Friday, October 7, 2011

Misconceptions About Literary Agents, by Andy Ross

copyright 2011, Andy Ross

Andy Ross, Literary Agent

Let's face it. Most of you who have never worked with a literary agent probably think that the 15% agency commission is sort of …well…unfair. A kind of baksheesh paid to the middleman in the literary souk who can use his connections to get you access to the celebrity editor at Knopf. Most published writers will tell you otherwise. Check out the acknowledgements page at the back of any book. Authors love their agents, and recognize that the agent's work goes far beyond dickering over deal points.

Here are a few of the misconceptions about agents that seem to be going around in writers' circles.

1) It's better to be represented by a New York agent. Obviously I'm annoyed by this surprisingly widely held belief, since I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. A lot of writers seem to think that getting published is all about the agent's physical proximity to editors and the number of times per month they have lunch with them. The famous "publisher's lunch" is from another era. And it is unclear that this was an important ritual in the acquisition process even then. All of the editors I talk to will tell you that the key consideration of an acquisition decision is whether the book has commercial potential. Publishers are under incredible pressure from their multimedia conglomerate parent corporations to make money on every book they publish. If your book is a bad business proposition, no amount of martinis at lunch is going to convince the publisher otherwise. I talk to a lot of book editors even though I work in California. They tell me that the most important thing you can provide them with is a convincing book proposal. You don't have to be in New York to do that.

2) It's better to be represented by a big (prestigious) New York agency. There are no good or bad agencies. There are just good or bad agents. That said, there are some advantages to having one of these big agencies on your side, but not the advantages that you might think. At the end of the day a celebrity agent isn't going to give you an edge, and can't deliver a contract for a project that would not otherwise get published. If you have a big book with lots of subsidiary rights opportunities (movie deals, foreign markets, merchandise tie-ins), it would be nice to have a big agency that could seamlessly handle all these deal elements. But even there, most good independent agents can serve you well.

And there is a downside to working with these big agencies as well. They are extremely selective in the projects they take on. A lot of these agencies are not looking for new writers. If you aren't a literary superstar, you might be better served by a newer agent who is building a list and is willing to take some chances by seeking out new talent. And always, always, you are better served by an agent who has the time and the imagination to help you shape your ideas and the passion to believe in your talent. You want an agent who will not just flip a contract but who will work with you to develop your career as a writer. There are some very good agents at the big New York agencies who will do this and other agents who are just too busy. The same is true of independent agents.

3) The agent's 15% commission is a rip off. It's payola to get your foot in the door. Actually, sometimes that's true. I've heard a lot of stories about agents who have done very little other than send your proposal around (usually to the same ten editors they like to work with) and then either drop you or flip a contract and disappear. That's a bad agent. If you are going to give an agent a 15% commission, you might as well make sure that she is earning it. The work of an agent is a lot more than sending out your project and dickering over deal points. A good agent will help you refine your idea in a way that will make it easier to sell, will lead you through the book proposal process, may even provide detailed edits on your novel or memoir, will negotiate the contract, will be your advocate during the publishing process, will help you exploit all the subsidiary rights opportunities for the material in the book, and will advise you on promotion when the book comes out. A good agent will earn that 15%. So try to find one of those.  

4) I went with the agent who promised me the six figure deal. Most of the agents I know won't do this, but I still hear about it from writers. It's pretty hard to predict what kind of publisher advance a project will draw these days. What I can predict is that the advance offers will be a whole lot lower than they were several years ago. It's important to have an agent whom you can trust. Anyone who employs this kind of enticement is pretty suspect.  

5) A good agent can get me a lot more money. This is a little complicated. An agent can work with you to develop a concept that is more attractive (and valuable) to a publisher and can help you compose a book proposal that will generate excitement from an acquiring editor. If there is competition for your book from several publishers, an agent can employ some sophisticated bargaining strategies to help improve a deal offer. And an agent can negotiate contract terms that may address issues affecting future royalties. But if you are in a situation with only a single publisher making an offer, one must assume that the publisher knows in advance how much she is willing to pay for a project. The job of the agent is to find out what that number is. In spite of what they may tell you, agents are not in possession of alchemical powers that will turn lead into gold. An agent can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.  

6) A good agent can help me find a prestigious editor. This might or might not be true, but the real misconception is whether or not the writer will be better off with a "prestigious" editor. I believe that the best editor for a project is the editor who understands and believes in that project. This might be the editorial director of a large imprint, but it might also be a young assistant editor hungry for building a list. Recently I spoke to an author whose editor was one of these legendary guys in publishing. The author was unhappy, because he felt the editor didn't give him the time he needed. I believe that. I had one client who insisted that I only send his work to the most prestigious editors working at the most prestigious imprints, regardless of whether those editors had any interest in the subject being written about. One of the most common causes for rejection is: "this book doesn't really fit my list." A good agent will find you an editor who believes in your book. That is more important than having a superstar editor. 

7) Never work with an inexperienced agent. Since I was an inexperienced agent not too long ago, I fully understand the downside of working with one. There are lots of things in book publishing that a person can only learn from experience. Fortunately I had been in the book business for 35 years when I became an agent and came onto the job knowing quite a bit, but there were still lots of holes in my knowledge. A lot of agents, many in the big agencies, can be pretty young and inexperienced. But this is not always such a bad thing. Some of these agents are pretty sharp and have a good eye for a project. And they are more likely to take a chance on a new writer. In the book business, developing new talent is a thankless but important job and it usually falls to the agents who have not yet built their lists.  

Do yourself a favor. Find an agent who earns his commission.

Check out some of Andy's clients, here:


Andy Ross has been a literary agent since January 2008. Prior to that, he was the owner of Cody's Books in Berkeley, California for 30 years.

Andy specializes in non-fiction, particularly narrative non-fiction, history, current events, and journalism as well as literary and young adult fiction. He has secured book contracts in other genres as well. Andy has served on the faculty of numerous writers conferences and has conducted workshops on writing non-fiction book proposals and working with a literary agent.

Andy is a member of the Association of Author Representatives (AAR).

Check out his website and blog:


Blog: "Ask the Agent"


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Hi, Andy. Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be here with us today. Your points are all valid and excellent advice for our readers, many of whom struggle daily with these issues. Best of luck with your clients and the agency, and come back soon to visit us.

Kim Smith said...

Wow Andy thanks for this. I am Unagented with a capital Uainly because the small houses I write for do not require them. But I had a few of these misconceptions myself so the clarification is truly welcome! And it is great to have you here on Mb4!

Kim Smith said...

ps- note to self: do not post comments before 6 am on iPhone. I meant to say I am unagented with a capital U MAINLY because the small houses I write for do not require them. Sheesh. Going for more coffee! thanks Andy

Andy Ross said...

Thanks, Aaron. I'm really flattered to be on this blog. If anybody has questions about agents, I am happy to respond and dispel those misconceptions.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Andy, I know there are blogs out there with suggestions on how to write the perfect query letter, and people who teach this topic all the time. But what do you look for in a query? What piques your interest? And do you prefer 1 page queries to 2 pages? Thanks in advance!

Andy Ross said...


I made a blog post about that. It is at

I don't think there is any alchemical magic to writing a query letter. There seems to be a vast amount of advice being dispensed on line and at writers conferences. But most of it is the same.

I like my queries short. No more than half page. I need to know the genre of the book. A short description about what the book is about and why it is important. And a short paragraph about what the author's qualifications are for writing the book. Actually, I go to that paragraph first, because that is what publishers look for first.

Different agents have different preferences. Some want longer queries. Others shorter ones. But most want the same information. And not much more.

When you do your submission research, make sure you look up each agent's website and check out their submission page for specifics.

Remember that a good query is not going to help sell a bad project. And probably a mediocre query is not going to kill a good project, although it could make it harder to grab the attention of some agents.

Kim Smith said...

Hey Andy what is your dream client?

The Hollywood Film Critic said...

As a aspiring writer, I appreciated this post very much. Thank you.

Andy Ross said...


A dream client is one with a dream project. It is always nice to have a client who will keep producing new projects, rather than only having a single book in her head.

The hardest job I have as an agent is managing author's expectations. Most books don't find publishers. Even most good books don't. And writers should be realistic about that.

I did a blog post on the statistics of getting literary fiction published.It's pretty daunting. It's here.

Commercial genre fiction is somewhat easier, but still devilishly hard.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Andy, thanks so much for your answers. I'm going over to read your piece now. I'd heard several years ago that the chance of getting picked up by a large publisher was about 0.005%, and now I know that is much, much lower with all the layoffs and cutbacks, and with the eBook world exploding. Now let me go over and see what you can add to this. ;o)


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

I rec'd the email copy of this answer from Andy Ross, but for some reason it didn't show up in our comments box. Here is his comment:

Andy Ross has left a new comment on your post "Misconceptions About Literary Agents, by Andy Ross...":

I did a blog post on writing query letters at:

There is a vast amount of tips on writing effective query letters. You can find them on line, presentations at writers conferences, and endlessly at Writers Digest.

I don't think that there is any hidden kabbalistic knowledge about this.

I prefer short queries, half page or less. The first paragraph should state the genre of the project and the number of words

Second paragraph should have a very brief description of the book.

Third paragraph should describe the writer and her qualifications for writing this book.

Also let the agent know if a book proposal is available,if the book is complete or not, or, in the case of fiction that a synopsis and sample chapter are available on request.

Query technique is often mystified. It shouldn't be. A good query will not help publish a bad project. A bad query probably won't be an impediment to publishing a good project.(Although it might make it harder to get the attention of an agent.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks for that detailed answer, Andy. I'm sure it will help lots of writers. I remember the hardest part of the whole thing was to keep the query short and to the point. It's a tough writing assignment, but essential!

robinpwaldrop said...

I read your comment about how most "Good Books" don't get picked up. That being said, would you recommend ePublishing for those who have been turned away by traditional agents/publishing? And why do you say that?

Andy Ross said...

Robin, your question about the pros and cons of epublishing is what everyone is talking about now. You ask if epublishing is a viable altenative if you can't find a commercial publisher. Some people are even saying that epublishing is a better alternative than commercial publishing. A lot has been written about this.

I represented a book that was extremely well written. I had difficulty finding an editor who was interested in it. Finally I found one. She loved it, but she took it to the acquisition meeting. And they decided not to publish it because they said "it was too dark for reading groups."

In other words the decision was not made because of aesthetic concerns but because of marketing concerns. There are a lot of books like this. And the only realistic choice is self-publishing.

The problem with self-publishing is that most of the books aren't very good. There is no filtering mechanism. So your very good book is floating around in an ocean of mediocrity. It will be hard for people to find.

So no simple answers to your question.