How to decide whether to work with a literary agent

It may seem like an odd statement. Why would you, after no doubt years of hard work and a significant amount of time spent seeking an agent to represent you, even contemplate turning down a literary agent offer?

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This is exactly what happened to me. I’d been working on my novel for just over a year and had sent the finished manuscript out to various literary agencies without much success. Some had responded with personalised emails saying they’d enjoyed it, but it just wasn’t for them; others sent form rejections and some ignored my query letter altogether.

Then I went to a writing conference and met a literary agent. She asked me to send her a copy of my manuscript, and so I did.

I was surprised and unbelievably excited when she called me less than a week later to tell me she loved my manuscript and wanted to represent me. It was a dream come true. I’ve wanted to be an author my entire life and felt like this was finally it. I immediately said yes, and the agent said she’d send me across a contract to sign.

Looking back, what I should have done was thank her for the offer and said I would like some time to think about it. I knew very little about this agent after all. It may be different if it’s an agency you’ve spent time researching and approached yourself.

However, due to some useful advice I’d received at Swanwick Summer Writers’ school, I knew about the Society of Authors (UK). I’d been pre-warned to not sign any contracts with any agents or publishers until I’d read through all the terms thoroughly and had a professional read through them. Therefore, when the contract arrived on my doorstep a week later, I sent a copy to the Society of Authors (SoA).

SoA offer fantastic advice to new and established authors free of charge, on a whole array of issues including contracts. I highly recommend you run any contracts past them before signing. They will be able to explain any terms you are unsure of and will let you know if there’s anything you should be wary of or ask to have changed before signing. The SoA picked up on several terms to change in my contract.

These are some of the other things you should consider before agreeing to work with a literary agent:

  1. Do they represent any other authors? Are they experienced or new? How successful have their other clients been?
  2. Do they have experience representing authors in your genre?
  3. What is their vision for your work?
  4. Are you liable for any costs? How long is the contact for?
  5. Are they accessible and approachable? Do you think you will get on and have a good working relationship?
  6. Is the contract in your best interests? If there are things you would like to change, is the agent flexible to changes?
  7. Do you want the same things? E.g. does your agent sees your book more as a small publication for boutique bookshops, whereas you want to be more widespread.

It turns out my would-be literary agent didn’t have experience of working with authors who wrote YA fiction. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t have been good at representing me, just maybe they’d have fewer contacts at YA publishers than some other agents.

I’m not trying to say don’t get excited when agents say they want to work with you. Absolutely do! It’s fantastic news. But think it over before you sign on the dotted line. Ask others for advice, and ask yourself, is it a good match?

Back to my own story. As I began the process of negotiating the contract based on the advice from SoA, it became increasingly clear to me that me and the agent were not a good match. There were certain terms we could not agree on, and we wanted different things. It was with regret I eventually decided not to sign the contract.

A year later, I still sometimes wonder whether I made the right decision. If I’d just put my niggles to one side, and signed the contract, would I have a book on its way to the shelves now? It’s possible, but would it be the book I wanted?

I’m a firm believer you should go with your gut, so that’s what I did. Rightly or wrongly, I’ll guess I will never be sure. I haven’t approached any other agents since then, and after some useful feedback, I’ve decided to re-write that first novel.

Already, even though I’m only halfway through, I feel like this version of the book is much stronger, and that when I do approach agents again, I’ll be doing so with increased confidence.

Do you have an agent? If so, how did you find yours? Or do you prefer to self-publish or approach publishers directly?

9 thoughts on “How to decide whether to work with a literary agent

  1. Pingback: Diary of an Aspiring Author: 2019 Roundup | Sarah EA Hunter

  2. Well done you for having the courage to turn the offer down when you knew it wasn’t right. My hind brain would be panicking, wondering if I was ever going to get another agent offer and thinking I should grab any offer that came my way. Not that I’m saying this will happen to you! I think you’re absolutely right to go with your gut and I’m sure your writer instincts are correct – you’re crafting a better book now and are much more likely to be picked up, possibly by your ideal agent match.
    I’m submitting to agents at the moment, though I haven’t sent out too many as yet. Three standard rejections and a very lovely personalised one that gave me some great feedback and tips and told me the opening was well written, a comment I’ve filed away in my head to bring out on days when I’m lacking confidence – or when the next rejection comes in 🙂
    Very best of luck with your rewrite Sarah

    Liked by 1 person

    • My brain was definitely panicking and wondering if I’d ever get another offer from an agent. Good luck with sending your book out to agents. I finished the rewrite of mine the end of last year, so am just re-beginning this process too. No luck so far, but keeping my fingers crossed! It’s great you’ve had some positive feedback from an agent 🙂


      • It’s a gutsy thing we do, putting our work out there, especially when it’s a project you’ve poured years of your life into. Yes, I took the positive feedback as a really good sign – agents are such busy people, I’m hoping it shows my submission stood out a little for her to bother giving me constructive criticism. I recent came runner up in a writing magazine comp (the dark tales comp from last year, my story’s in their site if your interested) and choose a critique instead of a cash prize. The lady who did the critique was really positive too, really, really so. So you never know. It’s all a long shot but positive feedback from a professional bodes well.
        I wish you lots of luck in your own search for an agent – from the little I’ve seen, your writing is very good.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: How to submit your novel to an agent | Sarah EA Hunter

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