What makes a literary agent good?

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Something that isn’t talked about enough is what makes a good agent? Most people would say: someone who gets you multiple six-figure book deals, movie deals, and makes you lots of money! While all of that is true, in a sense, the reality is very few authors are able to achieve that level of success. For the majority of us who will never have a theme park based on our characters it’s a bit different. So what makes a good agent? It varies depending on what you need or want for your career but in general I’d say:

A good agent communicates information and answers questions in a timely manner, e.g. 1-2 business days. Often, my agent responds to my emails the same day. In my opinion you want an agent who treats you like a good work colleague.

A good agent is transparent. Meaning they share any feedback with you verbatim (i.e. a forwarded email) unless you request a summary. Also, they are realistic about potential deals and do not promise the moon.

Related, good agents are honest. Early on I asked my agent about a publisher who had expressed interest in a manuscript. She advised that that house was a last resort and that she wouldn’t encourage anyone to sign a deal with them based on very low advances and zero marketing support. Ultimately, a good agent should try to get you the best deal – not a deal by any means necessary.

A good agent makes your manuscripts better. Not all agents are editorial agents but I think the best ones provide feedback and critique before they submit your work to publishers.

A good agent hustles for you even if you don’t know about it/no one is watching. Sometimes my agent will surprise me with an email that says, “I had lunch with so-and-so. I think she’d be good to submit your work to in the future.” Which leads me to my next point…

A good agent is always building their pipeline, i.e. relationships with editors. Why is this important? Because a good agent should get your work read by people who can give you a publishing contract. If there’s one thing that makes an agent good this is it. Ultimately they should get you opportunities you wouldn’t be able to get on your own. How to measure this? Consider: do editors respond to your agent or ignore them? Do they respond quickly? Do they provide detailed feedback or form emails? It’s hard to know this until you’re in it but a good question to ask when evaluating agent offers would be, how long do editors take to get back to you? How many editors do you submit to at one time? How many books have you sold? Also, talking to other clients about their experience helps.

There was a lot I didn’t know when I signed with my agent. Thankfully now I have a much better idea of what agents do and don’t do and what makes them good or not.

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