Chip MacGregor

November 21, 2016

Ask the Agent: How has the role of an agent changed?


I’ve had several people write me to ask, “How has the role of a literary agent changed in the new world of publishing?” 

I was happy to get this question (and several similar questions), because I was at a conference a while back, and someone asked it of a panel I was on. As soon as it was asked, I was thinking the agents would jump in and start talking about the changes to our role… but then I realized that, on this particular panel, I was sitting with several newer agents, and I don’t know if they had the work experience to offer a good response. The microphone was at the far end of the stage, and I listened to four people say, “I think the role of the agent is still the same as it always was.”

I just sat there, shocked. But after four people had responded, I didn’t feel I could jump in and say, “Everyone here is wrong! They don’t know what they’re doing!” In retrospect, I should have found a way to say something. You see, I’ve been agenting for eighteen years now, and my role has changed completely. The job isn’t at all the same as it was when I started. I think every aspect of publishing is in a state of evolution (perhaps a state of revolution) at the moment. The role of authors has changed — they are now marketers and business persons. The roles of the bookseller, the editor, and the publisher have all been changing. So it would only make sense that the role of the agent would also have been significantly changed.

I spend a lot of my time talking with authors about marketing and platforms. I spend a fair bit of time talking with authors their careers, their indie or hybrid publishing plans. Career and list management, marketing and platform development, are all things that take up a lot of my day – and things we rarely discussed fifteen years ago. Sure, I still have to sharpen proposals, meet with editors, show them projects I think are a fit, and negotiate deals, but the role has changed considerably.

Remember, there’s no one correct way to agent (just as there’s no one correct way to edit or sell or write), but I’d say any good agent these days should be able to do several things:

recognize good, salable writing (and help the author focus his or her time on those projects),

know the market and have relationships with the people who are decision makers in the industry,

be able to develop and package a proposal and manuscript,

assist with the overall planning of a career, and offer guidance on career management (including branding and strategic direction),

offer input into marketing and brand management,

-know contracts and be able to negotiate effectively,

-be able to sell sub rights, dramatic rights, and foreign rights,

-and step in and handle disagreements or say the hard things.


Of course, not all agents do everything (or do everything well). And not all authors need the same thing. One author needs an agent to be a coach and encourager; another needs an agent to be a business manager.

And yes, to answer the question that’s the elephant in the room, I think there are times an author doesn’t need an agent at all. I’m not an Agent Evangelist. Some people can manage this without an agent, though they will probably want marketing, career, and technical help at time. (And I think it’s only fair to note that nearly every big, successful author has an agent. Even today, in the age of hybrid authors, and with stories of authors making piles of cash on Amazon.) So for some writers, I’m becoming the indie-publishing career assistant and sometime-consultant. Amanda, who works with me, fulfills that same role with authors. I’m not afraid of it – I just think that’s the way the role of literary agent has moved.


What question do YOU have of literary agents?



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  • Allen says:

    How can any business stay the Idle? Multi media access, internet accessibility, marketing, printing, shipping, advertising, management of shelves space, big book stores and chains, international rights sales, all these businesses have changed. How can the role of the agent and publisher remain unchanged? Impossible.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Agreed, Allen… but that tends to go against human nature, since most of us want to learn something, do it, routinize it, and just keep doing the same thing so that we feel competent/professional/productive. Let’s face it, I know plenty of publishing houses that acted as though it was “business as usual” when the ebook revolution began.

  • Deanna Fugett says:

    Thanks for this list of agent responsibilities. My 14 year old, bookaholic son wants to be a literary agent when he’s older. I’m going to show him this article so he can get some more insight into what that entails. Of course, by the time he’s an adult things may have changed again.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You know, I just did an interview with a high schooler who wanted to know what an agent does, Deanna. Encourage your son to interview an agent for a school project sometime, or to volunteer as a go-for or office person for a few weeks with an agency somewhere. And once he’s in college, there are a lot of internship possibilities with publishing houses and literary agencies. There are plenty of opportunities to be exposed to this job. I was happy to read your note, by the way.

  • You spend time blogging, too. That communication venue has been a huge change across industries. (I ghostwrite posts for the COO of a large insurance company.) Sharing knowledge and expertise via blogs, webinars, etc. has changed the roles of so many people. We often become teachers in our fields in order to connect with prospects. That’s been an easy transition for me since I write and teach already but a huge change for those who don’t (but recognize the value of it). In the short amount of time I’ve been following your blog, I’ve learned so much about the publishing industry. Thank you!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I appreciate the kind words, Amanda. I used to blog every day, then just realized I didn’t have time to do that any more… but I still enjoy the chance to write and talk through questions with people in the industry, so I try to keep my hand in it. Glad you find it helpful.

  • Theresa Lode says:

    You had me drooling over the expertise and skills today’s agent, well, actually, YOU bring(s) to the table. You describe the cat herding skills I so badly need to get my crap together. So what about offering some sort of package for those of us needing some coaching in these areas? Sort of a “Chip Lite”? Just tossing the idea out there…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Theresa. I’ve had people ask me that before, but in reality, it sounds like another business… and I’ve already got a business I’m running!

  • Ruth Douthitt says:

    Great explanation, Chip. I agree that the role of agent has changed since publishing has changed so drastically. I do have one question, if an agent doesn’t like the pages submitted and provides feedback, is it ok for that writer to make the suggested changes and then resubmit or should he/she move on to another agent? Thanks!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a good question, Ruth, and it depends on the situation. Sometimes an agent will say, “Make these changes and re-send this to me.” Other times he or she might say, “I think it needs these changes, but it’s not really a project that excites me.” If it’s not clear, just ask, politely — “Thanks for making these suggestions to improve my manuscript. If I work on these items, would you like to take a fresh look at it?” That’s a fair question.

  • Chip, I had similar problems with WordPress a month ago. I didn’t see your response until stumbling upon it today. Sorry! Thanks for fleshing this out a little more. It helps as I prepare a book proposal (thinking ahead). I’ve been thinking on readership but not yet a house (but a few). Much to ponder. The “publishing resources” on your website offer great insights into approaching an agent (submitting a book proposal, 50 pages, etc.). Thanks for that. What level of platform do agents like to see in addition to a strong book proposal?

  • Insightful post, Chip. Should a pre-published novelist spend the majority of their focus producing quality fiction/products or on platform building?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I love the question, Preslaysa, but I don’t think there’s a right answer. The fact is, most writers would prefer to have great fiction, so they’ll want to focus on the quality of the craft. But then they’ll see they’re having a difficult time getting published, so they’ll switch over to building a platform. But… I don’t want to beg the question here. For my own preferences, I’d rather see a writer produce great art than a great circle of friends. So I opt for the former. Others in the industry will disagree with me, and they’ll make a valid case.

  • Thanks, Chip, for your insights about changing roles as this industry evolves. I became published through a back door due to some great mentoring and a little serendipity. So far that’s opened more doors. Moving forward, business and marketing have required more time than I ever imagined. I have adjusted my expectations about how much volume I can produce given all that platform building requires. I have not yet looked for representation, mostly because it’s early. But I’m curious–what are some specific ways that a good agent helps an author focus his or her time on good, salable writing?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That depends on the author/agent relationship, Amy. Different authors need different skills from an agent (and some authors don’t need an agent at all, in my view). But I think it’s fair to say that an agent should be a sounding board for your ideas, be able to review your projects & writing, be able to make some suggestions to change & improve your work, keep you on track, help you focus on a project or a publisher. Does that help?

  • Laura Droege says:

    Okay, this is a nosy question, and feel free to ignore it! But if the role of agents has changed this much, do you still enjoy agenting? When I see jobs that have changed drastically, I always wonder how the long-time job holders feel about it and whether they would have taken a different career path if they’d known what changes were ahead.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Don’t mind the question at all, Laura. The fact is, I still love what I do, and love working in the business. I’ve always enjoyed agenting, and much prefer it to when I was an editor or publisher. Thanks for asking.

  • Laura Jackson says:

    Hi, Chip,
    Thanks for the great information as always.
    As the agent’s role changes and as some clients move to hybrid or indie publishing, do you think more agents will begin taking on new clients or will their plates be full acting as indie-publishing career assistants?
    I guess I’m asking if you see agents taking on more new authors/clients than they used to since many established authors are going indie/hybrid.
    Hope that makes sense.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Sure, that question makes sense, Laura. I think we’re already seeing agents take on a TON of clients, thinking that volume will make up for the shrinking number of deals they’ve done for their current clients. So yes, more agents, and more spots open. Will that lead to more authors getting deals with traditional publishers? I doubt it.

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