The Most Important Thing Literary Agents Owe Their Clients

James Scott Bell

You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood and put it into a gnat’s navel, and still have room for two caraway seeds and an agent’s heart. 
                                 – Fred Allen
Mr. Fred Allen was a famous curmudgeon who labored in the entertainment (mainly radio) business. I would note that the Hollywood agent and traditional literary agent are largely different species. But that doesn’t stop me from using the quote to tease my agent friends.
And I do have friends who are literary agents. Is that so odd? When I was a lawyer, people still befriended me. It can be done!
Seriously, those agents I know are good ones: caring deeply about the success of their clients, hurting when they can’t place a project, or when a client is dropped by a publisher. But they know this is the duty they signed up for. They are professional about it.
That’s a key word, professional. In any business relationship, no matter how warm, there are duties. So it’s proper to ask what each party owes the other. 
What do writers owe their agents? I think they owe them productivity, optimism, partnership and patience. There will be times, of course, when concerns must be expressed and details hashed out. Time for phone calls and complaints. But these should be rare in comparison to the positives.
A writer needs to listen. Part of a good agent’s job (we’ll get to bad agents in a moment) is to guide a career, and the writer (who ultimately makes the decision about direction) ought to consider and attend to an agent’s wisdom.
And just plain not be a “pill” (slang, 1920s, “a tiresomely disagreeable person.”)
I said we’d get to bad agents, and here’s all I have to say: it is better by a degree of a thousand for a writer to have no agent than to have a bad agent. A bad agent is one who will make you pay fees up front before reading or submitting something; who will slough you off to an editorial service which kicks back a finder’s fee to the agent; who provides no feedback on projects or proposals; and who throws up anything against several walls to see if it sticks. How does one find the good and avoid the bad? The SFWA has a postthat’s very helpful in this regard.
Now, what does an agent owe a client? Honesty, encouragement, feedback. But I think there is one thing above all, and that is what prompted this post today. Over the years I’ve heard from writer friends who are frustrated and sometimes “dying on the inside” because of lack of this one thing:
When I was an eager young lawyer I took a course on good business practices from the California Bar. One item that stood out was a survey of clients on what they most wanted from their attorneys. At the very top of the list, by a wide margin, was communication.Whether it was good news or bad, they wanted to know their lawyer was thinking about their case or legal matter. 
Writers are the same way. Even more so, because the insecurity of the business is an ever-present shadow across their keyboards. So if a writer sends in a proposal or list of ideas to his agent, and the agent doesn’t respond within a few weeks . . . and writer sends follow-up email or phone call, and stilldoesn’t hear from agent . . .this is not a good thing. In fact, for a writer, it is close to being the worst thing.
So I would say to agents what the California Bar says to young lawyers: just let the client know what’s going on from time to time. Especially if the client has sent something to you.
Now, I know from my agent friends that there are times when they can’t drop everything to communicate immediately. They have other clients, and things may be popping for one or more of them. It may be that the writer has submitted something that is going to take a lot of time to go over and assess. The agent may be off at a conference or maybe, gasp, needs some personal family time. All understandable.
But communication can be brief, even if it is just a short email acknowledging receipt.
If I may be so bold: if a client submits a proposal, it shouldn’t take more than two months to get back to said client with substantial feedback. If the client submits some ideas, or communicates about another concern or quandary, I would think a couple of weeks is the outside limit, even if it’s brief.
I think there is one area where an agent, being human, is reticent about communicating: the area of bad news. It may be that a proposal or manuscript has failed to land. It may be a publishing house dropping a series. Perhaps the writer has sent the agent a proposal that, for the agent, falls flat, even after notes and suggestions from the agent have been incorporated. It may even be that the agent has lost confidence in the writer’s long term prospects.
At times like these it is tempting to put off communicating with the client. My plea: don’t do it. As hard as it is, as painful as it may be, this is the time the client needs you most.
And authors, remember, it’s a tough time out there in the publishing world, for agents and everybody else. So give them something good to talk about—namely, killer fiction from a productive writer.

11 thoughts on “The Most Important Thing Literary Agents Owe Their Clients

  1. I haven’t had occasion to work with an agent, but in my day job, I’m affected by poor communication, just as others are affected when I don’t communicate promptly.

    These are all good points. And authors should remember not to be anal. Yes, we’re all anxious to see our work placed, our questions answered. But bombarding people with “Did you get my message?” messages is just as bad as the agent who doesn’t communicate. Or worse, when someone receives a specification communication that states exactly when they’ll respond in detail and the person STILL doesn’t chill out with the ceaseless contacts.

    I may not work in the publishing industry, but that is a pet peeve and it is the one thing GUARANTEED to slow down the business of getting down to business.

  2. Jim, Good advice and wise words. Agents and authors have a mutual duty toward each other, and communication is at the heart of it. The same can be said for most situations in life. Communication is key.
    I like the line from Cool Hand Luke: What we have here is a failure to communicate.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Jim, in Ohio an attorney can lose his Captain Midnight Decoder Ring for flagrant neglect to communicate with the client. The wonderful tools that we have — e-mail, smart phones, and the like — are a two-edged sword in this regard for lawyers and for agents as well. While it makes the ability to respond, easy, it also reduces the expectation gap for a response. I’ve heard stories about attorneys getting texts every fifteen minutes from a client until they get a response.

    I think it’s good practice to tell a client up front to expect a response within x number of hours and then stick to that. My own practice is to acknowledge a question or query as quickly as possible and then instruct the sender that I will get back with them within a certain time frame. That gives the client notice that their e-mail or text has been received and acknowledged and an expectation of when they will receive a response. If I’m going to be tied up for a week or so I’m going to generally unavailable during a certain time period but will be checking e-mail, calls, etc. irregularly and will get back to the sender as quickly as possible.

    I think BK’s point is extremely well-taken. Daily or weekly inquiries regarding status slow things down. I explained to one client that while conventional wisdom dictates that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, the squeaky wheel in the real world gets taken off the car and assigned to the secondary market, while being replaced by a quiet, efficient wheel that responds well to regular maintenance and performs as expected. It’s a two-way street.

  4. Awesome post, Jim. As a counselor I’d get fired if I didn’t respond to my clients needs. I too like what BK said, “Communication is key.” I’m sure agents are overwhelmed with all the ways we have to communicate these days, but there are ways to cope with that as you said Jim, “But communication can be brief, even if it is just a short email acknowledging receipt.”

    Joe l love these words of yours, ” the squeaky wheel in the real world gets taken off the car and assigned to the secondary market, while being replaced by a quiet, efficient wheel that responds well to regular maintenance and performs as expected. It’s a two-way street.”

    The publishing world is so crazy for everyone these days, communication is the mainstay of sanity.

  5. I have had two agents over my 20-year writing career and am now agent-less. Your advice, on both sides, is spot-on. And yes, the willingness to deliver bad news in a timely professional manner is maybe the most important thing you can ask of an agent. Because there will always be some bad news along the way; it’s just a matter of degree. It’s easy to give the good news. It’s the tough stuff that tells you what an agent — and author — are made of.

  6. What you describe about communication–is EVERYWHERE.

    Technology galore and the communication habits are horrible out there.

    “Common Courtesy” is gone and replaced by “If I didn’t call you, then I did not want to call you because you have nothing I need”.

    All this goes for business, friends and family it seems anymore. Especially this new generation that has grown up with the technology that lets them believe they know everything–because they can find it on their phone.

    Clueless is the word. Not just for agents.

    All this being said, getting hundreds of emails a day is also causing the behavior of not returning calls or emails.

    Email has become the “white noise” of the world, where we are scanning the email’s header to see if it’s anything we want or recognize the sender.

    Because we’re on the topic of communication, let’s also put it on the table that many of this younger generation have no ability to interpret meaning from a several page document. If it’s not presented in a “phone txt based youtube brief format”–then it’s just too complex to figure out–and they’re right.

    They can’t figure it out.

    Recently I observed a good book written by an academia type that was “too hard to read” so it was not read. The audience was from early 20s to late 50s.

    It seems our minds are going to mush and the new generation doesn’t even have one.

    I just call it as I see it, and yes there are exceptions, but let’s face it: people parrot “global warming” as a problem but can’t even put together the geo-engineering X’s made by jets (no it’s not exhaust) over their heads in the sky to the point that the sunny BLUE days are GONE and what used to be blue is NOW MILKY light blue-white!

    Just how asleep this population is–is just amazing.

    And you’re surprised about the poor communication we have?

    Hey, but everybody is ready to ridicule what I just said–because like Stephen Colbert’s character says–“he thinks from the gut”.

    That’s cause the brain has gone to mush.

  7. While some agents are transitioning, I’m hearing more and more unhappy stories from successful indies who sign with an agent and then get maneuvered into a deal with a trad author by the agent. While the money is often good up front, the long range impact isn’t so great. The lack of experience by these indie authors makes them susceptible to signing contracts that are not in their best interest in the long run, but in the agent’s best interest in the short run because of the advance.

    This will work for a while, but the long range outlook is not good for agents.

  8. James–
    Another excellent post. As you say, there are good and bad agents, all of whom are human. More or less. And like lawyers, accountants, stockbrokers etc., they apply their energies where they stand to produce the best financial results. This won’t usually be with unknown writers who have no track record.
    In the course of what I still laughably refer to as my career as a writer, I’ve had three agents. The first was high visibility, and sold my one and only thriller within days of taking me on (it earned back my advance, and then some). The second agent did her best (who can say what that means?) for most of a year, but failed to get me a deal. She did “the hard thing” by sending me the bad news that she was calling it quits and cutting me loose. This was tough to take–BUT it meant I was free to seek new representation. The third agent is a likeable woman who is still in the business, and is now an Internet gadfly. She took on a different project of mine and, to use her colorful term, flogged the manuscript for almost two years. What unknown writer is going to fire his one source of hope, his agent? I think it was either a matter of pride with her to not be proved wrong about taking me on, or she just wasn’t any good at pitching my work. I’ll never know, but either way, I’m sorry she didn’t do the hard thing sooner.
    It’s experiences like these that make me happy to be around for the Indie ebook revolution.

  9. When lawyering, I had to lay it out, “I am notoriously hard to get ahold of. I apologize. However, on Monday, between 1 and whenever, I take all calls and talk as long as need be (within reason). I expect you to call me every Monday to touch base. About half my clients took me up on that.

    I have a friend right now who is going through a real legal jackpot and that is her number one complaint. I help her with it as much as I can, but the lawyer needs to step up.

    This post on good and BAD agents is also exceptionally relevant because of the lawsuit filed by Harper Lee to regain her copyright to that one little book she wrote. She was swindled out of it by her agent’s heir.

    And no matter how long you are in the business, be it lawyering or agenting, the bad news never gets any easier. The key to manage the expectations as you go. Don’t tell someone everything is just rosy when it is really going sideways. I always used to lead with the worst case scenario and then back into what I thought was reasonable.

    Meh, even in my new job, I had to tell a room full of folks and the press that FEMA assistance wasn’t coming after our natural disaster. It wasn’t fun, but I seemed to have rendered it into a palatable pill to swallow. Never gets easier.


  10. At the OWFI writers conference this weekend, I was amazed at how patient and accessible the agents were in listening to our pitches. It was like speed dating, and we all hit some matches and some misses. By the way, Jordan Dane did a great job as a speaker. Good to finally meet her in person after following her on this blog.

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