5 Tips for When a Literary Agent Calls

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I had just started working with a food blogger on a book proposal when she got a call from a literary agent, who said he might be able to get her a book deal.

That’s exciting, but how do you know if it’s true, or if this person has the right credentials?

Literary agents, just for review, represent writers. Once you write a book proposal, they find a publisher and negotiate the book contract .

My client had a long talk with the agent and he seems like a good match. I checked him out too. Now, what if you get the call? Here are 5 tips to increase your chances of working with a worthwhile literary agent and getting a book deal:

1. Listen politely and do not commit. Sure, you’re honored and humbled (my two favorite blogger terms to make fun of), but you probably don’t know this person, so you don’t yet know if you want the agent to represent you. Maybe you haven’t even thought about writing a book. Thank the agent, seem interested, and say you’ll get back in touch soon.

2. Ask the agent if he or she represents food-based books. You want an agent who has expertise in your area. If you forgot to ask during the call, check the agency’s website to see if he or she has represented cookbooks, food memoir, reference books or guidebooks — whatever type of book you want to write. If your search comes up blank, be skeptical. In your next call, politely ask about the interest in your kind of book if it is not something the agent has represented before.

3. Ask more questions. You’ll be entering into a business relationship with this agent, and you want to be informed. On this or a subsequent phone call, ask such questions as:

  • How long have you been in business?
  • Do you represent authors who might have competing books?
  • Do you have an author-agent contract?
  • Will you send on rejection letters to me?
  • Are you a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives?

After the call, do a search on the agent’s name and agency name and learn as much as possible, if you haven’t already.

4. Be clear about fees. Most agents charge a flat 15 percent of whatever money you get from a publisher. Some charge for office expenses and faxes, but these days, most work is done online, so there’s not much to charge for anyway. If the agent says there’s a fee to work on a proposal, steer clear. That’s supposed to be part of their fee. (And if you want help crafting an impressive book proposal, that’s my territory.)

5. Don’t promise to write a book proposal within a few weeks. If the agent wants to work with you, you’ll need to write a book proposal they use to sell your book to publishers. Book proposals are long, strategic documents that take months to write correctly, if they’re going to get into the 2 percent that succeed. Rushing it is a sure way to get into the great majority that fail, not to mention disappointing yourself and your new agent.

(Photo from freedigitalphotos.net)

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  1. says

    Excellent list. If I was ever to get that call, I suspect I’d fall into the group that became overwhelmed and all the sensible things I should ask would fall right out of my head.
    I especially noted point number 5 – I had no idea a book proposal would take quite that long. I think I had imagined a scenario that included a scrap of paper with some dot points and a cosy chat over a cup of tea. A timely reality check for me, thanks Dianne.

    • diannejacob says

      Oh yes, especially if it comes out of the blue. It’s hard to know how to respond.

      Book proposals are tough. I spend months on them with clients, and they’re doing all the work.

  2. says

    Great tips! It took me forever to write my book proposal and feel that it was “right,” so I completely agree with that advice. My agent told me right up front who she worked with and what books she has been able to sell. That was a big bonus and a big draw for me. She’s great, she’s professional, and she got the job done!

    I’ve talked to a few pretty well-known bloggers who are getting horrible pitches directly from small publishers or agents not well-known. I’d love to be able to tell people to hold out for a deal/partnership that feels great instead of selling out to the first opportunity that comes along. It’s the chance of a lifetime to be able to write a book… and I don’t think anyone wants to be in a situation where it’s not going to be a positive, successful experience!

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Lori. I’m so pleased that you found an excellent agent and had a good experience.

      Yes, I’ve heard those stories from bloggers too, which is why I wrote this post and the ones below. Some food bloggers are not aware of their value. Few are doing as well as you, of course, but still, it makes me crazy when I hear of people who jump on the first offer.

  3. says

    I found your point about writing a proposal interesting….this is where things get tricky. As a cookbook publisher we call many potential authors, but would never ask them to do a full blown proposal after a first call….after sounding someone out we would ask for a one to three pager, but would be respectful of their time. For sure, after another, or perhaps several follow up calls, we would ask for the full blown….I would hope that agents would do the same….of course if there is total certainty in the conversation, a full blown proposal can be and should be asked for at any time.

    • diannejacob says

      Bruce, how sensible! I like this approach. I’ve heard that established authors can go back to their publishers with a 3-pager and get a book deal, but for those who are just starting out, it’s nice to hear from a publisher who’s respectful of their time.

      Now I’m curious to read your thoughts on a previous post: 9 Questions for When a Book Publisher Calls

  4. says

    Wonderful post, Dianne. It’s so interesting the way the world works, isn’t it…and how it works today is not how it used to work nor will it likely work the same way in the future.

    Things are always changing…and making sure everyone is on the same page, with the same expectations, and making sure that as a author one isn’t being taken advantage of or selling oneself short is so key.

    Great pieces of advice. You’re always a true professional :)

    • diannejacob says

      So true, Averie. In the old days (I sound like a geezer here, but it was just a few years ago), agents and publishers didn’t contact bloggers at all. In fact they hardly knew they existed, and if so, paid no attention! They turned down their noses and thought print was king.

      I think many food bloggers secretly harbor that thought. That is why they want book deals. Or maybe they also like the idea of receiving a check. Can’t blame them for that.

  5. says

    I taught acting and directed teen actors for… decades. Some wanted to go pro – and some went to agents that charged an exorbitant amount to be represented by them. And then the actors brought me back the contracts. I would speak with parents (don’t spend the money – spend it on pictures, classes). And patiently explained that they made their 15% by getting you work not by getting paid by the actors they represent. Most listened. Some didn’t. There are a lot of sharks out there.

    And “promises, promises” from agents are sticky. Today – more than ever – with the web – there are indeed ways of checking on agents and figuring out the legit ones. Interesting, I thought the literary world would be more accountable than the theatre world. Have no idea why.

    • diannejacob says

      Hah! Nope, it’s all the same. There are sharks and supreme professionals in every business, and it’s up to the prospective author to figure out who’s who.

      Yes, these days, with the Internet, it’s so much easier. People can also ask other authors for referrals. My agent, for example, has no website and keeps a very low profile. But she’s listed in some directories. She’d kill me if I mentioned her name.

  6. says

    I think it’s also important to consider how well the agent communicates with you. My first agent said she’d let me know what was happening but I had a hard time getting responses. She was doing her work but I had no idea of what she was doing.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes. Sadly you only find this out once you start working with someone, unless you can find a former client who’s willing to talk to you about her style.

  7. says

    I put the proposal for my first cookbook together in 2 weeks! My agent worked on it with me every day for those 2 weeks. She knew she had a publisher for it, though, before she ever called me, and didn’t want to waste any time.
    The proposal for my second book (requested by the publisher) was a “soft proposal” first, during which we all kicked some ideas around, and then I wrote the formal proposal over the next month. A month seemed like an eternity compared to the first go round.
    Just thought I’d put my (slightly different) experience out there. Great topic, as always, Dianne.


    • diannejacob says

      Wonderful to have this information, Nicole. Your agent is unusual. Very few will put in the time these days. They expect you to have a solid draft first. And how cool that she already had a publisher for it. I’d love to know your agent’s name.

      The “soft” part sounds like the usual process, but then they made you write a full proposal! I guess every publisher is different in what they want and how they operate.

      • says

        I have long suspected that my agent was unusual. She’s super hard-working, just as savvy, and she doesn’t pull any punches. I love that! I also adore my editor. I even had a nightmare the other day that my editor was leaving Da Capo & couldn’t take me with her for this next book! Such is the stuff of my nightmares these days, 6 weeks before my manuscript is due.
        I would be happy to give you the name of my agent. Something tells me she might prefer that I do that offline. I will email it to you (I think you have an email address on your site?).


  8. says

    A few points to augment dianes:
    1) an agent works for you the author, not the other way around. So this is not a place to be intimidated. this agent will work as your advisor and sounding board.
    2) an agent is interested when they think a book project will be productive for them, not just the author. After all, an agent is in business to make money too. When they present themselves to the author, they want to look good, too.
    3) all the criteria can line up, you can have a great connection and seem to have common values and STILL not be able to work together. That is okay.
    4) ask for a copy of their author/agent agreement to review. If it is your first time, have it checked with a publishing lawyer. While publishing contracts are pretty similar, all agents contracts are not made alike.
    5) you want an agent who BELIEVES in you and is enthusiastic about your project.
    6) you can do everything right, choose your dream agent, get the proposal the way you want it, and still not be able to find a publisher. This is not unusual. There is no guarantee. My motto: no book before its time.

    • diannejacob says

      Words of wisdom, Beth. Thank you. And yes, there is no guarantee. I just heard from an author friend who has a prestigious agent. She shopped the proposal to 20 publishers, and all turned it down.

    • diannejacob says

      I have not heard that term. I suppose I fit that category, as I help authors get their proposals ready for agents and strategize with them. What do you think it means?

      • says

        As the term was explained to me, they come up with the book idea, find someone who can write the content, then they pitch to publishers. 50/50 split.

        • diannejacob says

          Oh yes, I have heard of agents who do that. Thanks for the definition. Sometimes they pitch the publisher first, get a green light for the idea, then find the writer.

  9. says

    Oh, I get calls like that constantly. What a bother. 😉
    but seriously, I think this advice could help with any inquiry from a company or agent –since bloggers get all sorts of partnership requests, and sometimes we get a bad deal when we don’t look into it clearly.

    • diannejacob says

      Oh yeah, me too. Yes, I’m trying to be educational, because bloggers are notorious for taking the first thing that comes along.

  10. says

    Hi Dianne,
    I read this thread when you posted it about a year ago and now went back to respond because I did get a call from an agent. Although, over the phone he sounded very enthusiastic about my cookbook proposal, he wants me to give him a year to sell it. I already read through the contract agreement and it seems to me like way too long to let any agent hold on to it. Anyone have experience with this?


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