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Literary Agents: A Bad Rap?

You Book Writing Coach
You Book Writing Coach

I found a response to one of my youtube videos this morning that got me on a roll. After writing a short dissertation in reply, Youtube informed me I only had 500 words to respond. Blog time.

The controversial video is a tongue in cheek joke (and a tad silly).  The comment was this:

“Remember, many agents are people with BA’s who don’t have the talent or creativity to write a book themselves, so they spend their careers rejecting the work of others.”

Whoa. Now, many people might think this is so sour grapes, it doesn’t warrant a response, but I think it does. Why? Many authors don’t really understand literary agents–their jobs, their mind frames or their hearts. You need to understand all three if you are going to capture an agent’s heart and land a contract.

So, first, what do literary agents do all day? Why don’t you always get a prompt response? Literary agents have lots of jobs:
– Sifting through query letters and responding
– Sifting through book proposals and responding
– Meeting with acquisitions editors and finding out what they’re looking for, where the market is going, and talking up their authors
– Finding the right editor and publishing house for a particular author
– Helping authors revise and perfect their book proposals, or fine tuning a proposal for a particular editor or publishing house
– Negotiating contracts so their authors get the best deal they can
– Making sure their authors get paid what they should
– Supporting their authors in career planning, maybe even proposing ideas for next books

This takes many skills, not just good writing and editing, though that is usually one skill they have in spades. They are tough negotiators, supportive mentors, good relationship builders, excellent strategists and often visionaries. Whether they “just have a B.A.” seems irrelevant to me. And, by the way, many great authors over the decades did not have MFAs not that there is anything wrong with an MFA. But it’s not required.

So, all importantly, if you don’t hear back from a literary agent, why and what can you do about it? And how can you avoid rejection and prompt a quick response  in the future? For all future proposals to literary agents:
– Ask if they want your proposal or manuscript before sending. Send a query first.
– Find out if the particular literary agent prefers e-mail submission or snail mail.
– Pitch in person:

  • Attend a course like Harvard Medical School’s CME publishing course(open to anyone writing about medicine, healing, related fields, or who just wants a great course on writing and publishing for trade markets).
  • Attend a “meet the agents” panel where you can hear and pitch to agents, like the International Women’s Writing Guild‘s Big Apple Conference: Meet the Agents in NYC.
  • Attend writers conferences where literary agents will be present.

– Learn what that agent loves. Look at the book titles they represent. Does your book fit in? So many new authors pitch to an agent because they’ve heard the name. Do some research and find out if it’s really a fit.  I know many agents who have said about a book proposal, “That book will do well, but it’s not a fit for me. I’m just not passionate about it.”

Use this book to write your book proposal
Use this book to write your book proposal

– Write a top notch proposal. I recommend Michael Larsen‘s How to Write a Book Proposal for an airtight framework. Literary Agents love Mike’s format. Don’t skimp either. Follow his directions to the letter. If a section is weak, work on it, even if it means holding off on sending it out until you have a bigger platform.

– If your book proposal is rejected, ask the agent why they don’t want it and if they have suggestions for improving the book proposal or suggestions for a more appropriate literary agent.

– Keep making your proposal better. Keep building your platform. And hire a professional editor or book proposal coach if you need to. You may not get it on the first try: persistence, flexibility and growth will help you be successful. Good luck!

As to the person who commented on my youtube video, he or she has one point: there are agents out there who are not to be trusted. You can find many of them here and read this blog post for what to beware of in choosing agent and how to avoid the badies.

Any questions on how to get a literary agent? Agents, any advice for new authors seeking representation?

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. Barbara Berkeley MD says

    I wanted to reinforce Lisa’s suggestion that prospective authors attend a course like the one offered by Harvard. I participated in the Harvard course two years ago and was impressed with how well it was organized and with how much I learned. I had immediate access to agents and publishers at the course, one of whom later became my book agent. I am a physician who specializes in the treatment of obesity and my book…about how to avoid regain after losing…dealt with a topic that is not frequently discussed. Because of the ability to speak directly with professionals, I was able to advocate for my book in person and get it published within a year. (Refuse to Regain: Twelve Tough Rules to Maintain the Body You’ve Earned, Linden Press). I would highly recommend this opportunity for anyone who is serious about getting his or her work published. It was simply excellent.

  2. Sarah Allen Benton says

    Where do I begin? That is what I was thinking after I finished writing my book. I wondered how I was going to get a literary agent in order to get a book contract from a publisher- it seemed like a daunting task. My biggest suggestion to author’s who want to publish is to attend the Harvard “Publishing Books, Memoirs and Other Non-Fiction”- it brought me face to face with agents and publishers and gave me a chance to “pitch” my book idea to them. In fact, as a result I received a book contract from Praeger Publishers for my book “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights” My life has completely changed as a result of this course, I also met my editor Susan Aiello of Word’s World Consulting at this conference- it was like one stop shopping!

  3. Kathy LeMay says

    Thanks, Lisa, for laying out the why of retaining the services of a literary agent.

    In the world of publishing there was so much I didn’t know I didn’t know. My literary agent strongly and powerfully negotiated a contract on behalf of this first time non-fiction author, helped me to navigate the waters of becoming an author, and aggressively promoted the book and me to her vast network of contacts.

    Critical to the success of this partnership is a values match and her deep belief in my book’s message. While she will make revenue from this project- and she should because of her knowledge, experience and expertise- it is clear to me she values it’s success for all the right reasons: making a difference.

    Take the time to find just the right agent for you and you will likely have a great experience and a lifelong mentor, supporter, and advocate.

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