Top 10 Mistakes New Agents Make

  • By: Exporter | Date: Aug 26 2021

Being a new agent is an exciting and crazy time. You’re building a client list and, if you work on commission, a business (and a brand). There’s so much to think about and do, but there are 10 (or so) easy things that if you keep in mind, will help you build a solid reputation and by default, a strong list.

1. Trying to Do Things You’re Not Good At

No matter how much we want to be the expert in all things we just can’t. Years ago, I realized that SFF was never going to be my forte. I don’t read enough to understand either the marketability of the genre or how to best edit books. And while I loved representing romance authors, and did for the first 3/4 of my agenting career, as BookEnds grew, and my tastes changed, I realized there were people who did it far better than I. Most importantly, there are genres I do far better than those.

Instead of feeling like you need to represent all the things, focus on those you are truly great at. While it might seem better to try everything, especially that hot new genre, it’s not really beneficial to you or your clients if you’re not really good at it. That doesn’t mean you won’t dabble, but you know when you know what’s working and what’s not.

2. Not Setting Up Systems

Everyone needs systems, but especially literary agents. I feel like half my life is spent tracking things in spreadsheets and the other half is trying to figure out if there is a better system than the spreadsheets I already have.

From the start, you need to get comfortable with systems and project management. So much of your job is tracking — submissions you receive, submissions you send, close dates, due dates, payment dates, and the like. Keeping everything in your head is simple when you’re getting started, but gets much more complicated once you have 10, 30, or even 50 clients. Start now, let your systems grow with you and trust me, you’ll save so many headaches.

3. Taking authors for granted

Originally the title of this one was “your authors” and then I realized how limiting this is. Don’t take any authors for granted, those you call clients, those you call former clients, and those in your inbox, hoping to be future clients. 

Authors and all writers are humans. Just like you, they have incredibly busy lives. 

They also lived through a pandemic. Many have children, other jobs, or are taking care of parents while maintaining the minutia of everyday life. On top of all of that, they’ve written a damn book.

Authors are the backbone of the publishing industry and with every book they write, big or small, they are making you money. Without them, none of us exist. Don’t take them for granted. When negotiating contracts fight for what they deserve, including fair and reasonable pay as well as due dates, be the advocate you promised when you signed them and respect every query that comes in the door.

4. Allowing Authors to Mistreat You

I think the Agents of BookEnds will be surprised at how long I put up with mistreatment by my own clients. Today I fight hard to make sure each of my agents stands up for themselves and sets boundaries, because 20 years ago, I was horrible at this.

Back in the day I would have authors call and scream at me (even on weekends), monopolize my time with hours-long conversations and even treat other clients rudely. None of that is necessary. Yes, we work for the author, but that doesn’t mean we need to be treated badly by that author. Since those early days of BookEnds, I have learned to set strict boundaries. I don’t typically text with authors (it’s difficult to track those conversations for later), I don’t take calls on weekends or nights, and I don’t accept someone yelling at me or disrespecting me. 

Life is short and we all deserve respect and kindness.

5. Ignoring Your Clients

I used to hear a lot from authors about how their agents ghosted them and despite sending emails and making phone calls, they hadn’t heard from them in a very long time. This, to me, is completely unacceptable.

If you don’t want to talk to a client any more than maybe that person should no longer be a client. This business is all about relationships and how you treat those relationships says everything about you. This isn’t just a message to agents and clients, but to editors and agents. Ignoring correspondence from anyone you do business with is not going to help you build your business.

I for one, don’t want to sell books to an editor who can’t respond to my submissions, and I never want to be the kind of agent known for ghosting or ignoring clients. Heck, I’m so obsessed with this need for communication that BookEnds has a policy that we reply to all queries. Ignoring people is not an option.

6. Playing it Safe

There are no guarantees in life and there are certainly no guarantees in publishing. Some of the best books I ever sold were those I took on with the understanding that I might not be able to sell them. They weren’t easy and they weren’t safe, but they were important in their own way.

Taking chances on something is really the fun part of this job. It’s also where the biggest payoffs come. 

There’s no shame in not selling something, don’t be afraid to not sell something, especially if you love it for any reason at all.

7. Putting All Your Eggs in One Basket

I see this so often. An agent gets a big deal for a potentially big client and closes to queries, starts ignoring other clients, and even forgets all boundaries where Big Client is concerned. And then the book tanks. Big Client stops writing or, worse, Big Client moves to another agency. 

Putting all your eggs in one basket is one of the biggest reasons small businesses fail and agents count as a small business. Even the agents of some of the biggest authors you can think of keep building and growing their list and fostering other author relationships. 

Diversification isn’t just for stocks. It’s for your client list as well. Don’t stick to one client, one genre, or only sell to one publisher. Keep growing and expanding and keep adding eggs to that basket.  Remember, you never truly know who that big client will be or where that first book deal (no matter how small) might lead.

8. Forgetting Who You Work For/With

Your job is to be your client’s business partner. Full Stop. That means you work for your client and not the publisher. That means, sometimes, your job is to have difficult conversations with editors and publishers who may have become friends. The best agents never forget this.

When submitting, negotiating contracts, or discussing marketing plans with the publisher you need to always remember that you are working for the client. That sometimes means saying things or asking for things that might not make the publisher happy. Trust me, I know. I’ve had difficult conversations with people I’ve known and respected for years. Even editors who were once my bosses. But if I worried more about what publishers thought of me than what I was doing on behalf of my authors I would not be doing my job.

Hard conversations can be had without destroying relationships. They also get easier with experience and time. Mostly though, they are your job.

9. Working Too Many Hours 

Agenting takes a lot of time. We all know how it works. You work all week long and it’s the weekends you reserve for reading. You know what? It doesn’t have to be that way. Good time management means we can do away with the false rhetoric that agenting is a 24/7 job. Take it from someone who has been in this awhile, weekends can be work free.

The smartest agents I know take vacations, weekends for themselves and family, and time to refresh. They can even stay away for weeks (or at least weekends) without checking email. They spend time with family and know how to set boundaries. That might also mean staying off social media during work hours, or turning down school volunteer opportunities because, well, job. Boundary setting goes both ways if it’s truly going to be successful.

There is no reason to work 24/7 if you start building the right time management skills now.

10. Ignoring the future.

Don’t forget why you started agenting and what your goals are for the future. 

Is your goal to build a livable income, maybe even support your family? Or is the real purpose to become Twitter famous and gain as many likes as possible? Knowing your goals and what you’re building and reminding yourself of these regularly will help you ignore the noise that often comes with this world and instead focus on what you really want.

The most successful agents are always looking ahead to the submissions they need to make to sell the books they want to sell, to the queries they need to read to find the clients they want to represent. 

They know why they’re doing this and what they want to achieve and they learn to ignore the rest.

4 responses to “Top 10 Mistakes New Agents Make”

  1. Avatar Mona Mehas says:

    I don’t want to sound creepy but I love you. Seriously, I’m learning more from you and James than I ever thought possible. I won’t say it again because it is a little creepy. Thanks for all the superb advice. I’m an author, not an aspiring agent but learned from this anyway.

  2. Avatar JJ Probasco says:

    Great commentary on the business; good advice from the agent POV but also for us author folks and those on the publishing end. It’s also good to hear an agent voice concerns like this when there are a lot of agents whose actions say they don’t think much about things like these. It’s always good to have a little breath of fresh air. Thanks!

  3. Avatar Kim Beall says:

    Just wanted to “Heart” this entire post!

  4. Avatar Melanie Doctors says:

    #4. I hate that anyone would be horrible to you.