Does Your Agent Have to Love Your Book?

Lately I’ve gotten some remarks from people, both in blog comments and in response to pass letters, complaining that “agents are only looking for what they’re personally interested in.” And some have called into question whether that’s a legitimate way to do business.

So is it true? Are we just looking for what we like? Well… yes and no.

Yes, it’s best if I enjoy reading your manuscript, because I’m going to read it once, twice, or multiple times especially if we’re doing one or more editorial passes. That’s awfully hard if I merely tolerate your work rather than enjoying it.

More importantly, as an author you probably want an agent who completely believes in you and your work. There may be times your agent has to really push hard, fight through obstacles, get really creative about selling your book to a publisher. That’s much easier to do if I’m totally sold out on your project.

Don’t forget that my criteria for “liking” a manuscript may be different from yours. When I’m looking for projects in a professional capacity, my “Do I like it?” filter is different from the one I use when I’m looking for books for my personal reading. It’s common for me to love a manuscript, totally believe in it, and want to represent it, even though it might be different from what I typically choose for my leisure reading.

But a far more crucial question than “Do I like it?” is “Do I think I can sell it?” This is, after all, a job, and no matter how much I love what I do, I have to make a profit or I have to quit. (Jessica at Bookends wrote a great post about Making Money.)

In the end, I choose projects to represent based on a combination of what I like, what I believe will sell, what fits into the current market, and what I’d be proud to align my name with.

Not sure there’s any other way to do this job.

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • Sandy Shin

    >This is a fabulous post. I agree that I'd much prefer my agent to love my work, especially if revisions and submissions take a long time. Also, I think it's perfectly logical that agents take works that they both love and believe they can sell. Publishing is a business, even if there's love involved.

  • The Alliterative Allomorph

    >I got proof of just this, this morning. An agent replied saying that my book wasn't her style, but that she'd be pleased to take a look at the first 50 pages and then go from there. I suppose that must mean that she likes my writing despite it not being what she would normally read. Which is a breath of fresh air!

  • Amanda J.

    >Fantastic post! You always have such insightful things to say, and I appreciate your blog so much. Thank you!

  • tsiailis world

    >I wish I could forsee your preferences and likes in books so that I'd send a manuscript I would know in advance it would be accepted by you… :)

  • writer jim

    >Rachelle,

    I think you said it perfectly.

    If a writer wants an agent, I think they should go to great efforts to find one that loves their writing and/or message so much…that they'll want it published just as much as the author does.

    If their writing is something God wants published…I just can't imagine that God wouldn't supply the right agent at the right time.

  • Creepy Query Girl

    >Thanks for posting this. I think it's valuable to get an agent's take on this kind of thing. Often times I read something bought of the shelves and think 'this book isn't what I'd normally read. But SOMEONE somewhere really believed in it in order for it to get here.'

  • Cecelia Dowdy

    >I'm glad you posted this! It's helpful information!

  • Krista Phillips

    >I totally agree. I wouldn't want an agent who yawned during my whole book, lol!

    Regardless of an agents criteria, I think it'd be a little arrogant of me to tell an agent how they are to run their business. It's THEIR business after all, not mine. If I don't like it, I don't have to query them.

    It's like a restaurant, if I go and have bad food, I don't go back and give the chef pointers… I just go someplace else next time. (bad analogy I'm sure…)

    Anyway, wishing you exciting, yawn/groan-free manuscript reading!

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >I must be getting cynical. I don't understand how anyone can stoop to thinking an agent should take on work they don't like. It is a subjective business.

    Do you (writer) have any friends at all? Okay then there is an agent out there who will like your work. Don't give up until you find him or her. Don't take second best. EVER.

  • Patrick Brian Miller

    >Not only should agents understand that publishing is a business but so should writers–before they write the first sentence of their book. It's usually the writer who has a problem with this concept, not the agent. Hence, the letters of complaint to the agent.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003406003880 Karlinha

      From the first time that I stumbled upon Her Majesty, I’ve been fllihfutay following her adventures. I personally would love to buy a collection of your work and I’m sure others would too.

  • Fawn Neun

    >There really isn't any other way to do it. Especially in this market. If you can't generate the kind of enthusiasm you need to sell editors of projects in a changing market, you'll go broke. And there is the third, fourth, fifth … read.

  • sharonbially

    >As you said, Rachelle, it is a job, after all. And a business! Business people must constantly seek ideas and products they like but that they can also sell. Our most passionate ideas are not always the most marketable: same goes for books!

  • katharrmann

    >I agree that you probably need to at least "like" it. With the number of times my agent has read my manuscript … if he DIDN'T like it, he'd be losing his mind by this point!! I admire agents for that skill … to be able to look at the same manuscript for several months on end and not get ill. ;)

  • Marla Taviano

    >Those last two sentences are brilliant.

  • ElisaHH

    >Very well said!

    I think the editor, agent, publisher relationships should be just that, relationships. If one is not happy with the other, then the marriage will not work. I know I want someone that likes what I do and can sell my work!

    Why would anyone want someone representing them that didn't like their work?????

    Thank you for your honesty and insight.

    Elisa

  • Lea G.

    >Fair enough! As an agent, you're hired to like what sells. Someone is trusting your preferences.

  • Rowenna

    >It's not fair that agents get crabbed at for this–it's not like they're operating in a way that other businesses don't, except that maybe they're doing more rejecting than many businesses, out of sheer volume. Plenty of other professions have to "click" with a person or product, too–do gallery managers pick artists whose work they can only sorta get behind? Do investors shell out for a new product that they're only kinda amazed by? Do restauranteurs hire chefs whose food is only a little bit tasty and only marginally gets the concept? No–every sphere demands both excellence and personal connection. It might not be "fair" but it's what works best, IMO.

  • hannah

    >I think the real question comes when you've been with an agent for a while and you've written more than just that first book they fell in love with. What if your agent doesn't like your second book, or your eighth? Then what happens?

  • DazyDayWriter

    >Decision-making can always be a challenge. Emotions v. intellect and so on. I believe Sunday Morning CBS actually covered this topic on the 25th. Bottom-line, agents have to pick what makes sense to them on so many different levels. As a writer, I get that, and to have a mutually compatible relationship with an agent, it's good to respect a decision — no matter how or why, she or he arrived at yes or no.

  • Tawna Fenske

    >Terrific post! It took nearly two years for my amazing agent to land my recent three-book deal, and if it weren't for her belief in me and my writing, I'm certain we both would have thrown in the towel long before that. An agent who feels passionately about the quality and marketability of her client's work is worth her weight in chocolate.

    Tawna

  • Julie Weathers

    >This is a really good post. Yes, I want my agent to love my work. I think human nature will make them want to sell it and keep trying if they believe in it.

    If an agent just takes it on with marginal interest, I don't think they are doing anyone a favor.

  • Samantha Hunter

    >This makes completely sense to me as an author. I can only write something I enjoy, am passionate about, proud of, and really want to get out there for other people to see. So it makes complete sense that an agent would have to feel the same to represent that work.

    Sam

  • Devon Ellington

    >My ideal is for my agent to love my work, but as long as it is liked well enough to be respected & represented, I will be happy.

    I suffered a severe episode of foot-in-mouth disease a few weeks ago at an event, where, talking about the quality (and lack thereof) of X's writing, it turns out I was talking to X's agent. I apologized for my lack of diplomacy, but said I stood by my feeling that the writing was crap. X's agent said, "Yes, I agree the writing is crap, but it's crap I know how to sell and we both make a lot of money off of it."

    So there are all kinds of reasons to take on a book! ;)

  • Laura Marcella

    >Thanks for this insight! It's something I've never considered before because honestly, I thought agents ALWAYS chose things they liked. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn't want to promote a book just because it might sell well. I'd want to believe in it and really give it everything I had, and I'd have to like it to do that. It's good you consider all angles, though!

  • Timothy Fish

    >This is, after all, a job, and no matter how much I love what I do, I have to make a profit or I have to quit.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but it seems like an odd statement to make to a bunch of authors.

  • Annarkie

    >I agree. I also think the agent should like YOU. I think an agent would be hesitant to sign an author that went around complaining about her colleagues.

  • T. Anne

    >Great post. I would hope agents only commit to what they like and believe in. I always look at the books they've sold or authors they rep before deciding to submit a query. It's great insight into whether or not they'll like my writing style.

  • Rachelle

    >Timothy, why is it odd to say that to authors? Do you mean it's odd because it's so obvious? Or something else…

  • Bethany

    >I've heard the same thing. Just sort of heard it and moved on to the next thought because it seems to be something said out of bitterness, not logic.

  • lauradroege

    >I never imagined anyone would complain about an agent wanting to love their work and believe it can sell. To me, that fit in the "duh" category of things!

  • Katie Ganshert

    >I think the question should be flipped….why would an author want an agent who isn't excited about their work?

    I'd be worried if I had an agent who wasn't excited about my work. I'd worry that the lack of enthusiasm would somehow affect the way the agent would pitch to publishing houses.

    I think Tawna Fenske said it best. And considering my passionate love of chocolate, that's saying a lot.

  • Eric J. Krause

    >It boggles my mind how fragile some authors are. If an agent doesn't enjoy/like your work, it should be rejected by that agent. Maybe it is really good, but if that agent doesn't enjoy it, someone else might. If an agent isn't going to want to go to war with this manuscript, why get all bent out of shape that they won't represent it? C'mon, authors. Think about it.

  • Anonymous

    >Trouble is, we don't know WHY we're being rejcted: Is it cuz the agent doesn't love the book or writing or cuz it won't sell?

    As I posted on Jessica's blog:

    Yes, but when you've been agenting 10+ years and you're well set, I'd think you can AFFORD to give someone a break just cuz you love their book. How do you know what the market will do? No one can predict success!

  • Rachelle

    >It's astonishing to me that some people presume to know so much about the lives of total strangers that they can tell us what we can "afford" to do.

    It's also amazing to me that some people don't recognize how many authors we DO "give a break" by taking them on, even though they'll be hard to sell. We do this because we continue to believe in good books by good authors. All agents have projects they've taken on out of "love," spent months and countless hours trying to sell, only to have to let it go. We make ZERO money for those hours spent.

    Anonymous, perhaps you would like to volunteer to pay for my children's orthodontia and school clothes, and our monthly mortgage payment and grocery bill? Then maybe I could "afford" to take on more projects for love instead of money.

    Incidentally, the problem of not knowing why you're being rejected doesn't have anything to do with this conversation.

  • Anonymous

    >"agents are only looking for what they're personally interested in."

    Funny thing … so are readers. That's the game, folks.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Rachelle,

    The reason I say it is odd is because by my rough estimate it takes a minimum of $12,000 per book for the author to break even. If the author takes more than four weeks to write the book and doesn’t get a publishing deal on the first time out, the cost is much greater. Authors are aware of this and yet they keep writing, even though most will never earn back what they have invested. An author would reverse your statement and say, This is, after all, what I love to do and though I must take a job to make a profit, I will not quit.

  • Kelly

    >I see no reason why an agent *shouldn't* rep only the types of books he or she loves. Heaven knows there are enough good agents out there; it's not like everything won't be covered.

  • Michael K. Reynolds

    >The publishing business isn't unique by any stretch of the imagination in this area. Relationships and personal interests are the fundamental root of just about any business decision. This is true anywhere people are involved.

    Why in the world anyone wouldn't want an agent to REALLY like their work prior to representation is beyond me. For that matter, you also wouldn't want a commitment from a publishing house, unless they were really excited about your work.

    It is certainly frustrating to be a new writer waiting for someone to take a chance on you. But we need to be humble enough to know if it's not happening, we may not be writing about something of broad enough interest or we may not quite be ready.

  • Reena Jacobs

    >Timothy,

    This is, after all, what I love to do and though I must take a job to make a profit, I will not quit.

    You make a powerful statement. I've never lived the life of an agent or publisher. I've only heard it's a lot of work. However, I have spent nearly a year writing (not much compared to a lot of others). It took me 2-3 months to write a first draft. No editing, no revisions, no critiques, no searching for representation, JUST the first draft.

    The typical advance I found authors to received was just a few thousand dollars. And many never earn out the advance. A thousand dollars a month really isn't that much. I certainly couldn't afford to support my family on that. Really less considering most first drafts aren't worthy for toilet paper.

    On top of that, authors are expected to market their work, which costs money. ha ha There goes the advance. The bottom line is very few authors live off book sells alone. Most authors have full time jobs and write when they can. They can't afford to do otherwise.

    I keep hearing publishing is a business. Well, not for most authors. When I realized this, I had to tell myself writing was a hobby. If something came of it Yahoo! Otherwise I need to write for myself, enjoyment, and own sense of accomplishment.

    I don't know how publishers and agents make out on the financial end of things, but it seems to be paying the bills. Really, I feel authors get the short end of the stick. Of all the ones to make a profit, typically they're the ones who can't quit their day jobs to do the thing they love the most. Yet they're producing the goods. It's disheartening.

    I'm not saying this to bash agents or publishers, cause business is business. And businesses must make money to stay afloat. I'd even go as far to say it'd be silly for agents and publishers to take on projects they think are unprofitable.

    It just saddens me that authors seem to get exploited in the process. At the end of the day, I've yet to find viable recourse. Self-publish? Well, if you don't mind being labeled as impatient and foolhardy by agents and publishers. :)

    Writing is tough. It's a lot of hard work, and there's plenty of heartbreak to go around. From what I've seen, the odds are most authors won't get that lucky break. And even if they do, those few won't make it rich. Yeah? So what? Remember why you started writing. Chances are it wasn't for the specific purpose of getting published. Publishing is the icing on the cake. The writing is the cake.

  • Rachelle

    >Reena and Timothy, obviously I'll have to blog about this someday. You're making a comparison that doesn't work. Reena, you're saying that since agents and editors make a living from what they do, but most writers don't, that must mean writers are "exploited" or at least "get the short end of the stick."

    I disagree. Let's say that writing is a "hobby" for most people, not something that will support their families. Fine – that doesn't mean there can't be people who make a living helping people with their hobbies or leisure time activities.

    LOTS of people make a full-time living helping other people enjoy their hobbies.

    Ski instructors.
    Golf pros.
    Scrapbooking consultants.
    Boat salesmen.
    Sherpas.
    Amusement parks.
    The entire movie industry.

    And on and on and on…

    Let's not draw conclusions based on faulty logic. It doesn't matter if getting published is a dream, a hobby or a career for you. The people helping you make it reality deserve to be paid for their expertise.

  • Nikole Hahn

    >Great blog! I did wonder.

  • Mira

    >Rachelle, with respect your logic is flawed. Writers are forced to do this as a hobby because the industry takes 90 percent of the profit. This is exploitation, it is not voluntary. And this is a fast approaching viable alternative – e-publishing, where the writer makes 40 percent of the profit.

    The industry needs to realize this and change or writers will choose other options.

  • Reena Jacobs

    >Rachelle,

    You make an excellent comparison. I read Jessica’s post today about making money. Agents/publishers do provide a service, and I am not saying they don’t earn their keep. I’m not questioning their value or the pay associated with the work. Believe me, if I thought agents and publishers were useless, I wouldn’t bother with the query process. I’d just go self-publish my own work. It certainly would have been friendlier on the ego. :)

    For me, it’s less about agent/publisher worth and more about author worth. I’m laughing because I’m trying my darnest to renege “exploited” and “short end of the stick” from my comments but can’t in regards to the financial aspect. It stands true, and for me to say otherwise would be an outright lie. :) All around me I feel the heat of burning bridges.

    I asked myself if authors (published authors only) in general get paid fairly for the investment they put into their writings. My answer was not typically, at least not to my satisfaction. This is why I labeled writing as a hobby to me, though others might call it a career. When I get paid for it, I’ll call it a job. If I make enough to make a substantial contribution to the family income, then I’ll call it a career.

    I look forward to your future blogs. You bring up issues which are dear to many authors even though you’re bound to get a few fussy ones in the group.

  • Patrick Brian Miller

    >Although I consider Rachelle's posts the cake here, the wildly amusing comments are certainly the icing.

  • patriciazell

    >Rachelle, I read your tweet about e-mails seeming so cumbersome now. Wouldn't it be something if querying evolved into tweets of 140 characters? Or, if agents and publishers required interested authors to write blogs instead of proposals? Personally, I think that would cut down on the bulk of e-mails. You could set up twitter accounts just for receiving tweets with links to authors's blogs. You never know, maybe someday…

  • Rachelle

    >Mira, I've tried to explain the finances of publishing several times on this blog. Maybe you missed those posts. It's naive to make statements like "the industry takes 90 percent of the profit" as if publishers were these super rich behemoths taking advantage of the poor starving third-world writers slaving away in sweatshops for pennies a day. It's just not like that. The finances of publishing are complex, but it's easy to understand the difference between taking 90% of the revenues versus 90% of the profit. Those two numbers are vastly different, and to confuse them is to demonstrate that you're either playing fast and loose with language just to make a point, or you truly don't understand the business of publishing.

    The finances of traditional publishing (books made of paper and ink, sold in physical bookstores that take up space and employ people) are fundamentally different from the finances of any kind of self-publishing or e-publishing venture. You simply cannot compare them.

    With all due respect, this is not about logic. I know you believe my logic is flawed; go ahead and prove it by demonstrating you understand the finances of publishing and can show that for every dollar an author makes, the publisher shows a $9 profit. (Anyone who knows publishing is snorting "yeah right" through their spewed coffee right about now.)

    You don't want to get me started on "exploitation." The companies who exploit writers the most are some of those "self pub" companies that make promises they cannot fulfill and take advantage of the writer's dream to be published, making them pay money from their own pocket to make that dream come true.

    It's hard for me to sit back and be quiet with repeated accusations of being in an exploitative business. I welcome comments on this blog that are constructive and add to the conversation; but these kinds of comments spread misinformation at best, but at worst they foster fear and encourage conspiracy thinking about publishing.

    By reading this blog and others like it, you can keep learning about publishing so that your comments will be based more on reality than rumors or conjecture.

  • Roxane B. Salonen

    >Rachelle, you summed it up well, I think. Seems those who are at odds with you have a very fuzzy notion of how the business actually works. Do I wish some of this could be different, and that you would represent me based on my writing and my work's subject matter? Sure, but I know better. It takes a wondrous combination of many elements for an author's book to get properly noticed by an agent or editor. As always, I appreciate your efforts to educate. That comes across so clearly and is no doubt one of the major reasons you have such a wide following. Some of the attitudes I see remind me of my teenager's insistence that they are "entitled." I know it's frustrating to have so little control, but…God is in control, and He will lead us where we ought to go if we keep taking the necessary steps. (Alright, cutting myself off now…)

  • KC Frantzen

    >Could see fireworks from afar. Fascinating conversation today. Thanks!

    Different topic but an analogy to analyze. Anyone priced custom framing? The artist labors on the canvas but the frame can 'cost' twice or 3 times as much.

  • Anonymous

    >Not that I'm blaming agents specifically, mind you, nor do i agree 100% with Mira's argument, but I think you have to wonder at an industry that cried for years that book prices were higher because of paper costs and then barely lowers the price for kindle/ipad/whatever versions citing 'overhead' costs.

    On top of it, the author's cut of ebooks is criminal considering the reduced costs.

    Publishers can cry all they wish about the cost of doing business, but in the internet age the idea that they have to have huge office complexes in Manhattan and pay the kind of overhead they pay is inane.

    Everyone in publishing likes to cry 'our business is not like other businesses!' 'You can;t compare us to selling cars or insurance or whatever'

    You're right. Any other business would be trying to reduce expenses (tho publishing gets the ;lay people off' side of reduced costs). If you can send everything electronically, why not have an office in West Virginia vs NYC?

    Inertia, that's why.

    Again, I don;t see this an agent's doing, but really folks, publishing needs to get with the times a little. Being different is fine. Being stubborn to the point of stupid is not. When the next Meyers or King or whoever establishes a 10 million reader base and says 'screw it, I'll sell my book next book on my web site for 3.99 as an acrobat file' are a bunch of hot shot publishing types gonna roll their eyes and say they don;t care?

    I wonder…

  • Anonymous

    >Rachelle, Anon 1:21 here: I was referring to Jessica, who HAS been agenting for 10+ years, not you who are obviously newer to the game. Of COURSE we all want to make money at this biz. I was just playing devil's advocate cuz I didn't like her self-righteous, defensive tone. I don't expect to work for for free, either, and yes, I want an agent who LOVES my book. So I agree~ and sorry, but I have my own bills to pay!

  • Mira

    >Well, Anon 10:51 may not agree with me 100%, but I agree with them 100% – nicely said. I agree — inertia is the biggest problem facing publishers today.

    Rachelle, I think you think my intention is to spread discontent and incite other writers. That is not true – you can believe it or not, but I'm being sincere.

    The only real reason I posted today was to support Timothy and Reena.

    However, the primary reason I post anything at all here is to talk to YOU and other industry professionals who read this blog.

    You can not solve a problem if you don't face it.

    And trying to argue writers out of things, or use spin, or whatever is not going to stem the tide. It's just not.

    I firmly believe that the only chance the publishing industry has to survive is to listen to and respond to writer's concerns. It simply can not function without them.

    I know that what I'm asking – given how emotional these issues are – and how intense some of these statements are, including mine – is really difficult – I might not be able to do it in your place – but I really wish that you and other agency folks would stop arguing with the writers who are voicing these concerns, and start listening and think about them very carefully.

  • Timothy Fish

    >I don’t want anyone thinking that I am advocating agents and publishers earning less money. As the scripture says, “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” Of course we’ve all got to make a living. I just thought it odd to use that argument to support an action when it is so obvious that authors have rejected that argument in their own work.

    It comes down to a matter of priorities. While authors would love to make a living from their work, that is not their highest priority. Many agents would like to see more good books made available to the public, but that is a lower priority than making a living at what they do. I don’t expect the priorities of either group to change, but I do think it necessary to be aware of the differences. An author wants to argue in favor of his work because of the affect it has on people, but he would be better served to make his argument to an agent in terms of how much money the book will make. An agent wants to argue in favor of her decisions based on whether the book will make money or not, but when talking to authors, she would be better served to state her case in terms of the impact or lack thereof the book would have on those who read it.

    Me being an author, if you tell me that you can’t sell the book, that doesn’t compute. I might hear your words and go self-publish it because money is not the most important thing. But if you tell me that the book will have no influence because it is so similar to what is already out there, you are talking my language.

  • Mira

    >Rachelle,

    I thought about this all night – and I'm going to take a breather from your blog. I thought about sending you an e-mail privately, but this is almost feeling like a community matter.

    My intention was never to make you feel under seige – but I think – I can only guess – but I think that's what's happening. There's no point in a discussion if people are going to end up feeilng hurt or pressured – honestly, that was not my intention. Frankly, I think you're taking me more seriously than I deserve. But I think leaving now would take some pressure off the blog, which is all to the best.

    I'll end by saying that I really appreciate that I have had a space to express my feelings and thoughts here – thank you. I also think you are a terrific agent – your clients are very lucky – and I know you'll continue to lead intelligent and interesting discussions here!

    Best wishes!

  • Lisa_Gibson

    >It's tough to sell something you're not behind. I should say, it's easier to sell something that you totally love. Great post!

  • L J King

    >I think it is wonderful that you are in a position to only work with material that you like. Most jobs, at any level, must do what they are given to do – like it or not. I'm jealous.

    As an author looking for representation, I want an agent that believes in me and my work. Unfortunately, I do understand the frustration of people willing to settle for any agent.

    I love that you share your wealth of information. Thank you!
    -LJ

  • Clarissa Yip

    >Great post! It's nice to have an agent speak the truth!

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