4 Types of Literary Agents

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Recently I had a conversation with Dee, a potential new client, and our chat turned to four different approaches agents take to teaming up with authors. I explained to Dee some of those methods. I think they’re instructive in understanding how an agent can help to structure an author’s writing career.

Just-Show-Me-the-Money Type of Agent

This person is all about the business side of the equation and sometimes is indifferent to the creative side. She wants to work on the financial stuff and not cross over into the right-brain territory.

That means, in terms of career planning, that thecompass focus will be on getting more money for the next book. Such an emphasis is inevitable because the agent isn’t tuned into helping to shape the project so that it not only satisfies the author’s vision of what it should be but also appeals to the market. That’s more nuanced than this type of agent tends to want to be. In turn, that means the agent gauges only one way to grow the author’s career–through the size of the next advance.

Move-‘Em-in,Β  Ship-‘Em-Out Type of Agent

This person receives a proposal from a client, puts a cover note on that proposal with the agency contact info, and then ships the proposal out to pretty much every editor on the agents’ list. Funny thing about this type of agenting: All the editors know which agents operate this way.

How? First, by the sheer number of projects submitted to the editor, many of them inappropriate for that publishing house. Second, the proposals aren’t adequately focused, don’t contain all the elements that should be in them, and the writing can be flawed–often containing grammatical and spelling errors.

This agent is unlikely to want to work with clients to create a plan for future writing projects. Taking each proposal as it comes is the method that works best for him. If you think you write stellar proposals, then no problem. This agent will get your concept in front of the editors to take a gander.

I’m-in-for-a-Chapter Type of Agent

This agent agrees to represent one project at a time. If all goes well, then the agent wants to continue the relationship; if not, the agent is ready to slip away.

The idea is to try out the relationship to see how it works for each person. On the surface that sounds good, but in actuality, it gives the client no assurance that the agent is committed in the long-haul. I describe this as teaming up with a writer for one “chapter” of a writing career rather than signing on for the entire “book” of a career.

TheΒ  Long-Haul Type of Agent

This agent takes a long view on each decision made: Should a significant offer be accepted for a book several publishers were interested in, knowing that the book might not earn back the advance? Should the author dabble in different genres rather than settling into one to build a reputation for a particular type of writing? Should the author devote six months to each manuscript so momentum can build quickly, or does it make more sense to take a year for each one to make sure the client is growing as a writer?

These are the questions an agent who is in the relationship long-term would ask. This type of agent thinks about the client’s work in a different framework than the other agents.

Who is Right for You?

Each type of agent appeals to different authors. If you don’t want your agent to mess with your creative business, then you want a Show-Me-the-Money Agent. Or if you want to make as much as possible on every project without being overly concerned about the future, than Show-Me-the- Money is for you.

If you don’t want feedback on your ideas, then a Move-‘Em-In, Ship-‘Em-Out Agent is for you.

If you want someone who will be involved in all phases of your writing career, than a Book-vs.-Chapter Type of Agent is for you. Or, if you’re satisfied to try out the relationship, by all means head in the direction of a Chapter Type of Agent.

The best adage to help guide you in selecting an agent–or changing agents–is simply this: To thine ownself be true. Form an alliance with an agent who’s a good match for your expectations.

And don’t be afraid to ask agents how they function with their clients. It will help to avoid disappointment all the way around.

What aspects of the different types of agents appeal to you?


4 types of lit agents with 4 different approaches. Click to tweet.

What type of lit agent appeals to you? Pick from these 4. Click to tweet.


Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

39 Responses

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  1. Becky McCoy says:

    This is great. Thank you, Janet. Is there any way to figure out which kind of agent someone is based on their online presence or bio? Part of my hesitation to query agents is not knowing exactly who they are or what motivates them before contacting them.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Becky, I think it would be very difficult to tell what type of agent a person is until you reach the point of the individual having a conversation with you. I’d recommend you first work to attract an agent and then sift through the options as you move through the selection process.

      • Becky McCoy says:

        Thanks, Janet. That’s helpful advice! I tend to be an overthinker and planner, so I’m learning to prepare and then throw my hat in the ring instead of trying to understand every facet before starting.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Becky, she who waits to understand everything before taking the next step will never take the next publishing step. Publishing is a complex and ever-shifting industry. That’s why we read blogs!

      • Becky McCoy says:

        Yes! Isn’t that true of so many aspects of life? Reminding myself that once I’m prepared, there is no perfect time!

  2. “Long-haul” just sounds beautiful and dependable. πŸ™‚

  3. This reminds me of the parable of the sower, Janet. The Show-Me-the-Money agent picks up the proposal seed and flies off with it–no roots there. The Ship-Em-Out agent doesn’t let the weeds take root–but neither does the proposal. The In-for-a-Chapter agent lets the weeds (or the next proposal) choke out his interest. The Long-Haul agent pulls up nearby weeds and keeps the proposal watered and fertilized. Guess which one sees the most fruit?

  4. What a perfect post for people attending ACFW this week, Janet. I really like the idea of working with an agent who wants to work long term. I know myself well enough to know that I’m relational, and that I want to work with someone who works in a more collaborative way–I like feedback. πŸ™‚ I believe that having feedback and some guidance will be beneficial.

  5. Janet, excellent post, and quite true. Most of us who’ve been around this business for a bit recognize these types. Unfortunately, like choosing a mate or voting for a politician, it’s hard to tell whether the promises of today will change tomorrow–that’s when track records help. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Long-haul agents are the best!!! I might also add ‘tenacious’ to that, in the best way. When you have an agent who truly believes in you and your writing, she won’t give up for anything, even when you’re ready to. To have someone willing to pound on every door on your behalf until the right one opens . . . I can’t fully express what a gift that is. My agent, Rachelle, is a gem, and I am beyond grateful to God for having our paths cross so many years ago. πŸ™‚

  7. Jackie Layton says:

    Janet, thanks for warning us about different types of agents.
    I would love to have a long-haul type of agent. I’d like to work together with a good agent to make the best decisions for my writing career. You all have the experience and valuable knowledge authors need.

  8. Lara Hosselton says:

    Long-haul! I want an agent who believes in me enough to care about the entire journey, not just the destination. I’d like to feel that my agent is a mentor, business partner and friend. For me, it’s about relationship.
    *Great post, Janet.

  9. Dana McNeely says:

    Long haul sounds the best to me! Collaboration and partnership in the writing venture would be so encouraging. πŸ™‚

  10. I wonder if there are four types of writer, as well.
    1) “You may pick up my laundry and latte, agent, while you are composing the next press-release-paean to my greatness…and how goes the process of having my home town renamed in my honour?”
    2) “If you stop stroking my ego for ONE MINUTE you’ll really feel GUILTY as I am going to lose all self-confidence, kill myself, have a MAJOR hissy fit and I MAY just look for a new agent!”
    3) “Sure, I knew about the deadline…but, you see, perfection’s perfection, and even though it may sell only one copy I insist on total and absolute control and I will let them see it when I’m ready and not before.”
    4) “They want edits? Sure, OK, yeah, change everything, fine with me, now on to the next book, and after that…” (This, delivered as a hamster on speed.)
    * Under the circumstances, I suppose the sort of agent I’d be looking for would fall into a fifth category – “The Archivist”, someone who’d be willing to look at my unpublished stuff and see if anything there’s marketable. Finishing another MS is more than doubtful, but there may still be something of value in the dust-covered backlist.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, yes, I’ve encountered each of these types of writers. But I would have to add the long-haul writer as well: meets his deadlines, comes up with strong ideas one after the other, always works to grow in the craft, keeps pushing the parameters in marketing savvy, and never assumes he’s all that and more.

      • And, Janet, I will bet that finding a writer like that brings delight akin to finding a unicorn grazing in a misty emerald glade.
        * A question – do you find that some agents can juggle several of the representation paradigms you mentioned, or does the job really mold one into one way of dealing with clients? (I’m not sure I phrased this well. Rough weekend, sorry.)

      • Janet Grant says:

        Andrew, good question. Each agent approaches this job through his or her preferred perspective. But that doesn’t mean there’s never overlap in approaches. The agent who thinks first about the money certainly has the capacity to give feedback concerning long-term planning. An agent who would rather represent clients a project at a time could offer representation for more books. But every agent naturally leans in a certain direction and constructs the agency to lean that way.

      • Thank you, Janet. I know how busy you are, and I truly appreciate your taking the time and care to answer.
        * You’re a brick. I hope I may say that your willingness to make our rough ways smooth is truly a Godsend. Writing’s a hard road. You’re a gracious and Godly guide.

      • That’s me πŸ™‚

  11. Rachel Kent says:

    The Friday blog drawing winner is SHIRLEE ABBOTT!!! Congratulations, Shirlee. I will try to track down your email to request your mailing address, but if you see this first, please email me at [email protected] booksandsuch.com. Thank you!

  12. Wanda Rosseland says:

    This is so excellent, Janet. Thank you for explaining the different types of agents to us, I would have never thought to put them in categories like that.
    The long haul is definitely my choice.

  13. JEN RAYMOND says:

    What a gift to have an editor that is interested in your work and in helping you grow as an author. I like the long haul approach. I want to be sure I put the best I possibly can out there. Definitively a great explanation. Thank you Janet.

  14. What a lovely and apt description! Great to keep in mind with conferences and opportunities. I’d also add that actions (and recommendations) speak louder than words, and over time the cream will rise. Thanks for the reminder today!

  15. Deb Kinnard says:

    Becky, there’s nothing stopping a writer from contacting a prospective agent’s clients to see what style they might employ for your work. Not all agent-writer matches are a good fit, despite the best of intentions on both sides.

  16. Janet Fix says:

    Really enjoyed this blog, and your website. I get so many questions from authors about literary agents. This was helpful, and something I happily shared with the masses.


  17. Thanks, Janet for the informative, cut-to-the-chase look at agent “styles” (writers too). So helpful for those of us looking to find a good fit!

  18. How many of us will be fortunate enough to interview an agent for these four approaches to representation?