A Is for Agent

If you are a writer, you’ve got it easy. When you say you are a writer, your audience lights up because they know what that means. (Their perception is that you sit around all day thinking profound thoughts. And that you are rich.)

If you are an editor, you’ve got it sort of easy. Your audience knows you work with words and all you do is sit around and read all day. In my editorial days I was often told, “I’d love to have your job.”

But tell someone you are a literary agent and there is a blink and a pause. If they don’t know the publishing industry, they think “insurance agent” or “real estate agent” or “secret agent.” Or if they follow sports or entertainment, they think “sleazy liar who makes deals and talks on the phone all day.” I resent people thinking that I talk on the phone all day. (Hah!)

Even at a writers conference, I always have someone ask, “What is it that you do?”

Dealmaker

An agent works on commission. Fifteen percent of the money earned in a contract they have sold to a publisher on behalf of a writer. We don’t get paid until you get paid. I will be bold and say that any prospective literary agent who asks you for money up front is someone you should stay away from.

This is the category that most people focus on when defining the role of the agent. But it is only one small facet of what we do. It is a myth that we are only dealmakers. It is how we earn our living but only a small part of our work.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a crucial part of what we do. Our contract negotiations are critical to the long-term health of the publishing/author relationship. I regularly teach a course at conferences called “Landmines in Your Book Contract.” Each time I read an “offending” contract clause, taken from actual contracts, there are gasps in the room. There is a good reason to have a professional review any book contract you are ready to sign.

Advice Columnist

I’m not referring to our blog but instead to the conversations (phone, email, face-to-face) we have with our clients. The industry can be confusing when you first begin exploring its nuances. There was a time in your writing life when you didn’t know the answers either. So back then, who did you ask for advice? But what about now after learning the basics? Now the questions are more complex, and the stakes are getting higher.

I can spend hours helping a client review their options. For example, there was a time when a major publisher shut down their entire fiction program; and we had a number of clients affected. Each one needed to have a full understanding of the implications for their situation and what to do next. Or another time a publishing company was sold, and a ton of issues were raised about the future.

We’ve had clients wonder how to best work with their particular editor, someone we’ve known for many years. Everything was smooth sailing because the writer asked the right person for advice.

Career Counselor

We often discuss plans for what should be in an author’s next book proposal. When to complete the proposal itself and what should be included: three books? one book? or a completely different idea because this one won’t work?

There are times where the author is deciding whether or not to try and sell their next idea to a different publisher, not their current one. Not necessarily because of dissatisfaction but because there had been multiple editors ask about their last work and we had been wondering if their enthusiasm would convert to stronger support at a different house.

The question of whether or not to indie publish as a hybrid author is a frequent discussion. Each situation is so unique that cookie-cutter answers are of little help to a particular author.

Idea Machine

I am not saying my ideas are good, only that I can have a lot of them.

Struggling with the title of your book? We could brainstorm a half dozen alternatives at least.

Stuck in your writing? I often have a client call and talk through their book to the place where they are stuck, and we come up with new ideas to break through.

Too many ideas in your head? I ask clients to send a “brain dump” of various storylines or book ideas. I can help decide which ones to shelve and which ones to present to their publisher next time around.

Sometimes just talking it through brings clarity to the author. It might not be my idea that worked;  simply having the conversation stimulated creativity. It is a lot of fun when that happens.

Friend

Let’s be careful with this one. By “friend” I mean someone who is much closer than a business acquaintance but not so close that we look forward to painting each other’s toenails. To use the cliche, I’m not your BFF. But I can certainly be that person in your writing world with whom you can share deeply.

With some clients, it is talking through a spiritual crisis. For others, a relationship breakdown. It can be the need to have someone know their health problem, one they don’t want publicly known. And even writers who are buried by self-doubt need to have someone they trust who can encourage them in the right way.

Some of these relationships do grow into wonderful, lifetime friendships. But make sure you keep your boundaries well set and your expectations reasonable.

10 Commandments for Working with Your Agent

If you haven’t read this list of ten commandments, please do so. (Just click the link above.) It is a fun way to look at the topic. It is one of our top ten most-read blogs ever.

Your Turn

Does this article create new questions for you? If so, ask them in the comments below. I might be able to answer them today or use them as fodder for new posts by one of us at the agency in the future.

(A version of this post was previously published in May 2013.)

26 Responses to A Is for Agent

  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 14, 2022 at 3:53 am #

    The agent guides the scribe’s career,
    the agent makes the deal,
    but who will soothe the agent’s fear?
    Who asks, “How do you feel?”
    The agent is the iron man
    or woman, ‘hind the scenes,
    but do we think, or understand
    of an agent’s dreams?
    Do we know what motivates,
    or just assume it’s money?
    Can we see past what cliché creates
    and find it almost funny
    that part of what we will find there
    is something of a parent’s care?

    • Steve Laube March 14, 2022 at 6:48 pm #

      Andrew,

      You are always a bright light in the comment section.
      You nailed it today….

  2. Erica Wiggenhorn March 14, 2022 at 7:36 am #

    When people ask me, “What does your agent do for you?” I generally sum it up like this: An agent is like a pastor for writers. They shepherd your creativity, guide your career path, keep you grounded, and remind you of the primary purpose behind being a Christian author. Yes, also an advocate and a “friend” but more like that trusted authority in your life that looks at the bigger picture when you’re stuck on one aspect of the view…Chances are you don’t interact with your pastor every day, but you know he’s there with a book of advice when you need Him!

    • Steve Laube March 14, 2022 at 6:47 pm #

      Thank you Erica! You are wonderful to work with as well!!!

  3. Jen Dodrill March 14, 2022 at 8:00 am #

    I met with Bob Hostetler at a recent conference and asked him this question. I really had no idea all the things that go into being an agent. This post clarifies it even more!

  4. Anne Chlovechok March 14, 2022 at 8:27 am #

    Interesting and informative. Thanks!

  5. Kristen Joy Wilks March 14, 2022 at 9:36 am #

    Thanks so much, Steve! This post gives such a wonderful overview of something that is difficult for writers to comprehend. Like my husband the camp director, no one really knows all of the details that go into his job. You can’t unless you have done it before. But at least a small glimpse helps you to understand all of the complexities involved!

  6. Kaci Rigney March 14, 2022 at 10:23 am #

    Thank you, Mr. Laube! Now, I know. Loves the ten commandments, too.

  7. Rudy Hoggard March 14, 2022 at 10:32 am #

    Steve Laube, What are good self-publishing companies that don’t charge an arm and two legs? You can publish on Amazon at no charge if you do the work. Thanks.- . Rudy g. Hoggard (rudyghoggard@frontier.com).

    • Elliott Slaughter March 14, 2022 at 12:01 pm #

      I am unpublished, but have helped some friends self-publish their books. To be honest, I’m not sure why you’d use a self-publishing company. Most everything you can get, you could get elsewhere. E.g., you can hire a freelance editor on your own. That gives you more choice and will probably lead to a better final product. Also, it’ll cost less because the self-publishing company is definitely charging you a markup for the privilege of bundling all these services together.

      There was a great post by Thomas Umstattd recently on launching your book on a budget. That covers mostly the back-end of the process (i.e., after editing), but is a good place to look for ideas:

      https://stevelaube.com/how-to-launch-your-book-on-a-budget/

      • Steve Laube March 14, 2022 at 6:46 pm #

        Elliott,
        Well said. There are always less expensive options. If you are fortunate, the end result could be a good one. But we’ve all seen examples of poorly constructed books (either editing, design, typesetting, or even printing). Often the result of bargain hunting.

        I like to put it this way. “I could fix the pipe under the kitchen sink. But should I?” LOL!

    • Steve Laube March 14, 2022 at 6:38 pm #

      It is one of the features of the annual Christian Writers Market Guide. There are a couple hundred pages of resources to research that would answer this question. Or at least set you on the right path.
      Print edition is here: https://www.shoptheword.com/product/christian-writers-market-guide-2022-edition/ (32% off, and if you order $35 worth of product it’s all free freight).

      Or subscribe to the online version for $9.99 a year. This info is updated throughout the year.
      http://www.christianwritersmarketguide.com

      Hope that helps.

  8. Cody Wildman March 14, 2022 at 12:31 pm #

    Steve, you killed me with, “paint each other’s toenails”!!! Ha! Can’t stop laughing! Thanks for the Monday smile.

  9. Megan Schaulis March 14, 2022 at 12:43 pm #

    The idea of having an industry pro to help choose which crazy idea is the right kind of crazy sounds delightful. 🙂

  10. Tracy Said March 14, 2022 at 4:27 pm #

    Hi Steve, I think I need and agent. But as a new author, getting one seems as difficult as getting published. I live in Australia so do you recommend an Aussie agent, even though I’m writing for the Christian readership that is predominantly American?

    • Steve Laube March 14, 2022 at 6:43 pm #

      We have a few clients based in Australia. The borders and wide ocean are not as much a barrier as they once were. The main challenge for you is proving your platform is large enough to attract a major publisher.
      It’s always hard to land the right agent for your work. We are inundated with proposals and opportunities and simply have to be selective.

      The internet allows one to participate in various media outlets, as long as you are able to be cogent at 3 in the morning when doing a live interview in the U.S. in a more sensible time!

      Or even scheduling face-to-face zoom meetings or phone calls with your editor when you are both awake.

  11. William Davis March 14, 2022 at 8:15 pm #

    Thank you for fleshing out the good and bad parts of who a literary agent should be.

  12. Tiffany Price March 14, 2022 at 9:08 pm #

    Hi Steve,

    This is a great post – thanks for defining the boundaries and the benefits of a literary agent. I do have one question, and it relates to contracts.

    I’m curious, have you had a landmine in any recently signed author contract that was overlooked, perhaps because the language wasn’t clear or there was a new spin on the clause that didn’t compute at the time of signing? I guess I’m wondering if even successful agents, such as yourself, get duped, despite the level of expertise in contractual clauses.

    Thanks!

    • Steve Laube March 15, 2022 at 11:09 am #

      Tiffany,
      A good question. I don’t feel I’ve ever been duped. That suggests a nefarious intent on the part of the publisher. 😉 I have had some energetic discussions and disagreements with publishers about the interpretation of a clause in a contract years after it has been signed. But “duped”? No.

      However, I have talked to authors who signed contracts where a particular clause bit them later. I use some as examples in a class I teach on “landmines in your book contract.”

      • Tiffany Price March 17, 2022 at 7:21 pm #

        Hi Steve,

        I remember attending this class at the BRMCWC a few years ago. The examples you used then were incredibly eye opening! Thanks for your response – I’m always intrigued to hear the agents side of it all!

  13. Jan Rogers Wimberley March 15, 2022 at 11:17 am #

    A is for Awesome post, man.

    A is for Appropriate …Steve, You came across as usual…on topic and with humor.

    A is also for Appreciation.

    A is for Approachable…for taking some of the fearfulness away for new contacts and sharing the ‘secrets of an agent’.

    A is for Affectionate Attitude builder that you exude.

    A is for A long career so you can be my Agent.

    A is for Application by me.

    As Always, Jan Rogers Wimberley

    • Steve Laube March 15, 2022 at 11:28 am #

      Jan,
      A is for ambitious agility with your acumen and the ability to articulate your assessment.

      • Jan Rogers Wimberley March 15, 2022 at 9:19 pm #

        My reaction? OH, NOI

        Accordingly, I think you would be hard to beat at Scrabble.

        Accepting what I think may be your “A” grade?

  14. Marsha E Young March 15, 2022 at 11:36 am #

    Steve,
    This was an especially helpful article. Your writing is always clean, concise, and instructive. Thanks for being a good example for the rest of us. ~ Marsha Y.

  15. red March 17, 2022 at 3:59 am #

    Editor? …I think the ulcers are coming back. 🙂 Much thanks for writing this, ulcers or not!, your work is always worth saving to read again and to pass on to others (along with your site). Walk in His beauty

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