The Agent-Client Relationship

If you’ve been reading my blog and other agent blogs for awhile, you’re aware that the agent-client relationship can be a wonderful, long-term, productive association, but like any important relationship, it’s not always easy. Sometimes it takes work to make it succeed. It has a better chance of working well if each of you has a bit of understanding of what it’s like on the other side of the table. So today I’m going to give you a few reminders that might help.

Your agent…

…is not a mind reader. If you’re having an issue—if you feel the agent is inattentive, or you need more feedback or more frequent communication—it’s best if you let your agent know. They can’t fix a problem if they’re not aware of it.

…has dozens of clients, while you have one agent. Of course, we try to help you feel like you’re our only client, but you know that’s not true. There’s no excuse for poor communication skills or lack of timely interactions, but if you have a realistic picture of the situation, it’s easier to maintain reasonable expectations.

…wants to hear from you! My clients often start their calls or emails with, “I know you’re busy, I don’t want to take up too much of your time…” and I do appreciate how conscientious people are. But if I’ve agreed to rep you, then I WANT you to take up my time when you need to. So don’t hesitate to make contact.

…is probably an agent because of a genuine love for authors, books, and publishing. Don’t forget this basic truth! We are all on the same side. Agents exist to partner with, and advocate for, authors. It’s not an adversarial relationship, and if it is, it’s not working right. Agents aren’t in this business because they want to get rich – if money was the most important thing, they’d be doing something else. Like you, your agent appreciates the written word and wants to see great books published.

Q4U: What are some hints you’d like to give agents so that they’ll understand what it’s like on YOUR side of the table?

© 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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 2:13 AM


    Fantastic blog post, saw on…

  2. The Cooking Photographer on November 16, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    >I'm spending the morning glued to your blog sponging into my brain your advice and experiences.

    There is a tremendous amount ahead of me apparently. I'd recognized before this process was going to be complicated, but your words help a great deal and give me a path to follow.



  3. savvysavingbytes on November 15, 2010 at 11:09 AM

    >I've had two literary agents, each pushing a mystery novel. The first had an approach I loved and would recommend to all agents. She sent me copies of every rejection letter she received from book editors. Oddly enough, they were quite cheering. Many praised the most important aspects of the manuscripts to me, which were the characters. I also learned from those editors.

    The second agent gave me zilch feedback. Clearly we were not right for each other.

  4. Lesley Galston / Sloanwriter on November 15, 2010 at 10:22 AM

    >I look forward to the day I have secured an agent, I only hope they are as open and frank as you are Rachel.
    I enjoy your posts, now back to the writing or will have no need of an agent!

  5. Glynis on November 15, 2010 at 7:34 AM

    >Knowing an agent takes the view they represent you, so therefore wants to hear from you is reassuring. Your posts offer valuable advice.

    What is it like on our side of the table?
    LOL, this is the ideal time for me to leave a link to a page on my blog. Dear Agent.


  6. Anonymous on November 12, 2010 at 8:42 PM


    The agent-writer relationship is a business relationship. If I can expect to have standing meetings with folks at work to get things done (we do monthly sprints via the scrum methodology and have daily stand up meetings), why shouldn't I expect the same level of professionalism (at a week or bi-weekly time frame) from an agent that is making 15% off of my sales?

    Second, if the agent isn't making any progress (meaning giving some feedback as to what steps they've done to move the book) on a bi-weekly basis in selling a book they offered to represent, then it's time to move on to another agent. I can keep track of the conversations in Excel. I don't need an e-mail trail to fire someone who isn't getting the job done.

    While I agree the writer should have some patience, if the agent acts like a bad waitress, then I don't want to tip them.

    Do you understand where I am coming from?

  7. Anonymous on November 11, 2010 at 7:24 PM

    >One more thing: We really hate the no-response-means-no form of rejection. How do you know when you're being ignored or your query got lost in Spam? I've had requests for fulls six weeks after sending a query.

    Rachelle–thanks for letting us blow off some steam. This is such a frustrating biz that we all need to vent sometimes. You're one of the AWESOME agents so please don't take this personally.

  8. Katrina L. Lantz on November 11, 2010 at 5:39 PM

    >I'm still on the agent hunt and appreciate your posts about the author/agent relationship, Rachelle! It's nice to know what to expect going into it. I guess my wishlist is just:

    business savvy
    shared vision

    How many times have I wished I wrote in genres you represent! I'm a YA/MG fantasy and sci-fi writer, though. I'll just have to soak in your general industry and writing wisdom. Thanks for everything!

  9. Anonymous on November 11, 2010 at 3:43 PM

    >Not one but two ex-agents used to tell me their money woes.

    As a hint, how about we keep the relationship professional? Yes, {I wanted to tell them} you haven't gotten paid for working on my book, but you haven't gotten paid because you're the one who decided to pitch it to one house every ten weeks, or not at all. Since YOU issued the contract agreeing that you were paid only if the work sold, then YOU should know that. Quit whining that I should be grateful you're even talking to me because money's tight for you.

    HINT: Keep it to a business relationship. I'll do my job and write a darned good book, and you do your job and call editors trying to sell it. I don't need to know your bank balance or that your mortgage payment is due. Okay? Okay.

  10. Anonymous on November 11, 2010 at 1:52 PM

    >Yes, writers are only human and want to be treated with respect and consideration–not taken for granted. We're not all scared wallflowers waiting to be noticed–we're busy, impatient and tired of waiting for you to stop tweeeting all day about how popular and BUSY you are!

    Like David said, we also have busy personal and private lives and don't always have the leisure of working at home or at Starbucks and setting our own hours.

    Important to remember next time you diss us online or to your fellow tweeters. So think twice before you treat us with contempt and disrespect. After all, without our written words you'd all be out of jobs.

  11. David A. Todd on November 11, 2010 at 1:45 PM

    >Two "hints" I'd like to give agents so that they'll understand what it's like on my side of the table. I say this as an un-agented, un-published, totally discouraged writer.

    1. I'm really, really tired hearing about how busy the agent is. Is the struggling writer any less busy? After spending 50 hours a week at work (for now 1998 wages), communting another 10 hours, fixing supper half the time and nuking leftovers the other half, keeping a house comfortable and cars working, fulfilling volunteer ministry obligations, the writer is lucky to have a few tired gray cells left on any given day to research, write, study the craft, study the art, study the market, build a platform, and look into how to find an agent or publisher. Please, agents, don't ever say how busy you are.

    2. The advice I seldom see on agent site is how the writer can divide his time to best make use of those few tired gray cells at the end of the day. How much should go to the umpteen different things a writer has to do to have a hope of publishing?

    negative under hopeless deadlines,

  12. clindsay on November 11, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    >Your agent and editor are only human. Kind of an important thing to remember.

  13. Anonymous on November 11, 2010 at 10:39 AM

    >Not all writers are so insecure and afraid to speak up. We all just want to be treated with respect and courtesy, like your other "More important" clients–not just after-thoughts. We are told over and over to be professional and busness-like in our queries and e-mail, then we see agents tweeting about their bad queries and mss. and cats. Shouldn't personal info be reserved for friends, not the public?

  14. Judith on November 11, 2010 at 9:52 AM

    >Anonymous said…

    Have you thought about having "standing" meetings with your clients at a certain time each week or bi-weekly?

    Oh, Ouch!! (shudder). I absolutely detest phone calls and much prefer email.

    First, it's way too tricky to schedule a phone call with my chaotic schedule.

    Second, if we're in two different time zones, that exacerbates the problem.

    Third, I much prefer a written record of "I said-they said" for my files. That way I don't remember what I wanted to hear, but actually what was conveyed.

    I do agree that there must be some understanding of frequency of contact. If I heard from an agent once a month, I think I'd be happy — unless we were in negotiations with a publisher – at which time I'd expect to hear in timely fashion about developments.

    All of this is rhetorical, of course, since at present I don't have an agent.

  15. sunil on November 11, 2010 at 2:41 AM

    >Interesting Post…I think a good hint is that writers have amazing,Awesome imaginations…

  16. Anonymous on November 10, 2010 at 10:46 PM

    >Have you thought about having "standing" meetings with your clients at a certain time each week or bi-weekly?

    These would be 15 minute updates, where you two would just talk and keep each other updated on things. By having these scheduled, I think the communication between the client and agent would improve.

    I think it's important for folk to use the phone, rather than sticking to just e-mail.

  17. Anonymous on November 10, 2010 at 9:36 PM

    >Thoughts for agents from the author side:

    We're insecure. An encouraging note about our work is always welcomed.

    We forget that you have more than one client.

    If we're newsy in an email to you, just giving an update of "what's going on," don't give back a one sentence reply about business and ignore the rest. Makes us feel stupid. Or like you don't care. And… maybe you don't.

    Help us understand what's going on in the industry. Newsletters or mass emails, or blogs, are great.

    Updates on what your and/or your agencies is doing to help your authors sell more book, or manage e-book sales or promo, or foreign rights. Etc.

  18. Wynter Daniels on November 10, 2010 at 8:30 PM

    >What a great post – thanks.
    I can only speak for what I want my agent to know, which is how much I appreciate her telling it to me straight and demonstrating her confidence in me. That means the world.

  19. T. Anne on November 10, 2010 at 8:25 PM

    >Oh Beth, I'll sing your praises all ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (available for purchase January 2011). You're welcome 😉

  20. beth on November 10, 2010 at 8:19 PM

    >A hint for agents from writers: even after the book deal, we're still often insecure about our writing. Praise mixed with critiques is gold.

  21. James Scott Bell on November 10, 2010 at 6:21 PM

    >Rachelle, I make that point to new writers all the time: You have one agent; the agent has more than one client (at least, you better hope so). Keep communication reasonable. Don't be a squeaky wheel, but do be a wheel. That's how you roll.

    For the agents out there: when I was practicing law I saw a study from the American Bar Association. Do you know what the #1 thing clients wanted from their lawyer? Not victory. Not a small bill (though that was up there). They wanted, above all, just to hear from them. To know their advocate was looking out for them, even if nothing was happening.

    Reasonable expectations on one side, and reasonable understanding on the other.

  22. Abby Minard on November 10, 2010 at 6:06 PM

    >Thanks for the tips- this is always good to know! I love when agents post about this type of stuff. I don't have an agent, so no suggestions here.

  23. Max on November 10, 2010 at 4:16 PM

    >General hints?

    Regular status updates, not necessarily deep and involved, let writers know they are not forgotten or patronized. It also makes our champions more approachable to us.

    Agents who don't touch base even quarterly, give little confidence to a writer boxing in a black fog of ambiguity.

  24. Rebecca Stroud on November 10, 2010 at 4:12 PM

    >I totally agree that the 'wait' time (for anything in traditional publishing) is beyond the pale. Yes, I understand busy; yes, I understand "doses of reality" but I also know that – as many here have already said – that being treated like the pink-headed stepchild for months upon end is no way to build a relationship (if, in fact, there will ever even be one). I, too, spent many months studying the query/submission process before I got thoroughly disgusted with the whole shebang. Quite honestly – and no offense to you, Rachelle – I simply don't have that kind of time to waste…right or wrong, I went indie. At least, I'm "moving" and not stuck in the supposedly "no news is good news" freeze frame. Life's too damn short…

  25. Anonymous on November 10, 2010 at 2:07 PM

    >Please COMMUNICATE with us, whether we're clients or not. Don't hold our mss. hostage while you try to make up your mind. Give us a clue if you're interested or not. Several agents asked for my ms. but wouldn't give me a turn-around time. Worse are the agents who say "six weeks" when it's more like six MONTHS. Then if you reject it, give us an idea WHY, esp on a full.

    Finally an editor took the time to explain why my ms. wasn't right for her in one sentence. In two years, no one had pinpointed the problem so succintly. That was the push I needed to revise and hopefully salvage my ms. Worth its weight in gold.

  26. Anonymous on November 10, 2010 at 1:56 PM

    >I guess what I most want my agent to know is how much a single, positive check-in can mean when I as a writer am feeling insecure. In my situation, my first manuscript didn't sell and I believe I'm the only client of this particular agent's in that position. It feels very precarious–I'm waiting for reaction to my new manuscript and feel quite anxious about it. I assume if this agent doesn't care for my new manuscript that it's likely we'll part ways. A single email indicating he/she is enjoying it, or thinks it has potential, could go a huge way to easing my anxiety. I think we've had good communication in the past, but I don't feel comfortable, because of the situation, checking to see what's going on. The agent had let me know when he/she was planning to read it, and it's been a while. With every day that passes, I feel more insecure.

  27. Anne Lang Bundy on November 10, 2010 at 10:52 AM

    >I'm not sure if this is for agents or for other readers …

    There are, of course, those stories of fast contacts and contracts, and certainly there are deadlines. But publishing seems to be the slowest moving animal I've ever encountered. The journey seemed intolerable before I came to terms with the beast. It seems most incongruous in a world of fast food, cell phones, and Amazon e-books available in moments.

    Those of us who come to terms with publishing's unique concept of time must not forget the agony of waiting for those trying to push the behemoth to quicken its pace.

  28. D. Friend on November 10, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    >Since I don't have an agent YET, I would just like to thank you for asking. I follow many blogs and it's not often writers are asked what they expect from an agent.

  29. Jessica Nelson on November 10, 2010 at 10:38 AM

    >Communication is key and that's why I went with who I did.
    I guess a good hint is that writers have amazing, fantastical imaginations and when we don't hear back from an agent we just KNOW they've been murdered. Or worse, they hate us.


  30. Anonymous on November 10, 2010 at 10:17 AM

    >Show some respect to writers! I know agents are busy, but they should be able to hire an out-of-work editor or get an intern to work for free for mundane tasks. Not hard to find good help, especially in this economy. Don't gossip and complain and make fun of writers and queries on Twitter.
    We compare notes too, you know, not just on Absolute Write.

    You're right–we only have one agent so the waiting game is unbearable. We need to be kept informed of what's happening with our mss.–please check in once a week or at least once a month.
    Try to get us the BEST deal possible, not the first one that comes along.

  31. Layla Fiske on November 10, 2010 at 9:44 AM

    >"But from this side of the desk, we see so many massively unrealistic expectations – all the time – that sometimes we feel like the most helpful thing is a dose of reality."

    I have to agree with Susan B. in that we need more positiveness and less negativism. Life gives us "a dose of reality" all on its own. It's difficult enough to sustain in the process by virtue of the process itself. Encouragement, maybe honest, constructive encouragement (i.e. one sentence from agents as to why they rejected) could go a long way to turning this process into something from which people can grow and perhaps write that great novel one day.

    You can't imagine how important that one sentence of honest encouragement could be to a writer who has put a year or more of their time, their thoughts and their hearts into their work.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment. I always enjoy your willingness to communicate.

  32. Susan Bourgeois on November 10, 2010 at 9:36 AM

    >I do understand your position as an agent but you asked for different views. I feel strongly about this one.

    I can only imagine how many ridiculous queries come across an agent's desk.

    Let me provide another example. In fact, you've used this one before in another way when you discussed Olympic athletes.

    Let's say a young person is an outstanding high school athlete with a dream of taking it a step further by being awarded a full athletic scholarship. Do we tell this athlete not to work hard, not to dream because only a small percentage of high school athletes are awarded scholarships of this nature?

    You never know what's out there or what potential an aspiring author may hold.

    Truthfully, at times, a query not being rejected almost comes across as an elite situation and common sense tells us this is not always the case.

    I'm not discouraged. I'm not a person who quits. I know things are possible.

    I simply feel this is an important point that I continually notice.

    Thanks for listening…

  33. Rachelle on November 10, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    >Susan Bourgeois: That's a good point about staying positive and trying to encourage rather than discourage people. But from this side of the desk, we see so many massively unrealistic expectations – all the time – that sometimes we feel like the most helpful thing is a dose of reality. I have to be honest, overblown expectations are one of the most unpleasant things agents have to deal with.

  34. Elias on November 10, 2010 at 8:49 AM

    >One hint might be to try and remain humble. Like it or not, unless an author is a Rowlings or a King, agents hold most of the power in the agent-author relationship. The sad thing is that here are so many ways to abuse that power and so few 'approved' ways for authors to respond.

  35. Susan Bourgeois on November 10, 2010 at 8:34 AM

    >I feel there's too much emphasis on the difficulty in becoming published.

    I get it; we all get it but I think it's better to encourage than discourage. As an agent or publisher, you never know what might come across your desk.

    I'm not talking about any one particular agent. There seems to be a strong repetitive need to tell aspiring authors how difficult, almost near impossible it is to be successful.

    I wonder how many writers have quit and simply stopped trying because of the continual reminders of the rarity of becoming a published author.

    I admit, I have close to two years studying the submission process and I've barely touched the area of submitting queries.

    I'm a positive person and I've always felt that the world is my oyster and most anything is possible within reason.

    I'd like to hear more positive, encouraging words overall.

  36. Richard Mabry on November 10, 2010 at 8:18 AM

    >Rachelle, I think authors–most of us, at least–still hold agents in awe, even when you represent us. I mean, you guys have direct access to the editors who hold the keys to our eventual publication. You're the Levites who can go where we can't. And even though you become our friends (as you have become mine), there's still that sense of "I don't want to bother her" when we're tempted to pick up the phone or type out a message.
    Thanks for being so open, and encouraging communication with your clients. But I'll bet I still start my next phone conversation with "Sorry to take up your time. This won't take long."

  37. Sue Harrison on November 10, 2010 at 8:12 AM

    >I agree with T. Anne, having had a very similar situation. Communication is vital. I would also appreciate an agent who is an expert guide in the sometimes-bewildering world of publishing.

    When my first (very good) agent retired and sold her business, the purchaser (thus my new agent) was not a communicator. That situation even extended to her website, which remained unchanged for years at a time. She is a sweet and caring person, but sometimes decisions have to be all about your career.

    After a lot of prayer and with the support of my husband, I eventually made the difficult leap back into "no-agent land." It's tough being here, but I do appreciate the joy of having possibilities again.

  38. Steve Bevilacqua on November 10, 2010 at 3:05 AM

    >As agents go, you seem very evolved and I love reading your blog. Don't get me wrong, I love my agent. But the 58 others it took to get there were quite a journey.

  39. T. Anne on November 10, 2010 at 2:44 AM

    >Being a writer is so much fun, and it’s even more fun being able to share it with someone who’s equally invested in your work. In my opinion, that enthusiasm and support makes a great agent.

    Having a communicative agent is the icing on the cake, especially after my last agent and I went two years without sharing a single word. It doesn’t have to be a phone call, an email is great, a shout out on facebook or even a tweet. It’s nice to have someone who keeps an open door.

  40. Wendy Paine Miller on November 9, 2010 at 6:58 AM

    >Looking forward to beginning that wonderful, long-term, productive association.

    Such a helpful look at your perspective.

    I find myself constantly teetering between enthusiasm, vulnerability, passion, fear and a slew of other feelings. I keep discovering the best way to handle the constant tornado of feelings is to remain in Him.

    Thanks for demonstrating how much you value communication.

    ~ Wendy

  41. Bonnie R. Paulson on November 9, 2010 at 5:26 AM

    >Great post!

    I think authors might still be a little insecure. Yes, the agent is their partner, but the work that went in to getting the agent to represent them is unreal!

    Sometimes getting the answer to one's prayer can seem surreal and isn't taken lightly.

    Look at how insecure my first paragraph is! WOW! Just read it. can you say passive? Leavin' it 'cause it shows exactly what I mean.

    Have a great Veteran's Day Week everyone! Hug a Vet!