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Working with a Literary Agent

writing coach on phone
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

“What’s it like working with a literary agent?”

‘What’s the role of a literary agent?’

“What can I expect from a literary agent?’

‘What’s expected of me?’

“Are there any mistakes I should avoid?”

If you wonder about the answers to these questions, today’s post is for you!

One of my clients recently signed with one of my favorite New York literary agents. My client’s questions reminded me how daunting the process can seem, and how helpful it is to know what to expect.

The whole process of submitting your book proposal and waiting to hear back can feel stressful, especially if you don’t hear back from the agent quickly. In this post, I’ll share some general information about how agents, and the submissions process, work, as well as nuances that may vary agent to agent. In addition, I’ll share how to choose a literary agent.

What's the Role of a Literary Agent? Click To Tweet

literary agentA literary agent’s role is to:

Help Sell Your Book to a Publishing House: In this role an agent may be involved in refining the book concept, suggesting changes to the book concept or proposal. The agent will contact acquisitions editors at publishing houses, encourage offers, help you evaluate any feedback that comes from publishers. help you decide among competing offers. Your agent may also make suggestions to you that would improve your chances, especially suggestions that involve growing your reach (platform).

Ensure You Get Paid Properly for Book Sales: The publishing house will pay your agent directly, who will take a percentage (usually 15% for US sales) and j

Nurture Your Career as an Author: While not all agents perform this service, many agents will keep their authors in mind as they speak with publishers about what they are looking for. It’s not unusual for an agent to suggest a book topic to an author of their, particularly a journalist.

What is the process of Working with a Literary Agent? Click To Tweet

  1. Identify Agents Who are a Match. To start, identify agents who are a good fit for your book, based upon what they say they are looking for on their website and on any books they’ve sold to publishing houses. Don’t waste everyone’s time with a book that’s not a match.
  2. Read their submissions guidelines. You don’t have to follow the names of sections exactly, nor the exact order of each section, since you will be submitting to multiple agents, but do make sure you include everything they say they are looking for. For example, it’s okay to  name a section “Audience” instead of “Markets” if one agent’s site says “Audience” and the other says “Markets.”
  3. Send a query letter to 3-5 of the agents you identified. Don’t send your query email until your proposal is 100% complete. If the agent responds that they want to see the book proposal, immediately follow up by emailing them the proposal. Do let them know if you are sending the proposal to multiple agents and mention the number you are sending to. If you don’t hear back in two or three weeks, you can ask whether they received the proposal.
  4. Once an Agent Expresses Interest in Representing Your Book, Set Up a Call to Discuss Their Way of Working. These questions to ask a literary agent will help you clarify whether the agent is a good match for you.
  5. sign agent contract
    Sign a contract with a literary agent once you have determined they are the right fit and you agree with the terms.

    Sign a Contract with Your Literary Agent. It can’t hurt to have an Intellectual Property Attorney look over the agreement, but most agreements are fairly standard. One thing to look for is how long your agent has to sell your book. You want an agreement that has a specific time period such as one or two years.

  6. Once you sign a contract with a literary agent, they may help you refine your book concept in any way they think will make it more marketable to publishers. Sometimes, they will even tailor a submission to the interests of a particular acquisitions editor whom they see as the ideal fit. Of course, it’s your book and they will work with you to revise the concept. However, it’s good to know an agent’s vision for the book (and any changes they anticipate) before you sign a contract with that agent. So do ask them about their vision and any changes they would suggest.
  7. When Your Agent Decides the Proposal and Platform are Ready, They Will Query Publishers. Your agent will identify publishing houses to pitch the book to. They will pitch to acquisitions editors, often someone with whom they have an existing relationship.
  8. If an editor is interested your agent will send your book proposal. This is the time to sit tight and be patient. Perhaps start working on any book chapters you have not yet written, or dive into some research for the book.
  9. If the acquisitions editor or board have questions, your agent will answer those questions, possibly turning to you to see if you are flexible about an alternative vision or change suggested by a publisher, such as a more (or less) niche audience.
  10. Once a publishing house makes an offer on your book, the agent will let other editors know and do their best to get additional offers at the same time, so that you can choose among several offers. If that happens, it’s called an “auction.”
  11. Your agent will negotiate your contract, including advance, terms, foreign rights and other aspects.
  12. If you have concerns, your agent can take those to the publisher. For instance, if you don’t like the cover designs, your agent can advocate for a different design.

How Often Can I Expect to Hear from My Literary Agent?

good news!
You may not hear from your agent until she has good news! Photo by Seyi Ariyo on Unsplash

I know one literary agent who doesn’t meet her authors in person until she’s sold their book. Agents are swamped and any time spent socializing is time not spent on landing and negotiating a publishing deal.

Once an agent submits your proposal to publishers, you may not hear back until they have an offer. Other agents send every “pass” (by email) with any feedback the publisher gave for passing. Don’t expect, however, to be on the phone with your agent for frequent calls. They are especially busy and want to use their time developing relationships with acquisitions editors and selling the books they’ve taken on.

What Do Literary Agents and Publishers Expect of Authors? Click To Tweet

In addition to refining your concept, your agent may request that you do more platform building before they send out your proposal. This could include social media, PR, getting endorsements in hand, getting a commitment from a foreword writer, getting commitments for bulk sales, and more.

You want to know ahead of time if the agent will delay pitching until you meet certain requirements. Before you sign with a literary agent, ask whether they are happy with your platform as is or whether there is more they will want you to do before they pitch to publishers. If more, get specifics, so you are on the same page.

How to Meet Literary Agents Click To Tweet

While you certainly can get a literary agent with a well written, well-researched query letter to the right agent, you can improve your chances by meeting agents in person. Not only will that in person meeting help them get a sense of you, but even if they don’t take you on, they may provide valuable feedback about what they see as the weaknesses in your pitch, ideas for how to improve it, and or even saying that while they are not a match, they have a suggestion for an agent who might be a strong match.

growing author platform - zender at Harvard course
Dr. James Zender and other participants at Harvard Medical School’s Publishing Course. He will return this time as a speaker in 2019.

For this reason, I encourage you to go to writers conferences where you have a good chance of meeting appropriate agents. The International Women’s Writing Guild offers a “Meet the Agents” panel and pitch session twice a year in New York. The San Francisco Writers Conference has a large number of agents each year and many opportunities to meet and pitch them. Just do your homework and research the agents attending, so you know whom to speak with and can even mention books they’ve represented that relate to yours.

You can also attend more niche conferences, such as Harvard Medical School’s CME writing and publishing course, Writing, Publishing, and Social Media for Healthcare Professionals, which is coming up June 20, 2019. There, you will meet literary agents specifically looking for books about health, wellness, medicine and related fields. In addition, you can speak to any of the faculty—agents, publishers, editors and book coaches (including me)—and get feedback on your book idea, platform and more. So, more than just pitching agents, you can get valuable input from agents and other publishing professionals on one or more book ideas. Plus, there is also an opportunity to learn to refine your book pitch, pitch your book to a panel of professionals and get feedback on your pitch.

Perhaps I’ll see you there! Share your questions about meeting, pitching and working with a literary agent as a comment below.

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


    • Lisa Tener says

      Hi Raye,
      I think you’ll find what you are looking for here, having spoken with you before. The course:
      a) Healthcare Focus: Focus on healthcare professionals and the array of writing and publishing opportunities and ways to share your ideas in large forums. From blogging to book writing to social media, there are both introductory and more advanced workshops that focus on both the skills and opportunities from the specific perspective of healthcare, health, mental health and more.
      b) There is an opportunity to craft your book pitch and practice in front of a panel of experts who will provide feedback. In addition, you have the opportunity all three days to speak directly with agents, publishers, freelance editors, book coaches and other professionals to get feedback on your book idea(s), blog ideas, article ideas, platform and brainstorm with them.
      c) I also hear back from many participants that networking with other healthcare professionals who write, are active and vocal on twitter, etc. has been hugely helpful.
      d) The workshops are of a very high caliber and many are taught by MD’s, psychologists and other healthcare experts who are also successful writers.

  1. Betsy Braverman says

    Do you have any advice for targeting a short toddler/small children’s book? There was a book but I can remember what it was called listing publishers etc. Should I have it illustrated and submit? Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you…

    • Lisa Tener says

      hi Betsy, My go-to expert on children’s books is Judy Gitenstein, who has promised to weigh in today or tomorrow. She is a veteran of children’s book publishing who has worked in the upper echelons of the industry for decades. She is now an independent consultant who works with aspiring authors to write marketable, quality books and help them succeed. From my limited knowledge of the genre, acquisitions editors usually have their favorite illustrators and would prefer a book that is not illustrated. However, Judy can answer in more detail what and how to submit. Judy can also recommend a book or two to guide you.

    • Judy Gitenstein says

      Betsy, hi. You’re asking two very good questions. The book you may be referring to might be Literary Market Place, which you can find in most libraries or else online. Another go-to resource is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, or SCBWI. Start with their main site: and from there you can find a regional chapter near you for in-person programs and loads of advice on the publishing process specifically for the children’s market.

      Once you’ve identified a few publishers you want to send your manuscript to, go to their websites to see their submission guidelines. Some publishers specify that they only accept submissions from agents, not from writers directly.

      As for having your manuscript illustrated, only do that if you are self-publishing. If you make a submission and a publisher acquires a manuscript, your editor and the art director will find just the right illustrator for your manuscript that will enhance the tone and subject of your story. I hope this answers your questions. Good luck!

  2. Donna says

    Is there any way to research agents without attending writing conferences. Are there websites for agents working in particular genres? Looking for someone who works in hybrid or nonfiction, but issues with limited mobility at the moment.

    • Lisa Tener says

      1. You can look at similar books and see if the author acknowledges their agent in the acknowledgements section. That might help you find some good leads. Maybe don’t go after a directly competitive book but something in your general field. For example, some publishers love books about how the brain works. You wouldn’t want an exact competitor but a book for a somewhat different purpose. If your mobility is limited you can purchase a kindle version to check it out, if you don’t already own a copy of the books you are considering.
      2. Agent Query is a website to help you find potential matches.
      3. Publishers Marketplace – this is a paid service and many agents post the books they sell (and the acquisitions editor and publishers it sold to), as well as the range of the advance. Again, look for books in your genre and some overlap but perhaps not a direct competitor.
      4. Query Tracker can also help you search and evaluate agents based on the kinds of books they represent as well as how fast they are in getting back to you. There is a free version and a paid version with more information and options.
      You want to make sure the agent is a member of AAR: Association of Author Representatives so that you know they abide by important ethical standards.
      Agent Query and Query Tracker – These sites will allow you to cast a wider net, but you’ll definitely want to supplement your research to make sure the people you’re finding are reputable.

    • Lisa Tener says

      Hi Samar. I do not know the field of poetry well at all. I suggest researching poetry journals and looking at past issues and submissions guidelines. It is probably unlikely to get an agent, so you’d submit yourself. There are services you can pay, as well.

  3. Kirk Wareham says

    I’ve written 30-40 short stories over a period of 25 years, ranging from 2000 to 6000 words. The intent was wholesome and nice themes that could be read aloud in a friends/family setting with a wide age-range of children.

    I’ve never tried to get them published before, but would like to try now. I will very likely work with an agent.

    My question is this: is it better to choose one sample story to submit, or should I submit multiple stories as an anthology?

    • Lisa Tener says

      You’ll be more likely to succeed in finding an agent if you can publish one or more stories elsewhere first (just be sure to keep the copyright).

  4. Kirk Wareham says

    Thank you. It seems that agents are often expecting queries for books or stories that are not even fully written yet. Mine are, and the problem is that if I am forced to submit only one, I might just happen to choose the wrong one. That’s why I wondered about sending multiple stories.

    • Lisa Tener says

      Have you worked with an editor? An editor will help polish and help you choose the best one. But I do recommend publishing a story or two in a shorter-form format in order to interest agents and show you have some platform/reach.

    • Lisa Tener says

      Because poetry is hard to publish and the advances are small or none, it hardly ever pays for an agent to represent a book of poetry. So you’ll need to submit to publishers on your own. I assume you have already submitted some poems to journals and gotten published or you have a highly read poetry blog or social media following. Otherwise, you will likely need to self publish.

  5. Lisa Tener says

    Hi Lisa, I’d need to know more about the book — is this a picture book? For what age range? Have you read about how to write a children’s picture book and do you understand children’s book publishing? If not, you might need to speak with a children’s book consultant before pitching to agents. Or get feedback from a children’s book editor. While children’s books are not my genre, if you email me with more info, I might be able to refer you to a colleague in that genre.

  6. Lisa Dahlman says

    In response to your follow-up questions, I would say this is a fanciful art book aimed at children in early elementary school. We have been coached by my sister who has worked extensively in publishing, but not children’s book publishing. The text is all in verse with rhyme and meter, totaling 250 words. All of the pages are sketched, two (so far) are fully-painted. Thanks.

    • Lisa Tener says

      Thanks, Lisa. I think your original question disappeared so I am posting it here: “My husband and I have worked together to write and illustrate a children’s book. Whom would you suggest as a literary agent or avenues to find one? Thanks for your time.” I would say that you might be best served by looking for a children’s book expert first. They would know what would make it attractive to publishers (and parents who buy contemporary children’s books) and could help you discern whether to seek an agent or go directly to publishers. I will ask my colleague who is a children’s book expert whether she has any further advice based on what you’ve shared about the book.

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