A Literary Agent’s Role

The History

The acceptance and role of the literary agent in Christian publishing has steadily evolved over the past 30-plus years. I can remember our director at Moody Press angrily denouncing the emergence of agents and vowing not to work with them. But by the time authors asked me to be their agent in early 1993, agents were accepted by all the larger publishers, though a number of smaller ones still refused to deal with agents. Ten years later most larger publishers had come to depend on agents to pre-screen proposals, eliminating at least the staff person who had focused on going through the “slush pile,” as it was called. They began depending on literary agents to handle in particular the submissions by first book authors.

At the same time several extended litigation cases prompted publishers to engage lawyers to totally rewrite the author/publisher contracts. While contracts had been three to four pages, they grew to 15 to 19 pages of paragraph after paragraph designed to protect the publisher. There was no corresponding growth of clauses to protect the author—and that’s where agents began to earn their keep, through negotiations gaining the author protection against provisions totally in favor of the publisher in the standard publisher contract.

The emergence of Christian movies with national appeal has also created new opportunities for screenwriters. Now specialists in intellectual property rights are needed to represent screenplay writers in negotiations with the movie and television industries.

Today

While most agents today have web sites that present their services, by far the best place to connect with agents is at a Christian writers’ conference. Writers are wise to look over the list of faculty scheduled to appear at a conference to make sure several agents are listed, since writers flock to agents at conferences.

When should you approach an agent? As one well-known agent put it, “When your book manuscript is 98% ready for an editor.” In today’s publishing world that probably means that you have had a professional freelance editor work over your chapters to give them the “finish” they need to impress not only an agent but also an editor.

How should you approach an agent? Check an agent’s web site, because some prefer an initial query, while others like a proposal with sample chapters as one document attached to an e-mail.

So what may you expect an agent to do for you?

  1. Agents will evaluate your book proposal for publishable quality and whether there might be a market for it. Because agents are typically busy with existing clients, the evaluation of new proposals from first book authors can take weeks, even months. Occasionally you will find an agent who likes your concept and approach but has suggestions for significant improvements.
  2. Agents select authors to represent. Each agent has her or his criteria for the kind of book proposal they are willing to represent, so what one agent really likes another might consider over the top (the same also applies to editors!). You may also be competing directly with an agent’s client’s book, so you may be turned down not because of your book’s quality but for other personal/business reasons. If the agent really likes your book project he or she may help you improve titling and some elements in your proposal. Once an agent agrees to represent you, he or she will offer an Agent Agreement for you to sign.
  3. At this point an agent takes on a role similar to that of a real estate broker. The agent will develop an e-mail presentation to go with the proposal. Then the agent will send it to as many editors as he or she considers possible “markets” for your book. Now if you already have a national platform as speaker or media personality and have a “hot” property, there will be a more formal presentation, possibly even a meeting with an editor or two. All editor responses will typically be forwarded to you to keep you aware of reactions to your proposal. Rejections are always the first responses received—editors who think your proposal may have possibilities will typically set it aside “to be read when I have time.” Since some editors read proposals by new authors only once every six months, that “time” may be two to nine months.
  4. When an editor is ready to present your proposal to “the committee” the agent will typically be notified and let you have the good news. You might even get a specific date for the committee meeting that you can put on your prayer calendar. If a contract is offered after such a committee meeting, the agent will evaluate the terms. When she or he forwards the offer, the agent may suggest changes in the offer favorable to you as author. It’s wise to accept such suggestions and let the agent negotiate for changes in the contract offer!
  5. Once a contract has been signed the agent will turn you over to the acquisitions editor. The time between the editor receiving a final version of the manuscript and the start of the editing process varies greatly and is dependent on how busy the editor is and when your book is to be released.
  6. At some point in the editing process you may feel that the editor is taking too many liberties with your manuscript. It’s wise to let your agent know—he or she is more likely to intervene effectively for you than you fighting it out with the editor.
  7. The agent remains your interface between you and the publishing house even after the book has been released. The agent may need to intervene on your behalf on a variety of issues that arise between you and the marketing department, where typically over-worked staff are often not as responsive as you would like.

Your agent will continue to be a good resource as you start work on a second or third book. It’s wise to run your next book idea by your agent early on, since the agent may be able to give you perspective on what you are dreaming of doing. If you are an author dreaming of a career as a writer, your agent can be a great resource in thinking through your options.