Agents: not the enemy!


There seems to be a tonne of misconceptions out there about literary agents. Granted there is a fair amount of research to be done, and it takes a while to fully get one’s head around the traditional publishing process. It’s not like the publishing process is glamorized or in general particularly well understood by anyone not interested in writing (I have yet to here my workmates start a conversation about #pitmad around the lunch table whereas all other manner of subjects is dissected through the joy of reality TV). The point being that I guess this complexity does leave open potential for misconception, and possibly once you also consider a potential writers warped ideas about their own work, sometimes you get aspiring writers who are not only confused about the representation and publishing process but also quite disgruntled about it.

Said disgrunts are unlikely to be reading this blog so I suppose this is more just sharing odd thoughts against my own understanding – and an invitation for correction or sharing of other people’s experience with this topic.

So what are some of these misconceptions?


Literary Agents are Gatekeepers

Now I know what you’re thinking. ‘Hold-up, aren’t agents literally literary gatekeepers? I mean doesn’t their role fit exactly the definition? After all most big publishers won’t accept manuscripts unsolicited from unrepresented authors?’

Well this is partially true, but it’s far more accurate to look at agents as experienced heroes, who may be willing to help you storm the publishing castle, rather than the dude standing at the gate.

I think people assume agents are like the grumpy receptionist, tasked with keeping calls away from the big boss, and thusly see agents as a barrier to their success not the key.

The important point that is so often overlooked is that successfully querying and gaining an agreement for representation doesn’t mean an automatic acceptance into publishing bliss. Publishers can still reject the book, not saying agents aren’t good at their job just trying to point out that when writers get rejected they aren’t getting denied access to the publishing castle where everyone’s books sell in the millions, but rather the agent doesn’t feel like they can help that person to further their publishing journey.

The most telling awkward comment revealing this in when people say things like “who knows how many amazing best-sellers would have been picked up by publishers if agents hadn’t rejected them?”

My guess is around 0 to 0.001 percent?

Of course there will be some amazing manuscripts out there, not published for whatever reason. But for the most part, at least on the subject of selling books, agents and publishers are on the same page, i.e. wanting to sell books. After all if the role of literary agent didn’t evolve the way it did, publishers would probably have a team of editors and reviewers who would do almost exactly the same process, only less flexible and supportive.

Anyway the conclusion of that misconception is that agents are not a barrier to being traditionally published, they are a supportive service. Yes there is a teeny chance that an agent might miss or have a different opinion on how brilliant a manuscript is that a publisher may just have picked up, but the chances that 10-20 agents will reject a ‘should be’ best-seller when it is that good are pretty slim.

The final odd point to add here is sometimes people get a bee in their bonnet when agents have preferences. Assuming that agents are some sort of government or charity funded role who are required to support authors to get published or something. There is no obligation to represent an author anymore than other arts, like acting or music, just seek out another agent if the preferences don’t match.

What else?

Literary Agents should offer more feedback

Now I have a lot of sympathy for this misconception. After all as an aspiring to be traditionally published author myself, life would be a lot easier if every rejection letter came with some constructive criticism. People seem especially wound up about whether its their query letter, synopsis or sample pages that sunk their proposal.

But there are a few problems with this perspective.

First of all agents do not source any income from the slush pile. Agent’s income is from successful sales of represented authors FULL STOP. There is no profit from searching through the slush pile, no tit or tat benefits of taking more time and care with rejections, and no payoff for free feedback.

In many respects we should be thankful that agents provide anything given the nature of the task.

The problem is many people treat submissions like entries to a high school writing competition, and whine about it equally. There often is a gap in logic where it is missed that the rules of supply and demand come into play. There is typically a huge supply of queries and manuscripts, but agents don’t really have a demand for them, or rather the demand is kinda odd in that it is hoped to find marketable work within the massive supply (it’s not like they can just randomly choose pieces to represent because there will be a high proportion of duds).

And the issues with providing feedback for all rejections are myriad. It’s one thing to make a quick decision not to represent, it’s actually very time consuming to provide feedback. Even a few lines or an indication of what about the submission didn’t work for the agent can take a decent chunk of minutes, minutes that DON’T EARN ANY MONEY. Which brings me to my second point that if agents did provide feedback for every rejection, how ridiculously quickly would it just become common practice to fire away a subpar work and just tweak as seemed necessary?

And finally my favourite cringey complaint about agents:

“I put all my energy love and emotion into this work, the agent should at least….”

Newsflash: the agent isn’t the only person who doesn’t care.

Sorry if this comes across a little harsh. All the time I stumble across writers who think the world owes them one. I suspect the problem might be one of personal belief and/or worldview but there is nothing more painful than listening to someone who believes that because they have put so much blood, sweat and tears into their novel it deserves to be represented.

Now it is true that writing a novel is hard. But again people have a warped idea about how supply and demand works, and there are a lot of people out there putting their blood sweat and tears into their work too. As above agents aren’t demi-gods (well not for this reason anyway 🙂 graciously decided who gets to be published and who doesn’t, they are people doing a job, a job which only earns money by selling books. We recently hired someone onto a team, and a big selling point was that they had been working hard for our organisation and were extremely determined, which are GREAT points for an employee. When it comes to publishing your book counts. Reader’s might take a moment to appreciate how many years your novel took, or how much of your soul it contains, but have you ever seen a blurb or favourable quote saying ‘this took me 12 years.’ or ‘I feel like this book is a part of me’?

Agents aren’t cold, the world is cold. It is frustrating to learn that your passion and effort only counts if it leads towards a marketable book, but that doesn’t mean agents should have additional reverence for the personal journey a writer took in compiling their novel.

So to round out a probably somewhat unstable rant, some key points of what agents actually do:

  • An agent’s primary role is to work with authors to get published
  • It may seem like agents spend a lot of time rejecting submissions, that is because they receive thousands
  • Agent’s want marketable books and easy authors to work with, there is no conspiracy theory around who they work with and so forth


Are there any agents out there who want to correct my misconceptions? What about other weird assumptions people make about agents?

Thanks for hanging out!


2 thoughts on “Agents: not the enemy!

  1. “the agent isn’t the only person who doesn’t care.” Bingo. That’s the nail on the head right there. Everyone in the publishing supply chain, from the bookseller to the distributor to the printer to the publisher to the editor to the agent AND (if there’s any modicum of common sense) the author only care about books that make money for them, put bread on the table, put the kids through college, AND pay the mortgage. No one has time for a book that won’t sell. So if the goal is to be published traditionally, then the author HAS to answer the question on all of the lips in the supply chain: “What’s in it for me?” Is it a crappy system? Yes. But it would be a far less crappy system, with a far better rate of return for writers, if they’d stop feeding crap into the system. As you point out, there’s a supply/demand problem: too much low-quality supply for too little high-quality demand. Take the time, do the manuscript right, research the agents, research the markets, make sure one’s manuscript is targeted to a particular market, and then take the ego out of it and pull all of that together into a high-quality submission for the agent’s attention that legitimately answers that one burning question: “What’s in it for me?” That’s what agents ultimately want to see. Great article, thanks!


  2. “I think people assume agents are like the grumpy receptionist, tasked with keeping calls away from the big boss, and thusly see agents as a barrier to their success not the key.”

    I generally eschew netspeak, but This, so very much. Applies to a heck of a lot of other aspects of life as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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