Agents: what are they good for?

Most writers work hard to get an agent but sometimes aren’t really clear why, or what to expect when they get one.

Working with an agent is not just about a single book deal; it’s a long-term relationship. And this is important for both author and agent.  A good agent will:

  • look after your writing career
  • take a 360-degree approach – looking at all the ways in which your book could become a launch-pad to other things
  • provide editorial comment and help
  • be a sympathetic sounding board
  • look after money matters, including negotiating and chasing invoices
  • keep an eye on the publication process from submission to publication, marketing and beyond
  • make your book more likely to be read by publishers in the first place, as agents are a level of quality control
  • help you get a higher advance
  • be able to negotiate a more favourable share of rights income
  • push for you to get foreign rights deals
  • look out for film and TV opportunities or use a sub-agent who specialises in this
  • be on your side; you aren’t doing it alone.

London Writers’ Club is all about bringing agents and authors together each month at a live event. For writers that’s so that you can meet agents and find out what kind of writers they represent and if they are a good match for you. Take the time to hear the agents, to find out what they are looking for. It will help you improve your pitch and find the right agent for you. For our agent speakers, they are always looking for new talent, so they need you too! 

Don’t make any assumptions about the sort of agent you need or just aim for the biggest and most well-known.  For instance, If you are a prolific writer, it may be an idea to find an agent who understands self-publishing as well as trade publishing because you may write a book that is perfect for a publisher but then also write a book, or books, that would work better as self-published works. Or say, if much of your work is in a new medium, for your book, it is important to look at agents who are less traditional and who understand the potential of how the new technologies dovetail with your publishing. And if your work lends itself to film or tv adaptation then consider agents who are best equipped to sell those rights. 

So what can you expect from an agent?

Writers are often unclear about what to expect from an agent and they can have unrealistic expectations. It’s not easy to find an agent and it may feel that this is holding you back as a writer. There is a reason for their choosiness: they are in business and work on commission, only getting paid once they sell your book to a publisher. And, like you, they also want to work on projects they are passionate about. Often, they can spend up to a year editing and helping you before a book is ready to pitch to publishers. So, while they might feel elusive, when you get one, they are completely on your side.

What an agent will not do is morph into a third parent, always agree with you, magically make your book a bestseller while you stay at home and write, or absolve you from any responsibility for promoting your book and engaging with readers. They will challenge you and this is invaluable. Welcome their willingness to engage with you on your writing. You may not always agree but you need to consider their advice, discuss it with them, and if you agree with it, work together to ensure success for you both.

Best of luck. I hope you find an agent who loves your writing as much as you love writing it.

Extract from Write a Bestseller by Jacq Burns. Founder of London Writers’ Club

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