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.