Literary Agents: Top Ten Ways to Make or Break that Relationship, Number 2, The Agent as Superman/Superwoman


I just changed the Top Ten. I decided that number one and two were parts of one whole, and I realized this week, (Monday to be precise) that I left out one of the most important parts of the agent job and relationship. The Agent as Superman/Superwoman. (And yes, this post is supposed to be very mildly humorous, a departure from the more serious stuff, though the title of Superman and Superwoman Agent is not intended to be funny. About that I’m dead serious.)

The job of literary agent is very complex, or at least it is when the agents are worth their salt. There is a broad list of jobs, the ones we might call the Magic Five: He / she
1. sends manuscripts to editors,
2. makes and keeps good relationships with editors
3. makes and keeps good relationships with the writers in his stable, and looks for new talent
4. reads, understands, negotiates contracts
5. gives career advice

But the Magic Five are often just the tip of the iceberg for agents. Agents are sometimes called upon to do jobs that appear to the average, normal, business person to be totally out of context for their job title, that are not covered under the writer-agent contract, yet writers ask anyway! When writers ask agents for things that go beyond the job description, the agents have to find a way to say, “That isn’t my job,” tactfully, or decide they want to step out of the Magic Five and do something other. (Note: Some writers keep on asking, even after being told no, at which time those writers become pains in the ass—the PITA clients.) My suggestion is, don’t ask, so the agents don’t have to say no. But I thought it might be fun to tell what I’ve heard and seen.

This list of the over-and-above things agents are sometimes asked to do for clients is certainly not all inclusive. I look forward to hearing from the writers here, who might know other things that Superman or Superwoman Agents have been asked to do or have been known to do for clients. Below is a short list of things *I’ve* heard agents being asked to do, and the common replies.

Q.  What PR are you going to do for me?         A. None.
Q.  Are you going to send my books to reviewers?        A. No. That is a PR person’s (or your) job.
Q.  Can you get me on Oprah?     A. (wild hysterical laughter)
Q.  Can you get me a woman when I get to New York?    A. Uhhhh. No.
Q.  Can you get me drugs when I get to New York?     A. No. You’re on your own there.
Q.  Can you tell me where the nearest liquor store is?    A. Yes. Probably. 😀 
Q.  Can you find me a babysitter for the conference?    A. Maybe. (Actually, I’ve heard this several times so many it isn’t all that odd.)
Q.  Can you loan me some money until my advance comes through?     A. (gulp) Followed by anything from, “Not likely,” to more wild hysterical laughter. That said, I have heard a *very* few cases where the agent did loan a deeply destitute writer money when a big payday was close.
Q.  My book deserves a 6-figure advance. I won’t sign for anything less. Are you gonna make that happen?      A. Not putting any money down on that one, Bubba.
Q.  My husband / wife / child / parent has a problem, or won’t do something (whatever). Will you talk to them / give me advice / help?     A. Maybe.

This last answer is perhaps a surprising one. Depending on what the problem is, and depending on the agent’s non-literary-job background and level of personal empathy, agents have been known to do all sorts of different things for clients. I, personally, have heard of agents doing the following: play marriage counselor, financial advisor, tax-problem advisor, child care advisor, medical advisor, suggest mattresses, vehicles, computers, or phones to purchase that will make the writer’s life / back / digestion better. They have been helpful in dealing with aging parent issues, have helped a writer find childcare at a conference, have loaned a writer a few bucks when the writer left the hotel with no money, and a whole host other kind and wonderful things that are not strictly part of the agent / writer relationship. Because the agent / writer relationship at its best is an abiding and respectful friendship.

Agents understand that the life and the job of a writer are troublesome and confusing. Most will assist where they can with a happy heart and kindness. This is where the agent becomes Superman or Superwoman. I’ve always lucked out in this regard, having had the best agents imaginable. Perfect? No. But truly excellent: fair, kind, agreeable, ethical, and with my best interests at heart. In return, I’ve tried to be kind, ethical, and helpful in return. Which is what I recommend all writers be. Because it’s a relationship, and give and take is necessary.

That said, not all agents will help out in areas other than the magic five above, and no writer should ever expect that they will.

TOP TEN list (revised)

  1. The agent as Negotiator — The Agent as Bad Cop to your Good Cop
  2. The Agent as Superman/Superwoman
  3. The Agent at Cons
  4. The Agent as Friend (when that is possible)
  5. When to Send Prezzies: (cards or gifts and what works and what doesn’t)
  6. When to Expect Your Agent to Drop Everything and Return Your Call/Email
  7. When the Agent Says No (to a new project after you have signed with and worked with him/her for a while)
  8. Know When to Say Goodbye: (when your agent has more problems than you do: Alzheimer’s, health issues, mental issues, drug abuse, bringing in the next {but flakey or dishonest} generation to run the family biz, refusing to pay royalties, lawsuits, and lots of other crazy stuff)
  9. Miscellaneous Stupidities (firing an agent improperly, dividing royalties, divided loyalties, having a big mouth, etc.)
  10. Keep the Agent in the Loop (and the times I failed at this)





8 comments to Literary Agents: Top Ten Ways to Make or Break that Relationship, Number 2, The Agent as Superman/Superwoman

  • Great post, Faith. In truth, some of the more personla requests here seem bizarre to me. I love my agent, but my relationship with her is structly (and pretty narrowly defined) business, and that’s the way I like it (uh huh, uh huh).

  • I would add that a good agent will also be a good critical reader of manuscripts. Lucienne has a terrific eye for what works and what doesn’t in a book, and I always have her read my books and take her comments to heart. That doesn’t fall under the heading of odd requests, but it is an important one.

  • AJ, I like to keep things purely professional too. But I must admit that it’s nice to know you can depend on SuperAgent for other things in a pinch!

    David, very good point. Lucienne *does* have a great eye and many times catches things (once or twice they were horrible things) wrong with my mscpts that my editor does not. Not all agents read mscpts after they are sold, and before they hit print, however. Some agents read the final book only so they can pass it along to foreing rights folk, not so they can make comments. Lucienne and like-minded agents go above and beyond.

  • I was also going to ask about the agent as pre-editor/polisher, too. As in, before the book is sold.

    This is a great post and a fantastic series, Faith. What you’ve said today is a list of exactly *why* I want to get an agent. Thanks!

    *runs back to editing WIP*

  • Laura, almost all agents make suggestions on a first book in a new series or for a new contract. In fact, that is something many require before signing a new client, to prove that the writer can actually deliver changes and is easy to work with. Then they can say with all honesty to a prospective editor, “She is excellent to work with, made all the changes I suggested on this muscript, and she did it in record time.” That can make all the difference for an editor.

  • Faith,
    It sounds like initial feedback from a skilled agent like Lucienne is important. What about when an agent wants revisions upon revisions upon, you get it, until the book barely resembles what you wrote?

    How much agent feedback should a writer accept before it’s not their work anymore?

    I’ve enjoyed this series of posts, even though I haven’t been commenting all the time. Just imagine me nodding and clicking onto the next.


  • Hi GGDave. Good to hear from you. Skilled agents won’t sign you unless they think you have something they sell to start out with. They don’t want to work *that* hard when there there are other writers whose mscpt may need less work. So the first initial rewrite and then a tweaking is all that should be needed.

  • Hi Faith, I found you through a weekly Google Alert I have set up with the phrase “New York Literary Agent.” I just started using it… and it sent me a link to this article you wrote… which is good content PLUS you made me laugh. I’m a former agent and AAR member now helping authors find top agents. Yes, agents are wildly different in what they DO, what they SAY they’ll do, what they have the ABILITY to do, and what they actually FOLLOW THROUGH on. 🙂 Have a great weekend.