Working with multiple literary agents

Disintermediation has its merits. I’ve always been annoyed by the inefficiencies of big organizations, so I understand authors’ efforts to find easier alternative systems for book publishing. When I was younger, I spent a decade working in the research and development unit of a rigidly structured bureaucracy—a job that required me to analyze, recommend improvements in, and ultimately document workflow. I learned that the best way to get things done involved either circumventing the established order or understanding it so well that the existing system could be navigated more easily and quickly. I like both routes.

My work in R&D entailed considering the perspectives of every stakeholder in the organization’s undertaking, which included more than just the people within the organization. I took the objective seriously. These days, as a literary agent, seeing the big picture relevant to book publishing comes naturally to me, which is not to say that it’s easy. It’s a very big picture.

Let me give you just a few examples of the complexity when considering stakeholders in the book business, or more specifically, in rights licensing.

For some writers, working directly with multiple literary agents is an advantage. It can be a good strategy for an individual who is the author of scholarly works, technical manuals, screenplays, adult fiction, and children’s books to be represented by a different agent specializing in each category. Specialization and expertise tend to be found together. On the other hand, there are agencies that conveniently handle several categories, and that’s not only fortunate for the agent, it can benefit the author as well. Some editors acquire manuscripts in a variety of categories and will ask questions about all of the titles an agent is handling, so an editor and agent’s initial conversation about a novel could turn into a rights license for a technical title by the same author. Those specific kinds of serendipitous connections are more likely to happen if the same agent is handling all of an author’s work.

For the sake of efficiency, it’s typical for a writer to have a primary literary agent, sometimes called a manager, who serves as an advisor in career matters, a negotiator of book deals, and a contractor with subagents (subsidiary rights agents, or co-agents) to help license dramatic rights, translation rights in foreign territories, etc.

Let’s say an author wishes to eliminate the intermediary and work directly with literary agents in each language rather than having a primary representative who engages subagents. Doing so could give the author more control. It definitely would reduce agency commission fees and keep more royalties in the author’s pocket. The flip side is the extra time it would take for the author to establish and maintain multiple agency agreements. What many writers also might fail to consider is that it’s not a good incentive to curtail each literary agent’s potential earnings while at the same time requiring the agents to interact directly with the author, a business relationship that is more labor-intensive than the role of the subagent, who might never have contact with the author.

In another scenario, an author potentially could distribute his or her individual titles within a single category among various literary agents, so that each title had a primary agent but the author had several, all working in the same language and territory. Seems like a good strategy, causing the agents to compete against each other, right? Well, maybe not. Think about it for a minute.

Many of us prefer to represent a client’s entire body of work, to the extent that we feel capable. An agent invests a great deal of effort in finding a publisher for a debut novel. Many hours are spent explaining the publishing process to an author, who might be experiencing it for the first time. It’s natural for a literary agent to hope that, if a client’s first book is successful, the second one will be an easier and more profitable deal. If each of the client’s adult novels, let’s say, has a different agent, then the agents probably won’t have quite as much motivation to work as hard as they would otherwise. The agents might even find themselves talking to the same editor at the same time, creating an awkward situation in which two of an author’s titles were in competition with each other.

The trend toward disintermediation can be a very good thing. I’m not opposed to it. Change is inevitable, and I enjoy learning new systems. Of course, part of the effects of disintermediation will be hidden, at least initially, and not all of the results will be beneficial. That’s life. I’d like to know how writers would analyze, suggest improvements in, and structure the work of a literary agent these days—that is, setting aside the fantasy of an agent for every writer. It would be nice to have that sort of feedback.

4 thoughts on “Working with multiple literary agents

  1. Marsha

    Thanks for explaining the possible benefits and pitfalls for the author, especially in terms of maintaining a positive, productive relationship with an agent.

  2. Holly

    Robin, thanks for this post, would the following situation call for multiple agents, such as writing a children’s book marketed for the country you were born in but which you no longer live? For example you may approach an agent who only represents citizens of that country, writing about that country. However if I also wanted to write a children’s book marketed for the country I currently live in, about the country I live in, I would assume another agent would be required?

  3. Robin Mizell Post author

    Hi, Holly. Your question is a good one. I’m not going to make any assumptions about what you haven’t told me, so first I need to say that if you have a literary agent, then your agent is the first person to consult about these matters.

    Second, if you do not have an agent, then one option is to find an agent who can handle all of your literary properties, delegating some of the work to co-agents overseas. You’ll spend more in agency commission fees (which are deducted from your royalties) this way, but it might be worth it for the convenience of managing fewer business relationships and transactions yourself.

    Third, another option is to work with an agent in the country where you expect to find the largest market for the book you’ve written. You can choose this strategy if you don’t have a conflicting contractual obligation to your current agent or if you don’t have an agent. Whether the agent in the foreign country will offer the rights in your book, or your future projects, to publishers in other countries as well depends on that agency’s business model, and there are many variations. You can become obliged to allow the agent in the foreign country to work on all of your new projects, if your contractual agreement with the agent stipulates so.

    (I can tell you’re aware that not all literary agents want to work directly with authors. Some agencies work primarily or only for publishers and other literary agencies.)

    Finally, when you begin working with a literary agent, the agent probably will explain or provide you with an agreement stating that he or she will not be able to find a publisher for everything you produce. The agent will have the option to decline to represent a literary property, if the manuscript doesn’t appear to be marketable, and also the option to tell you after all reasonable efforts to license a manuscript have been exhausted. In those cases, the agent won’t mind if you find someone else to work on the project, or if you do it yourself. However, if a book already has been “shopped” to publishers unsuccessfully, you’ll have an extremely difficult time persuading a different agent in the same market to take it on. The manuscript might need to be completely reworked to make that feasible.

    You can establish the terms of your contractual agreements with literary agents to your advantage, as long as the agents are willing. The more profitable your work is, the more leverage you’ll have in that regard.

    If my lengthy answer has raised additional questions, then please ask away!

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