Chip MacGregor

January 28, 2013

What should a good author/agent 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 longtime, 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 toward 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. Sandra Bishop, who works with me, is another longtime freelance writer. And Amanda Luedeke, who has just joined us, made her living as a writer the past few years. 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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  • Robin Patchen says:

    Great advice. Like so many other things in life, we can’t possibly know all there is to know about any agent (or any person, for that matter). So the decision to sign with an agent must be considered carefully–and prayerfully. Personally, I have a lot of cheerleaders in my life. I need an agent who can read my work and be honest with me about what I need to improve.

  • :Donna Marie says:

    There are quite a few reasons I REALLY, REALLY want an agent, but it also scares me a bit. After all, our judgment may not be right (on either or both sides), even if we do the research and have the rapport, just like with marriage. I know I hope and pray God’s with me when (note, I say “when,” not “if” lol) that time comes, so I make the right decision 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      yeah, sometimes things simply don’t match up well, Donna Marie. But in those cases, I’ve found both sides feel it’s not working, and they decide to go in other directions. (I’ll have to do a post on “leaving an agent” sometime.)

    • :Donna Marie says:

      And, Chip, you know, since a friend of mine had been considering leaving her agent, and knew the agent she wanted to move to, when I had the opportunity, I asked him (for her, while she was present, since she didn’t want to ask herself) how someone would go about that. The question incorporated whether or not a person could have different agents for different genres.
      His response was “yes,” and expanded on it, saying that if that situation was preferred or necessary, it’s best if you go INTO the agent/author relationship with that understanding.
      I’d love to hear what you have to say on the whole subject 🙂

  • Mindy says:

    Thanks, Chip, for another helpful post. I love sharing them on our Northwest Christian Writers’ Association Facebook page.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Now that I’m aware of the four types of agent backgrounds, the picture is becoming clearer. Thank you for pointing this out!

  • Cindy Valenti Scinto says:

    Another great post. It reminds me of a band situation–musicians working together with one or two leaders. It almost becomes like a marriage where everyone has to get along, but be willing to handle conflict, shake off the dust, and move forward. New Yorker’s always get a bum rap, but as a native NY’r I know we love to be up front, honest, blunt, and able to move on. People from New York will always tell you what’s on their minds, they like to get over things fast, work hard, and get ‘er done. If you stand in a deli in NY and don’t know what to order, the clerk will say, “Look, get outa’ line and come back when you know what you want.” It’s not really mean–just reality. So I can see how working relationships with agents and writers have to let’s say, meld. Musicians tend to be known as ‘flaky’ and I’m sure writers fit in there somewhere. AGENTS have a tough job!

  • Lynette Benton says:

    I’d love to find an agent for my memoir who’s an attorney and could advise me on possible libel . . .

    • chipmacgregor says:

      If you need legal advice regarding libel, Lynette, go to an attorney, not a literary agent. Or let your publisher explore the legal side (they’ll have an attorney review your manuscript before publishing).

  • Judith Robl says:

    As always, your post required some soul-searching for the author looking for an agent. Shopping for an agent is not like window shopping. “I’ll know it when I see it” doesn’t really apply. We really must figure out our own strengths and weaknesses before we can seek an agent to complement us in the joint venture of publishing.

  • Karen Morris says:

    Thank you for the insight on what authors should look for in prospective agents. But I’m sure there are expectations agents have of their clients. Could you share a few top items that we authors can do to make the process run smoother for you as well?

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