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What does an agent really want?

I've had a few online conversations over the last few days that leads me to feel there is some confusion about what an agent is looking for in an author. I'm not an agent, or a specialist, so, as ever, this is only my own views etc etc but here goes:

1. They want a book they can sell. That's not quite the same thing as a book they really like (but see below). Agents only get money if they sell your book. The lovely agent who worked on Inish Carraig for 18 months with me but got unlucky with market timing - she got nothing. I got a shiny, edited book with a much improved storyline for John, the teen protagonist, that I then self published. I didn't lose much except time (and while she had IC I worked on other things) - she lost work time, and most agents are busy, busy people.

Note the codicil - that they can sell. It's so easy to see rejection after rejection as personal but a lot of the time, it's that the project is too hard to sell. The reasons are long and varied: the marketplace isn't hot for that kind of book; the agent doesn't specialise or have contacts in your type of book; the agent doesn't know any editors looking for what you have written; your novel crosses genres or ages, or myriad other lines, that makes it hard to fit. Your book can be fantastic, it can be wonderful, but it is no good to an agent if it will not sell.

2. It's not about the author, but the book. Sure, networking and connections can help, and being an obliging author who gets on with their edits and doesn't throw fits of temperament is never a bad thing, but no agent will take on an author without a marketable book.

A rejection is not personal. When my agent and I parted ways, it wasn't personal. It's always about the market, the book and if you will make money for the agency. (Sorry. It might not feel nice, but publishing is an industry. And, at the moment, it's a damned tough industry.)

3. Having an offer will not net you an agent. I used to think this - and when I received my first small publisher offer I trundled off to agents expecting to snag one. But an offer from a small publisher will make very little money. There will, generally, be no advance. Sales will, generally, be in line with the small publishing world. To be blunt, your offer will make the agent very little money - see above. This is a business.

Plus, it you have an small press offer you're happy with, an agent will bring little more to the party. If they love the book, they will probably reject the offer to sub to bigger publishers, so you'd have to be prepared to take that gamble. In terms of the contract, you can have it reviewed in a number of places (the Society of Authors, for instance, does so for members).

For my last sale, an agent had a full of the book but didn't feel they could better the offer I had, so declined. This was no reflection on anything other than that I had found a suitable home for the novel.

4. An agent signs you for that book. Not your back stories. Not books you have not written yet - although they will want to know about those and most author-agent relationships extend over a writing career. Some authors, though, have more than one agent dealing with different genres or age groups.

They might look at your previous work, to see if they can sell it. If you get an offer on it whilst agented - as I did with Abendau - they might contract for it and safeguard you (you are their client, after all, they want to know what rights you might be signing away - contracting for life to a small press would be disadvantageous for them). But they will focus on the work they have signed you up for.

5. Not every agented book sells. That sucks, doesn't it? You think, once you have the agent, you're sorted. A surprising amount of agented work never finds a home. It punts for the big publishers, and the mid-sized, and that's the toughest market of all. It's not something talked about a lot - agents need to celebrate success, not failure - but it happens. All the time. It's not a disaster. It's a bump in the road.

6. Agents can, and do, drop clients. Not usually after only one book fails to sell, to be fair, as happened with me. But if they can't sell your work, they don't make a living. Having said that, most agents only take work they like, and writers they have belief in. They're an advocate like no other. If, for whatever reason, they stop believing in you, it's probably better that both seek pastures new.

 (A word on that - it's atrocious etiquette to seek a new agent while contracted to a current one. And the agent network is small and close - the chances sre your sneaky submissions will get back to them. If you're not happy, bite the bullet and leave. And then go back to query letter hell*)

*if you want to. I never have yet. Mostly because I'm too busy bringing things out. But I have plans to.

7. Being published does not neccessarily mean an agent will take your next project. People always say to me that they expect an agent to snap me up next time I go looking - I sure as hell don't. If I have a project they like, then my various SM platforms, my reviews and contacts, become relevant. The icing on the  cake, if you like. But until I have that project that an agent likes AND thinks they can sell, it's irrelevant.

In fact, being published and your book doing badly can be more damaging than never being published at all. (But things like being with a small publisher first don't need to be worried about - so long as you sell within expectations for your market, all is well. In fact, a book doing well with a small publisher looks better than one that bombed with a big publisher.)

Anyhow, all just some observations of mine. whatever way you go about things, match the market and platofrm to your book, and may it do really well for you. :)

Jo writes sf and fantasy. Lots more about her and her awesome books can be found at


Anya Kimlin said…
Ugh! I know I'm not sure I can do it again. It was disheartening to have them love a book but be told it was unsalable. And at the same time intriguing to see how views on present tense changed over time.

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