10 Traits of a Good Agent

This is the first in my new “10 Things” series to (hopefully) appear weekly, for awhile anyway. If you have ideas for future “10 Things” posts, please let me know.

Many of you might be looking for an agent… and it can be hard to know exactly what to look for in your literary representation. So I wanted to give you a few tips.

First, it’s all about the relationship, so the it’s important to find someone you click with, someone who seems to “get” you. Beyond that, you’ll want to find someone who’s working style fits with yours. Some agents are more hand-holding and nurturing, others are all business. Some are interested in career-building, others just want to know what book you have to sell right now. Which style fits your writing personality best?

Beyond all that, I recommend you look at your representation as an issue of stewardship. You want an agent so that you can be the best steward of your own talent and time. A good agent understands this and has the same goal for you.

Here are some specific traits you might look for in an agent:

1. Someone who understands books, literature, and the power of words
2. Someone full time (versus a dabbler)
3. Someone who knows people in the industry, has contact with editors
4. Someone who knows contracts and the business side of publishing
5. Someone who’ll tell you the truth (you’re going to have to deal with rejection—get used to it)
6. Someone who will be president of your fan club, and you can be president of theirs
7. Someone diligent and responsive
8. Someone not just trying to get a contract but is interested in your career & future
9. Someone who will help you grow as a writer
10. Someone whose name is Rachelle (okay, that one is obvious)

What do you think? What are some traits you’ve looked for in an agent? If you’re agented, what are the traits you most appreciate?

This list is courtesy of Greg Johnson, agent extraordinaire and illustrious president of WordServe Literary.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Amalia Amanda on September 25, 2011 at 5:41 PM

    Wow, fantastic blog layout!The time will you be blogging for? you have made blogging look easy. The entire look of this site is extremely good, as well as the content!

  2. Anita Mae on November 26, 2008 at 2:32 PM

    >Wow – you’re a veritable Rachelle cheering squad here today.

    I actually had an agent request a partial from me at the ACFW conference and I haven’t sent it in yet beause I’m afraid.

    Och – I felt that wave of disbelief all the way up here!

    But this is a serious business. I don’t know everything that an agent does – that’s why I’m here – to learn. I don’t want to make the biggest mistake of my writing career by picking someone who’s wrong for me.

    I always dreamed of having a book in every WalMart and SuperStore, but this agent doesn’t respresent category books. What if, by some miracle, this agent chooses me as a client and then a few years down the road, I want to write a category book? Will the agent feel betrayed?

    What if I’m invited to contribute to an anthology for a category book? Will I be allowed to do it?

    Just those 2 questions and I feel stifled.

    I thought I’d prayed enough on this subject but obviously I haven’t scratched the surface.

  3. christa on November 26, 2008 at 3:09 AM

    >A sense of humor, a cheerleader whose pom-poms can morph into steel-toed boots when a kick is needed and a deep, abiding faith.

  4. Rosslyn Elliott on November 25, 2008 at 11:51 PM

    >My agent has a tremendous background in editing, and she has edited excellent books that are sitting on my shelf. Her proven track record as an editor allowed me to trust her immediately with my work. That’s my way of saying that #1 is overwhelmingly important to me. Oddly enough, she also fulfills #10. 😉

  5. Jennifer F. on November 25, 2008 at 11:10 PM

    >Great list! I think the three biggest things that impressed me about my agent were:

    1. He was honest about the realities of the publishing industry and (tactfully) honest about the amount of work that lay ahead of me if I were serious about publishing my book.

    2. He struck me as responsive and organized (e.g. I never waited more than 48 hours for a reply to an email).

    3. He seemed intelligent. After talking to him a couple times he just struck me as a very sharp person whose judgment I could trust.

    Now if he would just change his name to Rachelle… 🙂

  6. Richard Mabry on November 25, 2008 at 4:31 PM

    >One late addition to the list:
    11. Someone who responds “cool” when you tell them about a flash of inspiration you’ve had and send them a paragraph you think is absolutely gold.
    Thanks, Rachelle.

  7. Jessica on November 25, 2008 at 1:12 PM

    >#10, totally!


  8. Janet on November 25, 2008 at 12:47 PM

    >Do you know any Rachelle’s who rep fantasy? Otherwise, #10 is going to be really, really hard.

  9. Cheryl Barker on November 25, 2008 at 12:31 PM

    >I loved your #10, Rachelle 🙂 Hey, a sense of humor is important! 🙂

  10. Anonymous on November 25, 2008 at 12:17 PM

    >You wouldn’t marry the first person who said yes to your proposal (and if you would, you should be reading a different web site). And you shouldn’t sign up with the first agent to offer representation…

    and that’s the part no one talks about. I just turned down my very first agent offer. after I got off the phone, I knew it just wasn’t right for me. and it was the single most disheartening thing I’ve had to do in a long time. it was also pretty alienating. not many of my writer friends were empathetic. (you did what?!? are you nuts?!?) and as rejections now filter in, being right isn’t always as comforting as one would hope.

  11. Rachelle on November 25, 2008 at 11:42 AM

    >Wow, you all are knocking my socks off this morning with your answers! Thanks Anne & Camille for your lists–what a lot ot fun! I love when you make me laugh.

  12. Camille Cannon (Eide) on November 25, 2008 at 11:32 AM

    >Great list, Rachelle, lots to think about. And Anne – you’re hysterical! Who knew there was a tongue planted in your cheek all this time!

    Maybe you could flip this list and give us 10 traits of a Good Writer, either from an art/business pov, or from an agent’s pov.

    The Agent’s idea of a Good Writer list will undoubtedly include:

    1. Someone whose stories are only given to them in a vision.
    2. Someone confident that their green zombie ninja story will be a best-seller and has at least 12 guaranteed sales.
    3. Someone daring enough to write about touchy topics like pious dead hookers.
    4. Someone who reminds her agent she hasn’t heard from her at least once a day.
    5. Someone who leaves all that proposal and editing stuff up to her agent.
    6. Someone who knows that if writers needed to know how to spell, God wouldn’t have invented spell chekker.
    7. Someone with the gumption to turn down every offer her agent gets because he knows the name of the game is ‘play hard to get.’
    8. Someone who is comfortable calling her agent every time she feels lonely or needs help naming her cat.
    9. Someone with the confidence to stand behind every word they’ve written and can produce a good reason to resist every change her agent or editor suggests.
    10. Someone with more important things to do than remember how to spell her agent’s name.

  13. Lea Ann McCombs on November 25, 2008 at 11:15 AM

    >I just jumped straight to #10 and it worked fine for me! 🙂

    As one of Rashelle’s clients, I’d like to add a #11. “Manages to be believably encouraging even while holding a sack full of discouraging truths.”

    I think a good agent is a good cheerleader, keeping us off the window ledge with that ray of hope that maybe, just maybe, this can be fixed.

    Thanks, Rashelle.

  14. Anonymous on November 25, 2008 at 10:29 AM

    >Great list, but how many of these can an author truly evaluate? We’re sitting in our little cabin in the woods tapping away at our keyboards while agents jet-set and hobnob. Well, maybe not.

    It seems to me that just about every agent would claim to meet all of your criteria. Do they? I’m in no position to know.

    The only contact I’ll ever have with them is email and an occassional phone call. Maybe they really couldn’t answer my emails because they were deep in negotiations over a million dollar auction. Or maybe they decided to stay in bed or go to the beach.

    Sad, but true.

  15. Kim Kasch on November 25, 2008 at 10:09 AM

    >Everyone wants to work with people who do a good job, but what makes work “fun”?

    Working with nice people – and a sense of humor never hurts.

  16. Rachel on November 25, 2008 at 9:17 AM

    >My favorite is #10, for sure.

    Are you going to keep this blog going when your client list is full, Rachelle?

  17. Susan on November 25, 2008 at 9:07 AM

    >I love 6 and 8 the best, but all of it sounds good: thanks for sharing this list! I pinned it up on my desktop, as I’m now writing my wishlist of agents to submit to.

    Other things I’m looking at are location (though I know it’s not necessary, someone nearby would be a bonus) and having a website. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy and learn from you and other agents who take the time to update blogs; and I think it would be wonderful to always know (without phoning to ask) if you’re backlogged or away at a conference, or getting hit with too many steampunk-werewolf-romance stories this week, or whatever else is going on in the office. That’s a big plus in my point of view.

    Thanks again Rachelle!

    And thanks Anne, because I loved your list too!

  18. Jeanie W on November 25, 2008 at 8:53 AM

    >Great list.

    How about writing ten ways to build a platform or promote your book?

  19. Gordon Carroll on November 25, 2008 at 8:38 AM

    >Agent must like dogs! (or at least hot dogs at a baseball game).

  20. Richard Mabry on November 25, 2008 at 8:19 AM

    >I’d caution those still seeking an agent to study these rules very, very carefully. There’s a lot of truth there. You wouldn’t marry the first person who said yes to your proposal (and if you would, you should be reading a different web site). And you shouldn’t sign up with the first agent to offer representation–unless that person is Rachelle, in which case you should jump at the chance.

  21. lynnrush on November 25, 2008 at 8:09 AM

    >Great post, Rachelle. I like all ten of your traits, but I really like your #5, #6, and #9.

    I’m unagented at this point; however, I have a couple things in mind.

    Someone who is loyal, who doesn’t bad mouth other industry people, and who is active outside of the writing business (balance is key.).

    Also, I want someone who will tell me what they need then leave me alone so I can do it for them. My boss sometimes doesn’t check on me for days at a time, because he knows I’m on it (whatever IT is that week.) He’ll tell me if I’m doing something wrong and I’ll fix it. And he knows I will ask questions if I’m unsure of something. I like that.

    I’m anxious to read what others think about this topic, so I’ll be back throughout the day.

  22. RumorsOfGlory on November 25, 2008 at 8:04 AM

    >Just talked with my agent last night. I love that she shares bits of her life with me, and wants to know me as well. She’s a real person, not “an agent.”

    I like that she said, “I see how hard you worked on those re-writes. I know that was hard.”

    I like that she doesn’t have to be perfect. She seems comfortable not having it all together, because really, who of us does?

    Thanks Rachelle. Even though you’re not my agent, I think you’re great!

  23. Inspire on November 25, 2008 at 8:02 AM

    >In one word — ADVOCATE.

  24. Gwen Stewart on November 25, 2008 at 6:31 AM

    >I appreciate that my agent has great contacts, knowledge and experience in the industry.

    I appreciate that she looks long-term, not short-term.

    I appreciate that contracts don’t scare her–in fact, I love the little bit of “jazzed” I read when she blogs about negotiating. She loves it. She can’t even hide it. 🙂

    I appreciate that she loves books just as much as contracts.

    I appreciate that she used to work with bigwigs in the music industry, but now deals gracefully with a client who sings “Wheels On The Bus” for a living and types novels while the world sleeps. My agent doesn’t even seem to mind dealing with such clients. I really appreciate that. 🙂

  25. Anne L.B. on November 25, 2008 at 3:56 AM

    >10 Author Expectations of an Agent:

    10. Not named Rachelle, since it’s too hard to learn to correctly spell or pronounce
    9. Loves books so much that commission is unimportant, will work for a flat fee of $100
    8. Works for an agency that picks up author expenses to attend writers’ conferences quarterly
    7. Reads every word of author’s blog and comments favorably on every post
    6. Has a prefabricated platform built and ready for author to assume
    5. Has connections with a book club that guarantees agent’s author will be book of the month in the first month of publication
    4. Expert at editing author’s 98% perfect work into 100% perfect so that author needn’t worry about editing work with publisher
    3. Anticipates author’s every question and responds to it before author has a chance to become anxious about it
    2. Expert at talking publishers into a contract for any and every book—within one month of proposal submission
    1. Expert at talking author off ledges, regardless of whether or not author should have stepped out onto it

    Of course, since this agent exists in a work of fiction, I’d much rather have the human Rachelle. I haven’t seen you snarky in too long and wondered if you can still be provoked.

    Thanks for being you. Thanks for taking on the blog questions, query-filled inbox, and very human, anxious authors. I just reviewed your “Agent Process” posts and know you’re doing more than the ten traits you listed.