Does the Agent HAVE to Sell Your Book?

Kristi asked: How often do you turn down projects from your clients because you don’t think you can sell them? If you have a client who’s written a good book, will you submit the book even if you think it might not sell? If you won’t submit it, is the client free to sell it on her own then (and keep her 15%)? I think there is a misconception that if you have an agent, then you can write whatever you please and the agent has to sell it.

Interesting questions. I don’t have a heckuva lot of experience with this yet, but I do have some, and what I lack in experience I certainly can make up as I go along. Here are my thoughts.

Whether I submit my client’s project is a decision we’d have to make together. If I don’t think it will sell, there’s a reason for that. Is it a bad book? Badly written? Unoriginal or derivative? Boring? IF I think it will reflect badly on either the author or me, I won’t submit it. No need to tarnish both our reputations.

If I think it’s brilliant but there are other reasons it may not sell, I’ll probably go ahead and submit, carefully choosing the houses and editors as usual. One of the fun things about being an agent is being able to take chances on things I love. As long as I don’t become known among the editors as “that crackpot who sends us all the totally whacked proposals,” I’ll go ahead and keep taking calculated risks.

As far as whether the writer is “free to go sell it themselves and save the 15%”… that’s another issue. It kind of reminds me of leaving the hospital AMA (against medical advice). If your agent has given you reasons it shouldn’t be submitted, then (1) What makes you think you can sell it when they can’t? and (2) Why would you want to put less-than-stellar work out there with your name on it?

Of course, if it’s just unsaleable because it’s a niche market (like homeschooling) but it’s a good product, then I’d give my blessing for my client to try and sell it to a specialty publisher. If my client sells it and then wants my help with contracts and other business dealings, I’d do it for a reduced commission.

As for the “misconception that if you have an agent, then you can write whatever you please and the agent has to sell it…” umm, it’s a bit funny, actually. Part of the reason you have an agent is to have an objective person helping you make important decisions… not, unfortunately, to have a hired lackey to do your bidding! If you’re my client and you write a good book, I’ll try to sell it. If you write one that’s NOT so good, I’ll send you back to the drawing board.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

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. Fivezone on December 11, 2011 at 2:10 AM


    Wonderful blog post, saw on…

  2. Anita Mae on November 18, 2008 at 9:45 PM

    >Rachelle – thank you for defining your ‘job description’.

    I think the search for an agent involves hours of prayer to say the least.

    I’ve heard of writers sending out blanket submissions to agents in the hope of ‘snagging’ one.

    But, it would appear the same amount of effort should be put into ‘snagging’ an agent as a spouse. Not just anyone will do.

    I need an agent who will feed my creativity, soothe my fears, and embrace my dreams. An occasional pat on the back would be appreciated, as well. If these are on my want list, surely I can give my agent what she needs to successfully guide my career.

    Thanks Rachelle. Again, lots to think about.

  3. Gwen Stewart on November 18, 2008 at 4:36 PM

    >I’m grateful for Rachelle’s guidance and echo other responders. If I don’t value her expertise and am unwilling to heed her advice, why have an agent? I’m thankful she’s an agent who gives constructive feedback and protects our reputations.

    That said, Rachelle, on April Fool’s Day 2009 please put “Rachelle Gardner, Hired Lackey” on your title page. For Katy and me, because it amuses us. 🙂 Pretty please?

  4. Pam Halter on November 18, 2008 at 2:57 PM

    >Rachelle said: Part of the reason you have an agent is to have an objective person helping you make important decisions… not, unfortunately, to have a hired lackey to do your bidding!

    Richard is right ~ agent/author is a relationship based on trust and equitable talent. Each boosts the other. They are a team. Why would an author even want to sell something on their own when they have an agent? What’s the point of having the agent?

    Thanks, Rachelle, for a clear explanation to a hard question.

  5. Avily Jerome on November 18, 2008 at 2:04 PM

    >Thanks for that, Rachelle!

    I truly hope that *when* I find an agent, we will be able to work together and come to mutual agreements on things like that.

    The trick will be finding an agent who is suitably unstable…. MWAHAHAHAHA!


  6. Richard Mabry on November 18, 2008 at 9:39 AM

    Thanks for tackling this one. Despite the two equally erroneous misconceptions–that agents work FOR the author, or authors work FOR the agent–the reality is that the author and agent work together. To go back to a prior post of yours, it’s kind of like a marriage. And that means that decisions are made jointly, with weight given to the opinions, ideas, and desires of both parties.
    All this presupposes, of course, that the author-agent marriage is a good one. If it’s not, then that’s a whole other story (and perhaps the subject of yet another blog post by you).

  7. Marla Taviano on November 18, 2008 at 9:31 AM

    >Mmmm…timely post for me.

  8. Catherine West on November 18, 2008 at 8:20 AM

    >Calculated risks…hmm. Isn’t submitting ANYTHING these days a calculated risk? The more I read about how bad the economy is and how it’s virtually impossible for a new author to break into the market at this point in time, the more discouraged I become. Are you hearing that within your circles? I know it’s always been hard to break in, but what I’m hearing these days is that one may as well forget it until the economy picks up again.
    True? Not true? Enquiring minds want to know!

  9. Katy McKenna on November 18, 2008 at 7:35 AM

    >The “lackey” line made me laugh, and at 5 a.m.!

    One of the “important decisions” a client makes with her agent is which ideas to begin developing at all. So, once an agent/client agreement has been signed, the writer should run everything by her agent before getting too far into the actual crafting of the manuscript. That alone should reduce the unsaleability factor considerably…

  10. lynnrush on November 18, 2008 at 7:01 AM

    >Interesting question. Rachelle, thanks for answering so honestly. I’m in the customer service industry that requires me to be the mediator between my client and other clients.

    When I give my client an answer they are less than happy with, it’s always interesting when they say, “Well, let ME try.”

    Thanks for the great post.