mentioned in the proposal, the agent will almost certainly ask about future possibilities during a phone call.

  11. CJ Myerly says:

    This information is so useful! Thank you, Janet, for sharing. It’s so helpful to know what to expect and to be given the viewpoint of those on the other side.

  12. Before signing with my (beloved and sainted) agent, Mary Keeley, I did quite a bit of research on agencies and agents. I asked a tonne of questions both of the agents, and the writer who I knew were clients, and I did a whole lot of observing both on their websites, and on Facebook.
    The more places and people I observed, and how tough situations and discussions were handled, the more I understood and preferred where and with whom I would entrust my career.
    And as someone who spent time on the outside looking in, I understand and comprehend how hard the wait is to join an agency that is truly exceptional.
    All along my pursuit of representation, I asked God to point me in the way He would have me go.
    I thrive on family, friendship, professionalism, and encouragement. I have writer friends who have mentioned that those qualities are ever-present amongst those in this agency.
    The part of the process that puzzles the most is why every agency doesn’t foster the kind of team/family atmosphere needed to keep writers from sinking into a deep pit of loneliness and discouragement.
    One can walk alone only as far as the solitary heart can travel, then what can be done when there are no wings or hands to help?

  13. Stephen Bullard says:

    Hi Janet great blog,what about film scripts ?

  14. Linda Wright says:

    Janet: How are you? This is Linda Wright and I was wondering if you are taking on clients these days and if so would you be interested in seeing some of my work. Here’s what I have: 7 novels possible series in them. I have three evangelism books, one called Miracles–46 authentic miracles done by interviews, Would you like to see any of them?