Literary Agents: TOP TEN WAYS to Make or Break that Relationship, Number 6: When Your Agent Should Drop Everything and Return Your Call/Email


The short answer is, Never. The long answer is a bit more involved.

Very few agents will admit to having A-list clients, B-list clients, and C-list clients, at least to the writers in their stables. That said, if five agents each have two urgent messages, one from a bestselling writer client, and one from a midlist writer client, which one will they call first? The bestselling client, of course. Not fair? Why not? That bestselling client is making them a lot of money. Keeping that writer happy is important to their kid’s braces and college fund. Bestselling writers are A-list clients. Usually. Not always….

Sometimes a writer who brings in a lot of money and who really belongs on the A-list is a prima donna, difficult to work with, always complaining, and never happy. Always causing trouble. Always making a stink that reflects badly on the agent. Maybe other agents pat her hand at Cons and tell her they are sorry. Or worse, “Better you than me.” Ouch. After a while, no matter how much money a client brings in, the agent starts letting that client slip in to B-list territory. Maybe the client has called three times already today, and on the fourth call, the agent looks at the caller ID, sighs, and lets it go to voicemail. Maybe that writer should pull her head out of her backside and remember the manners her mama taught her. Or maybe the agent will smile with delight when that writer finds a new agent, one who promises the stars and the moon and lures her to greener pastures. Some professional divorces are less acrimonious than others, and losing a prima donna client is often one of those times.

Sliding between lists is common. At contract time, or just after signing with an agent, any writer will move to the top of the A-list. Between contracts, between projects, or when a writer and an agent have been together a long time, the writer might slide from A-list into high B-list territory, then back up to A-territory when contracts come around again. Or a firm C-list client that the agent personally likes, and who is engaging and fun, might always hang near the A-list territory. Those clients usually get calls and emails right away. The others have to be fitted in where they can, sometimes a couple of days later. Sometimes the agent might actually forget and the writer might have to send an email asking (again) for the call back. (Politely. Always politely.) We writers shouldn’t get upset about being shunted to the side or even forgotten from time to time. But sometimes we do. Like the agents, we’re human. (I’m making assumptions, with apologies to the were, vamp, elf, witch, or alternative supernatural readers.)

Moving between A-list and not-A-list is difficult on a writer. I’ve been there (more than once with more than one agent). When I (meaning my book) was up for auction, the agent attention was phenomenal. I would receive calls several times a day, updating me on the offers. I’d get emails with numbers, PR plans, loving and gushing quotes about my work, and other cool stuff that was being bandied about. Then the sale was made, the auction was done. I had a deal. One was a huge deal. But the agent had done the job and now had to move on to other writers and other projects. Losing that star-treatment was hard! (laughing)

Moving from A-list to B-list was difficult. I had to get used to not hearing from my agent for days, weeks, months at a time. I had to get used to not having my calls returned instantly. Sometimes for a couple of days. Because someone else was on the A-list now, up at auction, not me.  Harder still was when I moved from auction to *just* a sale. Where was the hype? Where was the star treatment? Sigh….

So, when should your agent drop everything and return your call? Never. Always. Sometimes. You have to think of this special relationship as a journey, one where the landscape changes and alters and shifts, and so does your place in it. The main thing to take away from this post, is to not be a prima donna. Play nice in the sandbox that is the publishing world and the people with the biggest sandcastles will play nice with you. Something your mama might have taught you. Or your kindergarten teacher.

TOP TEN list

  1. The agent as Negotiator
  2. The Agent as Bad Cop to your Good Cop
  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 Your Agent Should 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, stupid things NOT to say to an agent, editor, or publisher.)
  10. Keep the Agent in the Loop (and the times I failed at this)

Links to previous posts in this series:









11 comments to Literary Agents: TOP TEN WAYS to Make or Break that Relationship, Number 6: When Your Agent Should Drop Everything and Return Your Call/Email

  • Great post, Faith. Fancy taking a shot at what you think annual income for A, B and C list authors are? Just curious.

  • That depends on what the agent has in his stable. If his best author makes low six figures, then that is the A-list client. But for an A-list agent? I’d hazard to say the writer at the top of the A-list makes low-mid 7 figures, on movies, novels, comics, etc. Meaning he/she pulls in enough to need lots of money-and-career advice, and therefore lots of agent time. Once agents have one 7-figure client, they usually get more.

    Oh — and the C-list client is the one he hasn’t sold or sold low 4-figures.

  • But how many authors, really can there be making 7-figures… or even mid-to-high 6-figures? You’re talking Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and a few handfuls like that, right?

    I’ve yet to see the full-scale analysis that I’d like to see (though Tobias Buckell’s survey work comes closest), but reading between the lines on the comments and blogs of an number of reasonably successful authors, it seems like a good many that are multipley published live somewhere comfortably in the 5-figures… a few make it into the low 6-figures… and the majority are lucky to break out of 4-figure territory, which is what makes this so difficult as a career option. The upside is very high… but the downside is very, very low.

  • Stephen, yes, and no. When I was working with MWA the numbers were thus: The top 200 fiction (novel) authors in the business (not to include TV and movie writers or nonfiction writers) make 7-figures. Not always, in every year, but quite often. The next 300 out of the top 500 make mid 6 figures. The rest of us make much less.

    To be a 7-figure writer *every year*, you have to consistently write good books, and consistently hit the NYT bestseller, top ten, list. You can guess who those writers are by going back over two years and looking at the list. It isn’t hard to figure that a certain 50 writers are *always* in 7 figures. Why? They sell more books. The public buys their books every time because they know that each and every book will deliver *bang for their buck*.

  • So today’s lesson is: be patient, be polite, and don’t expect star-studded treatment 24/7 (aka watch your ego)?

    Sounds good to me.

  • Laura, you got it in one!

  • pepperthorn

    This sounds like pretty good advice for pretty much all aspects of life. Everyone prioritizes the people in their life. We aren’t always at the top of the list even with close friends and family. And if we’re honest they aren’t always at the top of ours.

  • There’s a balance between this and keeping your agent in the loop.

    If your agent isn’t really keeping in contact with you (months between emails, discussions, etc.) it may be a bit difficult to keep them in the loop with respect to things you want to do. If you’ve an opportunity to do a comic, for example, you want to get back to those folk pretty quickly, but you want to keep your agent in the loop. If your agent sits on your email for two months, well, you don’t want to wait two months to get back to the comic people.

    I suspect it’s important to make sure your communications with the agent have mostly information they absolutely need to know with respect to doing their job. If you’re sending emails repeating information, emails with little useful content, and so on, you may get put in the ‘sigh, her email probably isn’t important right now’ bucket.

    Oh, and I’m guessing that you should make sure the subject line of your email is clear.
    “I’ve an opportunity to produce a comic book”
    is better than
    “Hi Jane, here’s something exciting”

    At least, this is what I’ve derived from working in the technical business world.

  • Aw, now you’ve gone and told people we’re human when we’ve worked so hard to cultivate our fearsome face just like Buffy-verse vamps to discourage being followed into rest rooms. Sigh.

    I do my best to treat all my authors as A-list, but yes, time and travel sometimes mean we put out the biggest fires first. Or fan the biggest flames.

  • Agents, like writers, have only 24 hours a day to spread between work/family/errands/living. Something *has* to fall between the cracks. Sometimes it’s me. Or another writer. Best not to get one’s panties in a wad over it. We all need to take life as it comes.

    That said, if someone asked me for a movie deal, I’d call and squeal into the voice mail, “CALL ME!!!! I got movie interest!!!” And you would. 🙂