5 Tips for Working with Your Agent

publishing querying revising

When you're trying to get traditionally published, snagging a literary agent seems like the ultimate goalpost. You may know in theory that a majority of your career happens afterward, but when you're just starting out, it's easy to believe that once you’ve signed with an agent, it will be smooth sailing from then on.

If only that were true! As with any career, there may still be difficulties ahead, and many will be out of your control. But your relationship with your agent doesn’t have to be one of them. Your agent will be an ongoing part of your career, so it’s important to develop a strong partnership that can withstand whatever challenges arise.

In this post, we’ll give you five tips to cultivate a successful and positive relationship with your agent, so they’ll be in your corner for years to come.

Open and honest communication is key

As your business partner, your agent will get your novel into the best shape possible so they can find it (and you) a good home with the right publisher. In return, they expect you to work with them on your manuscript and discuss the best strategies to sell it when the time comes. But if you’re not answering their emails, or are refusing to make changes without explaining why, it’ll make you hard to work with.

Instead of making your agent question your reliability, be upfront with them. If you have a deadline coming up that you can’t meet, tell your agent as soon as possible. If their suggestion about changing a plot point leaves a bad taste in your mouth, ask if you can discuss it. If there’s a publishing house you’d rather not submit to, tell them why. The more open your channels of communication, the easier it will be for your agent to meet you halfway.

Your agent is a business partner, not a therapist

You and your agent are preparing to sell your book and build your career together. During this time, your exchanges will usually relate to the contents of your novels, possible opportunities, and probably big events in your life that affect communication and deadlines. Many people do develop friendships with their agents, and may exchange pet pictures or banter over the course of their partnership.

However, if you start spilling problems unrelated to writing or expecting your agent to diagnose issues in your personal life, you’ve crossed a line. This kind of sharing can come off as unprofessional and can even give your agent doubts about you.

Ask yourself if the strife you’re experiencing is something that’s fixable by talking business with your agent. If your needs go beyond figuring out your manuscript or book deal, consider talking to a good friend, or a therapist or counselor instead.

Try big changes before shooting them down

Most of the time, the edits your agent suggests on your manuscript will be in-line with your own vision. But you’ll run into times when a suggested change doesn’t appeal to you. This could also happen when you’re preparing your pitch: your agent might write a blurb with a different focus than you expected, or suggest changing the title from the beloved one you’ve been using.

This is because your agent is looking at your book differently than you. You see your creative vision, which has been your life, breath, and obsession for months on end. But your agent sees what’s more likely to sell. When they propose big changes or different titles, it’s because they know—from experience—what might do better in the market.

That being said, you should never force yourself to make edits that make you hate your book. But you should try the change before automatically shooting it down. Look beyond the actual words your agent said and try to see why they said it. If you give the proposed edit an honest shot and still hate it, then it’s time for a discussion. But now, instead of just saying, “I don’t like that idea,” you can explain how you approached it, why it didn’t work, and ideas on how to better address the underlying issue. Rather than coming off as stubborn, you’ll look like a team player who’s willing to try different things.

Work on new projects

After you’ve signed with your agent and worked on your manuscript and gotten the pitch together, and then finally—finally!—gone to submission, a moment of truth arrives. You are probably not going to wake up the next morning with an offer. You are not going to immediately jump back into revisions on it with your new editor. You are not—though the temptation will be strong—going to continue fiddling with the manuscript you just sent out. What are you going to do?

You’re going to start a new project.

It won’t be easy. But it’s important to write something new, not only for your mental health, but for your future with your agent. Sometimes first manuscripts don’t sell. Sometimes your first sale will actually be the third book you and your agent work on together. These things are out of your control. What is within your control, though, is getting more projects ready. Unless you’re an established author, you’ll have to go on submission with completed books, rather than proposals, so focus on writing your next one.

Although your agent may invite you to send in work at any stage, try to send your very best version of anything new. You only have one chance for your agent to see it for the first time. If you’ve fixed everything you can possibly think of, then you won’t waste your agent’s time by having them point out things you already know. They’ll be able to take it to the next level by jumping off from your best version.

Be respectful!

It shouldn’t need to be said, but the fact is, you’re working in a stressful industry with your deepest passions at stake. As much as we wish it, emails from agents aren’t always good news. You might get an edit letter that hurts your feelings, no matter how nice the phrasing. Your agent may share a crushing rejection from a publisher you had your heart set on. But resist the urge to fire back a nasty response. Agents know that when they send bad news, you’ll probably need time to process it, and they won’t hold a slightly delayed response against you. But if you email back something rude, you can’t ever take it back. Even if you apologize, you will have damaged your relationship, possibly irreparably.

Remember, your agent is on your side! Whatever your circumstances, they’re doing their best to help you succeed. Always treat them with the respect and professionalism they deserve.

As with any relationship, a client/agent relationship is most successful when you meet each other halfway. With the tips in this post, you can ensure that you have a healthy relationship with a good business partner throughout the course of your career.

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