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How to Choose a Literary Agent: Red Flags

Your Book Writing Coach

A couple of questions came up about literary agents today and I realized it would be a good topic to share with you. It’s easy to get taken advantage of it you don’t know what to look for or even aren’t quite clear on a literary agent’s role.

A student from my most recent Bring Your Book to Life Program is just putting the finishing touches on her self-help book, which has quickly gone from rough idea to a powerful manuscript. She e-mailed me today asking about a particular literary agency I had never heard of.

I looked them up in Preditors & Editors, a free online listing of editors, literary agents and others, which tells you whom to watch out for, and who has a solid reputation. This one was a big “strongly not recommended.” Use this resource if you have any question about an agency. It’s a great place to start. Also ask for references from an agent before you sign.

One of my clients signed up with a literary agent because her friend spoke highly of the agent. This agent promised all kinds of access. While I had some great agents in mind for this author, it seemed her new agent had super relationships with the publisher my client wanted most. So I gave it my blessing.

The agent recommended hiring a terrible ghostwriter

Later, we learned that these promises were all hot air. The agent first recommended a terrible ghostwriter. A ghostwriter was unnecessary for this book anyway, but the ghostwriter hatched up the book and even the agent agreed it was a mess. Then the agent sat on the book proposal for over a year doing virtually nothing. And this was for a highly marketable book and an author with a very loyal and impressive following.

Once you sign with a literary agent, you have a contract, and you can’t just leave unless you can prove they’ve violated the contract. This is a really important decision–so decide wisely and do your research before signing. And certainly have an entertainment lawyer look at your agent’s contract.

Having said that, I don’t want to scare you off of literary agents. A literary agent is one of the most important people in your career as an author. A good agent will find you a publisher who is the right fit for you and your book–one who shares your vision for the book. They’ll negotiate a great deal and look out for your interests. And they’ll often even help you plan your next books.

On a radio interview on Power Women Magazine today, the host, Deb Bailey, asked me how much you pay a literary agent up front. Nothing. If a literary agent asks for up front payment, run in the other direction. The Association of Authors’ Representatives, the national association that literary agents belong to, prohibits such up front fees.  It’s considered a conflict of interest, because it could cause them to take on a book that doesn’t really have a good chance of getting published.

Literary agents get paid when you get paid by your publisher (through your advance and any royalties).  A literary agent may suggest that your book  proposal or book needs editing. They may even recommend an editor. But their own association prohibits them from collecting fees to make your proposal publisher-ready. You can hire a separate editor to do such work. They won’t have a conflict of interest.

Any more questions about literary agents?  Ask away. Want to share your experience with literary agents? Please do.

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

Reader Interactions


  1. Stacy Corrigan says

    Hi Lisa,

    I have a bit of an unrelated question. I’m wondering if it is wise to self publish without an ISBN # so my book can be available to sell at workshops etc, and can then sent that copy out to agents for perusal? Or is it better to send a manuscript version. Thanks! As always I love your tips!

    Stacy Corrigan

  2. lisatener says

    Good question. Generally, you want an ISBN number so that people can easily order your book through amazon, bookstores, etc.
    But if you want to traditionally publish, you might call the first version a “Beta version” or “pre-publication version” or something that shows you are not actively marketing it and do not give it an ISBN number. You can sell it at workshops and get feedback from early readers (a great way to improve the book).
    Once you’ve self published, agents and publishers will want to see big numbers in book sales (15,000 is a magic number I’ve heard agents toss around).

  3. Charlene says

    I know I have a great idea for a set of books for parents to prepare there children for the birds and bees talk. I just don’t know where to start the whole publishing process.

    • Lisa Tener says

      Hi Charlene,

      Ah, isn’t that frustrating? I’ve often pressed “enter” or “send” just as my brain registers a typo. About your question: First step is to clarify your vision/goals and possibly get more specific about audience. Based on those considerations, you’ll want to clarify content, tone, structure, features, etc.

      My self-study Quick Start to Kick Start your Book (which includes CD and workbook) will help you with all those first steps, whether you plan to self-publish or traditionally publish. These are all important steps to take before you start writing.

      I would then, from vision/goals and other considerations, such as platform and size and competitiveness of the market for that specific subject, how fast I want the book, how much control I want, etc., decide whether to self-publish or traditionally publish. The two routes often mean different steps (self-publish: write the book; traditionally publish: write the proposal).
      I do offer sessions on making the optimal publishing decision.

  4. Stephaine says

    Do you have to pay a editor?
    Do you have suggestions of any litrary agents in mind?
    Thanks For That Infomation you gave!:)
    Im so excited Im doing this step in my life,Its not even about money to me I just want to help and make a diffrence in womans&teenagers lives,THE LORD HAS GREAT PLANS FOR EVERYONE&EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON.


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