What Does a REAL Agent Do?

Here in this blog, we talk a lot about what fake agents do to rip off unsuspecting, naive writers. It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to discuss what a REAL agent does. Once you know what a real agent does, it’s easy as falling off a log to spot the fakes. My time today is limited, so I’ll probably have to post this in a couple of different sections.

A real agent does the following for his/her clients, at minimum:

When taking on a new client, they:

1. Read the book or book proposal in question, until they are very familiar with it, then they decide where to SUBMIT it. Real agents know the editors in question well enough to know their tastes, and what they’ve acquired recently for their line, etc. They have spent “face time” with these editors, either in business lunches, or by keeping up via the telephone with the publishing house’s needs, and the needs and wants and taste of each individual editor. The agent will usually apprise the client, in general terms, of where he or she plans to submit the book.

Agents these days tend to specialize, so it’s not like they’re intimately familiar with every editor of every publisher and imprint owned by Random House, for example. But they’d know every s.f. and fantasy editor, every paranormal romance editor, and every mystery editor, for example, if their client list is mostly comprised of mystery writers, s.f. and fantasy writers, and romance writers who specialize in paranormal romance.

So when they take on a new client who has a fantasy novel to sell, the agent would know right away which editors at which houses are looking for that kind of fantasy. The agent would probably make contact via phone with the editor and “talk up” the project, touching base about sending it along. The agent might offer the editor a 60 day “exclusive” on the work, if they feel strongly that a work is perfect for a given editor’s line.

Many agents regularly schedule lunches or coffee with editors they know well so they can keep up with each editor’s line, and the editor’s needs.

Once the agent has touched base about the project, the agent then writes a specific, glowing, individualized cover letter for the project, and send it along to the editor. If they are in NYC, they often use messenger services to send a project to an editor who has agreed to see it. They do not let grass grow under their feet in submitting material.

2. Assuming the agent has chosen the editor well, and the editor in question loves the project as much as the agent anticipated he or she would, the editor will then run the book past his or her editorial committee or publishing review board. (We’re assuming a sale to a major commercial publisher here.) If the editorial committee agrees that they should acquire the book, the editor will make an initial offer to the agent.

The agent then NEGOTIATES the contract with the publisher, in consultation with the client.

Contract negotiations take several weeks. They cover more than just the amount of the advance or the percentage of the royalties for each book sold. (Royalties should be based on cover price, rather than net. Remember this.)

The agent will negotiate things like:

a. the publisher’s option on the writer’s next book

b. how much the writer will be paid on “discounted” books (book club sales, discount store sales, etc.)

c. how many free author copies the writer will receive (I usually get 50)

d. how long the author will have to make revisions, if asked for, and how long the publisher has to publish the book (18 months is pretty standard)

c. foreign, film, audio, electronic, and other rights, and how they can be sold, and what percentage of the sales money the author keeps

d. the schedule of payment for the author (twice a year is normal for royalties), for advances, payments are often broken into three parts (1) on-signing of the contract, (2) on acceptance of the final manuscript, and (3) on publication of the book

e. lots of other contract details that would require too much explanation to go into here. For samples of publishing contracts you can read, check the SFWA site. http://sfwa.org/contracts/

Okay, my time grows short, I’ll continue this list in my next post.

-Ann C. Crispin


  1. Hi my name is Rochelle I am new to this. I love the info. Does anyone know anything about self publishing? specificaly Author house pub co.?

  2. This is the best info I have found in two years of researching agents/editors/publishers. Thanks for your invaluable help!

  3. I’m not sure how long it would be for a brand-new author, Marissa. I haven’t been a new author since 1982, and things have changed.

    For a new author, I suspect a number of people would want to read the recommended book, and that might take some time.

    For an established writer with a track record of sales, it takes a few weeks, or maybe a month or so.

    Hey, why don’t you ask Miss Snark? I’m sure she’d know.

    -Ann C. Crispin

  4. This is very interesting–thank you for posting this. A brief question: how long does it (on average) take for an editor who loves a book to run it through the in-house review process? Is this a matter of weeks or months?

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