by Greg Johnson
WordServe Literary Group
One thing authors wonder about is how to “behave” once they have a working relationship with a literary agent. Especially if it’s your first agent, you want to be the kind of author an agent wants to keep as a client. Agents understand that—and we want to be the kind of agent you want to work with, too! In fact, I tell my authors that the best partnerships are when the agent and author are president of each other’s fan clubs. That takes time, of course, but it shouldn’t take years if you are intentional about making the relationship great.
The secret to a good agent-author relationship isn’t a mystery. It’s like any other relationship: kindness counts; communication is key; and sometimes it takes a little work to keep things running smoothly. If you follow this commonsense advice, you’ll be well on your way to a positive long-term association with your agent.
We’ll start with the negative: The single most difficult thing that agents deal with is authors’ unrealistic expectations. These expectations fall into lots of categories-everything from the size of your advance (usually compared to others you know) to the amount of marketing the publisher will pay for, to the speed of the process (or lack thereof). It’s important that you develop realistic expectations in all of these areas. How do you do that? By talking with your agent, networking with other authors, attending conferences, and keeping up with happenings in the publishing industry (through key blogs and other news sources). If your expectations are impractical, your publishing journey will be unfulfilling. You’ll be disappointed and likely end up resentful.
I’ve had authors wonder why their advance for their sixth book is smaller than the advance for someone else’s first book. They don’t realize that one or two bad showings in sales hurts a publisher’s enthusiasm. A sales guy makes a call to a retailer, the numbers are brought up on the screen for their last book, and if they’re small they get a tepid response. It doesn’t matter about the quality of the book, it matters what the computer says their last book sold. Sad, but true (and all too common). A new author, however, doesn’t have one bad book to muddy the waters. The value of their idea and platform can be leveraged into higher advances.
That’s why it’s essential to always keep those expectations in check!
In addition to managing expectations, it’s extremely helpful to agents when you communicate well. There is a balance to good communication-we don’t want you to be afraid to call or e-mail if there’s an issue, but daily phone calls and emails can actually slow the process, stealing time from the things an agent does behind the scenes to get clients’ work to publishers. As a general guideline, check in once a week with questions and updates, if you have them. Most important, when bigger issues do arise (and they will), go directly to your agent rather than to the publisher, your critique group, your Facebook page or your blog. Keep the lines of communication open and talk things out. If you’re not happy with your agent, this may be hard to address directly, but it’s the best way. Always.
Trust is the essence of any relationship, and agents need their authors to trust them. Agents handle the business details so you can focus on your writing and marketing, and we appreciate when you allow us to do this without second-guessing every move. If you’re confused about something, always ask, but unless it’s proven otherwise, trust that your agent has your best interest at heart in all actions, negotiations and decisions.
Today, authors have to be marketers and promoters of their work, and agents are ecstatic when their clients understand this. Many agents offer advice and can steer a writer toward good ideas for platform building, but what we really want is for our clients to have a commitment to the self-promotion mindset, and a desire to learn more about it and get better at it as time goes on. An agent rarely has the time to handhold you through every step of your marketing process, but your agent can be an enthusiastic partner and savvy advisor along the way.
Agents appreciate clients who care about the craft of writing and are always striving to learn and improve. Attend conferences and writing workshops, and work hard to learn from the editorial process. Your value to the industry increases as you improve as a writer. And this probably goes without saying, but we really like it when clients meet their publishers’ deadlines!
Don’t forget the basics: be kind, cordial and professional. And when it’s warranted, feel free to express gratefulness for a job well done. And Starbucks cards are always appreciated.
Greg Johnson is president of WordServe Literary Group and has been a literary agent for 18 years serving Christian authors.