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What Your Literary Agent Won't Do

What Your Literary Agent Won’t Do
Fern Reiss, CEO,

There are lots of good reasons to use a literary agent, but there are also a lot of things even the best literary agent won’t do for you. I’m always surprised to discover what people think their literary agents could—or should—be doing for them. Here, in a nutshell, is what your literary agent probably won’t do for you. (For more information on what they will do, see the dozens of other articles on the website, and sign up for the [free] email newsletter.)

Bargain till they drop. Working with a literary agent is much like working with a real estate agent: On the one hand, their job is to get you as good a deal as possible, and they don’t make money unless you do, since they make a percentage (usually 15%) of your sales. On the other hand, their relationships with publishers are complex, and although they’d like to get as much as possible for your book, they also need to stay on good terms with the publisher for all the other books they’re discussing. So in the same way that the realtor will try to get you a good price (but will be reluctant to jeopardize the sale by asking too much), your literary agent won’t ask for a killer sum just because you think your book is worth it.

Play hardball with your publisher. Again, agents make their living by having good working relationships with publishers and editors. They’ll track your payments and make sure you’re getting a fair shake, but they’re not going to jeopardize those relationships by being obnoxious, aggressive, or overly demanding. So don’t expect them to play hardball. That’s not their job.

Be your phone buddy. It’s important to remember that while agents need to stay in touch with their authors, that’s only a small part of their job. They also need to: Read the slush pile for new properties, read a lot of current books to see what’s selling, deal with contracts and lawyers and payments, meet editors and publishers for lunch to discuss other books, go to conferences and trade shows to keep up with the rest of the industry, and a myriad of other activities. And agents, unless you’ve gotten to know them well over a long period of time, are your business partners, but not necessarily your friends. So don’t expect your agent to stay in touch daily—or even weekly. Some agents are better at keeping in touch than others, but most agents are too busy to be as attentive as their authors might prefer.

Never run out of patience. It would be lovely if agents, once you finally find one who is dying to work with you, would be faithful and submit your work forever. The reality, however, is that agents tend to be excited when they first sign an author, and are able to maintain that enthusiasm only if they’re able to sell the book relatively quickly. It’s a rare agent who is incredibly responsive to your phonecalls after 18 months of unsuccessfully peddling your book.

Help with your publicity. This may be the single most common misperception of what a literary agent does. Literary agents help you get your book to a publisher. They oversee your payment. If you’re incredibly lucky with your choice of agent, they may even help to oversee your career, recommending books for you to read and conferences for you to attend. But one thing they absolutely, positively won’t do is help you with your book’s publicity. Agents get paid (a percentage) because of the work they do in brokering the agreement between you and the publisher. They don’t take any responsibility for the publicity of your book after a publisher has accepted it. (Unfortunately, neither do most publishers, these days, which means that most books are off bookstores shelves in just six months. See my book, The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days, if you want to learn how to publicize your book successfully.)

Having said all that, having a relationship with a literary agent can be a valuable and rewarding experience. Just keep in mind what you can, and can’t, expect.


Fern Reiss is CEO of ( and ( and the author of the books, The Publishing Game: Find an Agent in 30 Days, The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days, and The Publishing Game: Publish a Book in 30 Days as well as several other award-winning books.  She is also the Director of the International Association of Writers ( providing publicity vehicles to writers worldwide. She also runs The Expertizing® Publicity Forum where you can pitch your book or business directly to journalists; more information at  Sign up for her complimentary newsletter at

Copyright © 2011 Fern Reiss


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