Chip MacGregor

November 10, 2014

What does a Good Agent/Author Relationship Look Like?


Someone wrote to ask, “Can you tell me what a good author/agent relationship should look like?”

I can try. Keep in mind that there’s no “perfect agent style” that suits everyone. One writer needs an agent who is a strong editor-and-story-idea person, another writer needs an agent who is a contracts-and-negotiation person, and a third writer needs an agent who is counselor-and-chief-supporter. It’s why I always encourage authors to think carefully about what they need in a literary agent. I consider myself a good agent, having done this job for a long time, contracted a lot of books, and developed a good track record of success. But I’ll be the first to say I’m not the agent for everybody. My style doesn’t fit every author, nor can I provide everything each author needs. So sometimes I’ll meet a writer whose work I like, but we’ll both feel the vibe is wrong. We have to get along personally as well as professionally. Other times the author has expectations I know I can’t meet (such as wanting me to edit their entire manuscript). So finding a good agent is like finding a good friend — what works for you might not work for your neighbor.

A good author/agent relationship is usually one in which expectations are clear, and the agent helps the author succeed in those areas they’ve decided to focus on. It might be story development, or editing and fine-tuning a manuscript, or support and encouragement, or career management, or contract advice, or… the list is as varied as authors want to make it. If you don’t really know what you need, you’ll find yourself just going with someone you like, or someone your friends like.

Keep in mind that most working literary agents come from one of four backgrounds. They are either (1) a former editor, so they have strong words skills, or (2) a former writer, so they understand what it’s like to make a living with words, or (3) a lawyer or someone attached to a lawyer’s office, so they have good experience with contracts, or (4) a former agent assistant, who came up through the ranks of the agency and has never worked outside of the agency (this last category is relatively new, but over the last 15 or 20 years we’ve seen bright college grads hired as Junior Associates and work their way up to become a full-fledged literary agents). I suppose the most common type is “former editor” and the least common is “former writer.” I was a Senior Editor a couple places and an Associate Publisher with Time-Warner, but my real training for this job was as a freelance writer. Amanda Luedeke got her start in corporate marketing, which is a bit different, but at the same time, her marketing career was due to her way with words. You could say she made her living as a writer before becoming an agent. Erin Buterbaugh interned with an agency and then spent some years doing freelance writing for curriculum companies. So she would be a mix of numbers two and four.

So perhaps one of the uniquenesses of our agency is that we all made our living at writing, and we understand what it’s like to cobble together a living by writing. (I’m sorry if that sounds like a commercial — it’s not meant that way.) My point is that you’ll be better off if you’ve done some research and figured out what sort of skills you may be looking for in an agent, as well as what sort of relationship you expect to have.

Of course, each writer has strengths and weaknesses, and each agent has strengths and weaknesses, and you try to match things up so that you’re a fit. My style may be a bit too blunt for one author, and too laid-back for another. But that’s part of what picking friends is all about — finding someone who fits. This is a business relationship, in many ways almost a partnership, and you don’t want to partner with just anybody.

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  • rachelhauck says:

    Just glockenspiel, that’s all I have to say. Glockenspiel. 🙂

  • This is very informative, Chip. You named my feelings exactly about the importance of the author-agent relationship. One thing you didn’t mention, which is where I find myself, is that some authors are looking for the connections that a “good” literary agent has. I have had two books published by small publishers and I’m hoping to forge a relationship with an agent who can help me take my writing career to the next level. I’ve done relatively well with working with editors and negotiating contracts, and I have a support system in place in terms of my writing process, but I simply don’t have the connections to larger publishers that agents have. I would like to seek the professional advice of an agent to take my next step.

    Do you have any advice for authors about how to go about finding the right agent? There are a lot of agents out there, and it’s daunting. I like online databases such as Poets and Writers, so I can search with keywords, but even that is daunting because I feel like I need to read as much about agents as I can to determine whether I want to query them. This research can absorb a lot of time.

    Thank you for this post. It has helped me clarify what it is I am looking for in an agent.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a great first step, Saloma. Figure out what you need in an agent first, then start looking. The fact is, I think most authors sign with the first agent who offers them representation, rather than thinking through the concept of “would this person be a fit? Does he/she offer the things I need in an agent?”

      As for advice, that’s easy: Do your research. Find out what they like, what they represent. See if they are selling the sort of things you write. Research their deals at Publishers Marketplace. Try to arrange a face to face, perhaps at a conference or industry event, so that you get a feel for what they are like. And at least have some long conversations on the phone, to gauge their personality and your fit.

      I’m frequently surprised when somebody says to me, “I’ve always wanted you to be my agent,” when in fact we’ve never met or talked. How would they know? My personality isn’t a fit with everyone, nor is my list of projects super wide. Spending some time doing research will help. Great question, by the way.

    • Chip, I agree that many authors will sign on with the first agent who offers them representation. When you’ve looked long and hard, and someone says “yes” it’s hard not to, so I understand that.

      Is it acceptable for authors to state in a query that they would like to discuss the possibility of representation and find out if this would be a good fit for them? It seems like one is putting the cart before the horse by asking an agent for representation without having a way to know if there is a good personality fit.

      It also seems to me that if I know that someone has represented something close to what I write with great success, I might find a way to get along with that agent unless it is just a horrible match.

      I know you better than most agents because you are so generous with information for authors and you have this blog. And you represent books in my genre with great success. I still say you would be my first pick for an agent. Of course I would want to meet in person or by phone to find out for sure, but my hunch about people is right 95 percent of the time.

      Thanks for answering my question, Chip. I hope you have a wonderful weekend.

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