Lessons Learned As a Literary Agent

Dan is leaving the agency at the end of this month to focus his attention on the work of Gilead Publishing, the company he started in 2016. Here are some parting thoughts.


I’ve been a literary agent for about 2,000 of the 13,000 total days spent working with and for book publishers over the last thirty-five years. It’s been a great experience, for sure; but as I look back at the thousands of proposals sent and received, common issues appear and reappear.

I’ve learned more about the life of an author, which I never fully appreciated in the previous thirty years I was involved with publishers. For sure, I have a much greater understanding for the personal journey to publication and the struggles encountered by wordsmiths.

But I also picked up some other things along the way, those which I had either little idea about five years ago or at least didn’t fully grasp from my earlier experience.

  1. Competition is broader and deeper than I could have ever imagined. While it might seem like writing is similar to the biblical voice crying in the wilderness, it is actually closer to whispering on a busy city street at rush hour and wondering why no one stops to pay attention. Once you get this concept, the platform issue takes on greater importance and is not some random requirement intended to keep you away from publishing a book.
  2. Categories of books are wider than I thought. Most things that authors believe make their book different from something previously published are not significant enough differences to publishers or readers. What this means is that while you think you have something unique, publishers consider it part of a broad category and judge the publishability of it based on the success of the big category. (This points back to the competition issue as well.)
  3. Commercially successful authors work really, really hard to achieve the success and continue to work hard for a very long time. The required relentless effort is not for everyone.
  4. Most aspiring authors do not attend writers conferences or read agency blogs, learn how to do proper proposals and handle various issues along the way to publication. What this means is agents and publishers are swamped with poorly constructed proposals, manuscripts that have not been through a crucible of critique and aspiring authors who have little idea of how things actually work. Kudos to you who are not in that group.
  5. There is a difference between being published and being published well. Anyone can be published; fewer authors are published well. Author impatience and/or unwillingness to submit to professional input is often the difference.
  6. Creativity is often a casualty when an author is in a hurry. The very thing that captures the heart and mind of a reader is a well-crafted story, told with a captivating style and a bit of creative flair. Many authors simply tell stories as a list of events or explain something in a manner that lacks creative spark. Creativity and style cannot be bottled, but we sure know it when we see it. Writing well takes time.

I hope everyone reading this agency blog will continue to learn and grow. None of us ever truly “arrive,” whether it be professionally, in personal growth or in our relationship with the Father who adopted us into his family.

May we all have enough humility to admit we need to continually learn about this profession, ourselves and our God and the grace to allow others time and space to do the same.



36 Responses to Lessons Learned As a Literary Agent

  1. Linda M October 23, 2018 at 3:28 am #

    Thank you! Rarely do I (writer) get to see this perspective.

  2. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 23, 2018 at 4:18 am #

    ‘For Dan Balow’, a sonnet in the Shakespearean style

    How do we respect thee, Dan,
    and how can we count the ways
    in which your guidance and God’s plan
    have girded our writing days?
    There is the wisdom of the biz
    buried deep in the pub-house
    that we can’t see through the fizz,
    from without, what feels like abuse
    of a writer’s innocence, but you clarify
    and make familiar a foreign land,
    showing, every editor is not Bligh,
    as you calmly take our shaky hand.
    Our “Godspeed!”, dear friend and mentor,
    comes from us all, each throat a Stentor.

    • Shirlee Abbott October 23, 2018 at 12:27 pm #

      Amen and thank you (Dan, for the things Andrew put in verse, and Andrew for putting it into clever words).

  3. Michelle Van Loon October 23, 2018 at 4:55 am #

    I don’t have a sonnet to add (nice work, Andrew Budek-Schmeisser!), but I will add my gratitude for Dan’s experience, wisdom, and humor.

    Thank you, Dan.

  4. April Cassidy October 23, 2018 at 5:07 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing this wisdom and for all the work you have put in for so many authors. We will miss you! But I can’t wait to see all that the Lord has in store for you.

  5. Sara Davison October 23, 2018 at 5:24 am #

    I’ve always enjoyed your posts on this blog Dan and will miss them. Wishing you all the best in your endeavours with Gilead and wherever else God may lead you.

  6. Elisabeth Warner October 23, 2018 at 5:32 am #

    Thank you Dan for your wisdom. You will be missed! Maybe when we get past the literary agent stage you’ll see us again when our books are ready for publication 🙂

  7. Deborah Clack October 23, 2018 at 5:55 am #

    Thank you so much, Dan, for your wisdom in these blogs over the years. God has used you greatly in my life. Many blessings to you.

  8. Shirley Brosius October 23, 2018 at 6:17 am #

    Always appreciated your thought-provoking posts. May God bless you as you follow His path.

  9. Damon J. Gray October 23, 2018 at 6:35 am #

    I never cease to be amazed, or to appreciate the way in which you, and other swamped agents, take time out each week to share helpful insights and advice to those of us “whispering on a busy city street at rush hour.” Your generosity and selflessness in that regard will be sorely missed here, but I wish you every success as you continue to build Gilead Publishing.

  10. Sy Garte October 23, 2018 at 6:43 am #

    I cant do a sonnet (great work, Andrew!) but how about a simple Limerick?

    There once was an agent named Dan

    Who really is quite the man

    Compassionate and wise

    With literary eyes

    I’ll always be a great fan.

  11. Dalyn October 23, 2018 at 6:50 am #

    Words of wisdom. Thank you for taking the time to put them out there for us.

  12. Norma Brumbaugh October 23, 2018 at 7:28 am #

    Dan, I’ve appreciated what you have written here and shared in the past. Wishing you well as you continue on at Gilead Publishing. Sorry to see you go, though. You will be missed. God’s best, Norma

  13. Barbara Ellin Fox October 23, 2018 at 7:29 am #

    Thank you for so many enlightening and helpful posts. Blessings to you

  14. Rebekah Love Dorris October 23, 2018 at 8:21 am #

    Lessons Dan Balow taught me:

    1. Make a schedule of your posts to make life easier. A year in advance isn’t too much.

    2. Comment on helpful blog posts. It’s only right.

    3. Not everyone in publishing is an author. Have patience with the process and the people trying to help.

    4. Seek your unique audience vigilantly. The masses are not listening.

    5. Nuts and bolts may not give all the feels, but creativity doesn’t get far without them.

    6. Give this journey to God and let Him be your reward, and the rest is icing.

    Thanks, Dan! May God bless your future endeavors with people as helpful as you’ve been to all of us. 🙂

  15. Joyce K. Ellis October 23, 2018 at 9:02 am #

    So well said–and so encouraging, Dan. I, too, will greatly miss your posts. May the Lord and His Word be the “balm in Gilead.” Sorry, couldn’t resist. 🙂 Wishing you all the best.
    Joyce K. Ellis

  16. Jeanne Takenaka October 23, 2018 at 9:22 am #

    Dan, thank you for sharing your insights over the past five years. For making me laugh. And for sharing snippets of yourself in your posts. They have added to my understanding about how to do “authoring” well. You’ve shared spot-on perspectives through your words.

    It’s been fun to watch Gilead grow. Congratulations on that! May God continue to bless the work of your (and Gilead’s) hands.

  17. Roberta Sarver October 23, 2018 at 9:24 am #

    Dan, -Another great post which I’m going to print and keep in a file folder for writing. You have been so helpful; best wishes for your success at Gilead Publishing.

    And thanks to Rebekah Dorris, who commented above. Don’t you just love lists?!

    -Roberta Sarver

    • Rebekah Love Dorris October 23, 2018 at 9:33 am #

      You know it, Roberta! 😀 I have a mental list with “Email Roberta and thank her” on it. Thanks for reminding me to *write it down!*

  18. Tisha Martin October 23, 2018 at 10:15 am #

    Dan, thank you for your years of helping writers grow in the all-consuming but important craft of the publishing world. You will be greatly missed, but I wish you all the very best with Gilead. I’m sure we’ll “see” each other sometimes.

  19. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D October 23, 2018 at 10:16 am #

    Dan, thank you for all I have learned from you by reading your blog postings. I appreciate all the hours you spent on them to make us all better writers. I wish you well with your work at Gilead.

  20. Anne Braly October 23, 2018 at 11:03 am #

    You threw light on such a broad subject. Thank you, sincerely,

    Anne Braly

  21. Carol Ashby October 23, 2018 at 11:14 am #

    It’s been a pleasure learning from you, Dan. May God bless your new direction!

  22. Kay DiBianca October 23, 2018 at 11:43 am #

    What a great blog post to share your parting thoughts! Thank you, Dan, for your wisdom and caring. Best wishes in your new venture.

  23. Cindy Fowell October 23, 2018 at 11:52 am #

    Thank you for your teaching and humor. I will miss your blog posts and guidance. God best blessings as you continue in His work.

  24. Judith Robl October 23, 2018 at 12:06 pm #

    I don’t do sonnets or limericks, but how about a Haiku?

    Dan’s words and wisdom
    Will be missed, but we wish him
    All God’s blessings best.

  25. Lori October 23, 2018 at 12:21 pm #

    I’ve gleaned much from the posts you’ve shared and often thanked the Lord for just what I needed at just the right time. Thank you for your insight and wisdom. We’ll miss you, but wish God’s best for you.

  26. claire o'sullivan October 23, 2018 at 1:15 pm #

    I love this post, and each reply. Dan, you will be missed. A lot. Your wisdom is wonderful, and I hope to meet you at a conference in the not to distant future!

    blessings to you in the Land of Gilead, er, publishing~

  27. Robin Mason October 23, 2018 at 5:21 pm #

    Thank you, Dan, for your contributions here. Looking forward to greater things from you at Gilead.

  28. Patti Jo Moore October 23, 2018 at 7:06 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Dan. Your posts will be missed on this blog, but may the Lord bless your work with Gilead Publishing.

    I want to add that I’m a big fan of Gilead books – – in fact two more that I ordered just arrived a few days ago! 🙂

    God bless you, Patti Jo Moore

  29. Sandy Quandt October 24, 2018 at 7:24 am #

    Dan, thank you so much for the wisdom and humor you’ve shared over the years through your posts and in your conference teaching. Appreciate you. May God richly bless your continued efforts at Gilead.

  30. Nancy Lohr October 25, 2018 at 6:32 am #

    Good parting thoughts, Dan. I’m grateful that Gilead is contributing redemptive fiction and your focus on that mission is admirable.

  31. claire o'sullivan October 25, 2018 at 12:30 pm #

    Blessings and much joy for Gilead! Loved your posts and hope at Gilead you post also.

  32. Nancy Clausen October 26, 2018 at 7:00 pm #

    Thanks for the perfect advice for everyone who asks me about becoming an author. I pray you have much success with Gilead!

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