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  • [Think Like an Agent] Agent as Savvy Business Manager by Kristin Nelson and Karen Dionne
[Think Like an Agent] Agent as Savvy Business Manager by Kristin Nelson and Karen Dionne
Written by
Karen Dionne
February 2015
Written by
Karen Dionne
February 2015

Not all literary agents are created equal. Agent Kristin Nelson and author Karen Dionne have seen the good, the bad, and the truly ugly. In this article series, “Think Like an Agent,” they pool their expertise.


Simply put, a literary agent is the person an author hires to manage his or her publishing career.

Literary agenting is actually an odd career. It’s the only job in which the the agent picks the client first, and then the client decides whether or not to hire the agent. What other job is remotely like that? None. It’s unique to this industry.

Regardless, once an agent offers you representation, saying “yes” and hiring your agent is a business decision—one with real consequences that directly impact the success of your career.

And not all agents are equal—especially in their skill set.

Yes, I know that many writers only receive one offer of representation and don’t have the luxury of their choice of agents. In the end, you’ll have to do what is right for you. Just keep in mind the nine criteria below as you make decisions about hiring—or firing—your agent.

I’m constantly amazed at how rarely writers demonstrate business acumen when it comes to their own publishing career—something that would never fly in their day jobs or in other parts of their lives. Ultimately, an author who is smart, educated, and business-oriented will have a more successful career.

The same traits that make a good business manager also make a good agent.

Before I give you my list, take a moment to jot down your own list. In your opinion, what makes a savvy business manager? Rank your criteria in order of importance.

Now let’s see if we match up.

Based on my decade-plus of experience, good agents:

  • command authority naturally
  • are good negotiators and are unafraid to walk away from a deal if necessary to protect the author
  • are assertive (not to be confused with aggressive)
  • are comfortable with conflict and don’t avoid it (as in they don’t acquiesce to the publisher so as to not “rock the boat”)
  • advocate on behalf of the author (not to be confused with persuading the author to accept whatever the publisher wants simply to avoid conflict)
  • are highly organized
  • are skilled, financially stable entrepreneurs (if they run their own agencies)
  • know how to be team players
  • are good communicators, both with you and with the in-house publishing team

In addition, they might also be the author’s cheerleader!

A lot of agents are good at the bottom two items on this list (being a team player and being a good communicator), but not on what I consider the top seven criteria. The hard stuff. The real stuff.

Good/great agents offer the whole package. It’s important to know if yours qualifies. So important, in fact, that throughout this year I’m going to tackle each criteria in a series of monthly articles to explain how it relates to the job of agenting in hopes of giving writers the necessary business tools that can be applied to their careers.


After reading Kristin’s list of essential traits of a good literary agent, perhaps you’re wondering, “How can I tell if an agent who has offered representation meets her criteria before I’ve worked with them?”

The answer is simple: Talk to their clients.

You might be reluctant to ask an agent for references, either because you think it’s too forward, or because you don’t want the person who wants to represent you to think you’re questioning their ability to do their job.

But as Kristin points out, once an agent has asked to represent an author, whether or not they work together going forward is now up to the author. As with all professionals, a good agent will be happy to provide a prospective client with references.

You might hesitate to ask to speak with an agent’s clients because you think the exercise is moot: of course the authors won’t say anything negative about their agent, so what’s the point? But if you frame your questions carefully, you can get the answers you need.

For instance, to find out if the agent is a good negotiator, you might ask, “How did your submission process go?”

Likely, you’ll get a detailed account—how many publishers the project was sent to, how many rejections came in before they got an offer, who bought the rights to the project, whether they bought North American or world rights, and so on. If the agent negotiated more favorable terms for the author, you can be sure they’ll mention it.

On the other hand, if the client tells you they accepted the publisher’s original offer without negotiation, perhaps indicating their agent told them it’s standard practice for first-time authors to accept the offer because they don’t yet have sufficient clout to negotiate, watch out. It’s not. Contracts are always negotiable, as Kristin will explain in future articles.

Kristin says a good agent isn’t afraid of conflict. To find out how the prospective agent handles conflict, you could ask, “Did you like your cover?”

Listen carefully to the answer. Did the agent talk the author into accepting a cover they didn’t like? Or did he or she advocate for changes? When my publisher sent over the PDF of the cover for my second novel, before I could even open the e-mail to see what the art department had come up with, I got an e-mail from my agent saying, “Don’t worry. We’ll fix this.”

If the author says they loved their cover, ask about something else. There are always problems. Try to find out what the agent did to resolve them. What you’re looking for are warning signs that this is a passive agent, a non-negotiator, someone who shies away from conflict rather than dealing with it in a mature and productive manner.

Most publishers won’t roll out the red carpet for a new author; it’s up to their agent to fight for things that a new author probably expects should be taken for granted. Signing with a timid agent or an agent who is naïve about the business can result in lower advances, less in-house publicity, no bookstore co-op, a lackluster cover, and a less-than-favorable contract.

Remember: hiring an agent is a major business decision that will have a significant impact on your writing career. Talk to the prospective agent’s clients and find out all you can using the criteria in Kristin’s list. If your gut says this agent is not the right person to help you reach your publishing goals, keep looking.


Karen Dionne is an internationally published thriller author, co-founder of the writers discussion forum Backspace, and organizer of the Salt Cay Writers Retreat and the online Backspace Writers Conference. She is represented by Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management.

Kristin Nelson established Nelson Literary Agency in 2002. She has represented over thirty New York Timesbestselling titles and many USA Today bestsellers.

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  • Thank you for this awesome post. I will look forward to reading more about signing on with agents.

  • Karen Dionne

    Hi, Kristen - that's a terrific idea for a future article - thanks so much for suggesting it!

    For now, I'll say that my relationship with my agent is definitely as you describe. When I signed with him in 1999, we were both in it for the long run. My agent stuck with me for 8 years before my first novel sold.

    Since then, we've worked together on a variety of projects. We've even gone swimming with dolphins in the Bahamas together when he was on the faculty of the Salt Cay Writers Retreat I organize and run. That was definitely something I never imagined when I became his client! :)

  • Karoline Barrett

    Personally, I don't think a whole-artist agent is a fantasy (I know you weren't addressing me, but I'm throwing in my 2 cents). My agent got me on the road to writing a cozy mystery series then sold my  first 2 books to Berkley. Without her, I wouldn't have taken that path! 

  • Kristen Caven

    Also looking forward to future posts! Having an agent seems like a dream to me, and probably to most writers. An agent who understands your body of work and can help you find direction at a time when everything seems like possibility. I've had wonderful coaches, mentors, and editors, but someone who understands the big picture seems so elusive. Could you write, sometime, about career agents vs. project or book agents? Is a whole-artist agent just a fantasy?

  • Karen Dionne

    Karoline - wow. Mine was only the 54th. :) Like you, I adore my agent - we're a great fit, and have been together now for 16 years!

  • Karoline Barrett

    Great article. I queried 120 agents before I signed with mine. Now I'm glad no one else signed me. She is truly awesome and I hope we have a very long relationship! 

  • Karen Dionne

    Thanks, Mary and Cate - I'm so glad you found the article useful. And Cate - don't be intimidated at the idea of querying. This is definitely one of those areas where the more you know, the more likely you are to have a happy outcome. Here's wishing the best for you!

  • Mary Hawley

    Thank you, this is very helpful!