literary agents – take them or leave them?

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First of all, this isn’t a rant. If you’ve come here to bash literary agents, rant on your own blog or go elsewhere. There are plenty of places you can go, and while I try to restrain my words, I am not known for being adverse to giving direction when necessary. (For my denser readers: Get out of line and I’ll happily tell you where to go.)

This is a response to Mr. Dean Wesley Smith’s post How Did We Get Here? Mr. Smith heard several unfortunate stories from five different writers, who felt decisions made by their literary agents hurt their writing careers.

Essentially, Mr. Smith provides an article on what literary agents do and don’t do. I do feel the need to speak to two of his points, the first of which is this:

“1) Agents do NOT edit books. They don’t ask you to rewrite a book, they don’t ask you to fix a book. If they knew how to write, they would be doing it and making the 85% instead of the 15%. (Folks, if they don’t like your book, find an agent who will like it as you wrote it.)”

That depends. My first agent was James Allen of the Virginia Kidd Literary Agency. Mr. Allen most patiently edited my first novel and spent a great deal of time teaching me, a novice writer, how to structure my novel. The man had the patience of Job, and my novel was much stronger where ever his red pen slashed a word or a phrase. I wish I had been intelligent enough to listen to all his advice.

There are still editing agents in the business, although, I believe there are fewer of them now than there were back in the eighties. There is nothing wrong with having an agent edit your work and help you polish your manuscript. I would certainly hope that if I acquire another agent, that individual will tell me if there there is a technical issue with my novel.

I think Mr. Smith was addressing an issue where an agent might hijack a novel and make unreasonable demands on the writer for changes, but because he doesn’t specifically say that, I can’t be sure. Not everyone who reads either Mr. Smith’s post or this post will be familiar with the publishing industry, and I think we need to be very clear.

The other statement Mr. Smith makes is:

“4) Agents do NOT help you plan a career. They have no right to tell you to slow down, to change a habit, to write under another name or not write under another name. The hard truth is those are your decisions and you have to make them for what works for you. The moment you let marketing and agents and outside voices, like those of your workshop, into your art, you are doomed. The frightening truth is that most agents don’t have a clue what it is like to be a writer, or even what happens in a writer’s life. Get advice from other writers farther down the road than you are. Not some agent.”

Again I feel the need to disagree. I would hope a literary agent would be invested enough in a client to want to make suggestions to help guide a writer’s career. Of course, the ultimate decision as to whether or not to take the literary agent’s advice is up to the writer. A literary agent does not remove a writer’s choices. A good literary agent will help a writer make more informed career decisions. It stands to reason that as my career advances, the agent’s career will advance too.

Perhaps because I had such a good experience with my first agent, I see the writer/agent relationship more in terms of a team effort rather than as an adversarial relationship. Are there bad agents out there? Absolutely. There are also bad editors, bad publishers, bad writers, bad plumbers, bad car mechanics, bad teachers, . . . you get the idea.

If you really want to know what to expect from a literary agent, read the Moonrat’s post What Can I Expect of My Agent?


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8 Responses to literary agents – take them or leave them?

  1. Stephanie says:

    Timely and well said, Teresa!

    A literary agent does not remove a writer’s choices. A good literary agent will help a writer make more informed career decisions.

    And I think that’s the heart of it. I would absolutely expect my agent to guide me in particular choices. (Isn’t that what contract negotiation is to a degree?) My jobs are, primarily, to write (well), to publicize my book in every way I can (and especially those ways an agent and/or editor suggests), and to remember that successful authoring is as much business as it is art. If these two comments by Mr. Smith are indicative of his opinion, my concern is that he feels an agent’s job is solely to sell books, and we all know that isn’t true.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Stephanie! You hit a point that I have seen reiterated elsewhere, because it’s true: “successful authoring is as much business as it is art.”

      I think if someone wants to write their art, then by all means, they should do so! There’s nothing wrong with it. There are also so many other venues available nowadays for writers who want to write artistic works and self-publish.

      I have written a novel that I believe will sell. If it doesn’t, then I’ll write another novel. It’s not the end of the world for me, and if I’ve not managed to sell anything in five or six years, then I need to evaluate whether I want to continue writing for pleasure. If I decide to write for pleasure, then I won’t need to keep abreast of the publishing market, the genre market, or maintain web sites and blogs. I wil write whenever and whatever pleases me. I’m going to stop now, because writing for pleasure is starting to look real good. 😉

      Great points, Stephanie, and thanks again for visiting.

  2. Kelly Bryson says:

    Hey Teresa- I try to keep up with the publishing world and read several agents blogs- some that focus on financial matters, submissions, the publishing process, business etiquette, marketing and on and on. I look forward to getting an agent so that at least one of us will know what’s going on 🙂 Isn’t that what an agent is for? To let me focus more on the writing? I don’t need a friend or a babysitter- though I hope that I will have a great relationship with my agent, but I do expect them to do more than read my stuff and pass it on if they like it. -Kelly

    • Teresa says:

      You’re exactly right, Kelly. Even with the knowledge I have of publishing and marketing from the library perspective, I’m following today’s rapid changes in the publishing industry with my head spinning. Everything from copyright changes to royalities are going to change dramatically within the next few years due to e-books. It’s an amazing time, but it’s also confusing if you’re just ringing into the noise.

      Thanks for stopping in, Kelly!

  3. Cicily Janus says:

    Wow. I disagree wholeheartedly with Mr. Smith’s points. I often blog on my agent and what he does for me. If you’re interested to read my blogs on it, go to

    Meanwhile, let me say this. My agent, Gary Heidt of Signature Literary Agency, has only strengthened my career, my prose and my purpose. He too has the patience of Job and if I had a dollar for everytime he helped me through a crisis of the pen, I would be a very wealthy woman.

    When I sent him my original proposal for my book (which is due out through Random House, July 2010) on jazz, he said, this looks pretty good but I think we need to tweak it a little. Well, tweak, to him, is rewrite. I’m afraid to ever hear him say the words, we need to rewrite this! 🙂

    A good literary agent will not send your work to the dogs of publishing if it is not ready and of course they’ll make suggestions and edits and whatever else you need because their career is riding on it as well.

    Another thing my agent does is rec. places for me to submit articles to, makes suggestions on ideas and presented me with ideas, as he does his other clients, of books and writing projects that might be a good fit for us. Also, he’s a great writer. Why does he do this end of the job? Because he believes in writers and wants to see good works flood the community.

    If all agents were truly like what Mr. Smith described, only a very insignificant amount of writers would get through the gates. Agents are your partners and your best ally in the field. Plus, you know once you land one, that if they tell you that what you’re doing isn’t working, that they’re doing it for your best interest.

    I work with many agents at my retreats and all of them have a love for books that borders on obsession and all of them have wanted only the very best for their future and current clients. This whole myth of agents being the enemy and whatnot is only a jaded lens view of someone who’s been rejected too many times or maybe, not enough times. Rejections are not personal and tenacity with your project, in all facets of the project (editing, revising, and whatnot) are key to becoming a successful writer.

    thanks for this post Teresa. You’re spot on. I’ll be following your works.

    • Teresa says:

      You know, Cicily, you pointed something out that I had forgotten — while Jim didn’t represent short stories, he would often tell me who was accepting short stories so I would have an edge on my submission. (Ditto for ideas and writing projects. He had a wonderful imagination and loved the genre market.) Of course, if I felt that the project wasn’t right for me, I could always say no. I never felt that Jim was restricting my choices in any way. In fact, the opposite was true, he broadened my opportunities.

      Thanks for stopping by, Cicily!

  4. I agree that Mr. Smith’s comments sound a bit like sour grapes. But he is close on some of his points.

    An agent’s job is to sell your book to a publisher. If they help you with editing, planning your career, etc, it’s a bonus. But you can’t go into agent submissions EXPECTING those things.

    I’ve talked to many new writers who, when I suggest they find a critique partner and try another edit, say “But I’m going to get an agent. That’s their job.” Or they think it’s the job of the editor at the publishing house. Neither is right.

    It’s the writer’s job to make their book the very best they can on their own. Of course, agents and editors will find things they want changed, but if the whole thing needs rewritten, you’re going to get rejected.

    Writers write, rewrite, and rewrite again. Agents sell the rewritten MS to a publisher. The editor at the publishing house puts the final polish on the book before it goes to print. If they offer to help us with our end of the deal, that’s great. Just don’t go in expecting it. 🙂


    • Teresa says:

      Hi Audrey! You are right on all points.

      Thanks so much for stopping by; it’s always a pleasure to benefit from your experience. 😉

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