What to expect from an agent

It is a good idea to always check, before we sign on the dotted line what to expect from an agent.

Naturally, it feels a bit intimidating to enquire, ‘…Um, what exactly does this phrase in your contract cover?’  But, if it’s any comfort, they will really not mind the question, and would rather talk about the limits of their usual tasks early, than have to deal with a shortfall in our expectations later.  I know I didn’t feel like being business-like when Isabel agreed to take me on – I was just so happy!  But it would have helped us both if I had known firstly, what questions to ask, and secondly, that Isabel would have been more than happy to answer them.

The primary job of an agent is to find a buyer for the manuscripts they agree to represent from the shrinking number of presses available.  So, we have to assume they will do their very best with that.  My agent pulled off a miracle.  But what else might we expect?  If they achieve that, and keep your account ticking over, it is a very big deal.  Thank you, Isabel.


As a rule, literary agents do:

  • Try to place manuscripts.  This is not guaranteed.
  • Collect sales income and disburse accounts six monthly in arrears.  This is standard industry practice.
  • Keep in touch with publishers and publishing trends as much as they can
  • Get busier all the time.

As a rule, most agents do not:

  • Check syntax, grammar or spelling, though they may suggest changes, if they feel strongly about them.  Syntax and grammar should all have been gone into before, and hopefully, all the different views you have canvassed will help with that.
  • Suggest or promote publicity or arrange readings, signings, interviews and opportunities.  These are most often handled by agencies which specialise in marketing and promotion.
  • Always accept second or later manuscripts.

Agents may send out pitches to select publishers, asking for notes of interest to be submitted by a certain date and time (“Noon, on the 5th of February”).  Thus, all bids received at around the same time can be compared.  Most communication is done electronically, though if an agent has a good working relationship with a particular publisher, s/he may be invited to pitch in person.  (It is truly awesome to consider that someone likes our work enough to want to go to such lengths, especially if you are new to sales and find public platforms a little intimidating.)  But most agents will enjoy that part of selling.

If your agent needs something from you, they will let you know.  Expect them to be in touch and take the hint when they contact you.  If an agent introduces you to your commissioning editor, drop the CE a line thanking them for commissioning your work.  They will appreciate it.



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