A Call for Writers to Find Balance

By Terry Whalin 

Within the publishing world, I’ve often heard it is harder to sign with a literary agent than to locate a publisher. Because publishers have been inundated with poor and inappropriate submissions, many of them have created policies of only accepting submissions from literary agents.  This practice created pressure on the agents to find the right authors, shape the right pitches and send to the right publisher. Also, agents have become gatekeepers in the publishing process. 

For over 30 years, I’ve worked with multiple agents on proposals and pitches. For several years I ran my own literary agency and I’m currently an acquisitions editor at my third publishing house. I’ve read thousands of submissions. Every writer needs to learn the skill of producing an excellent manuscript, book proposal and query letter or pitch.  You can learn each of these skills. Now you have created each of these tools and you are looking for the right literary agent. Here’s some basics (rarely verbalized facts you need to know):

1. The literary agent works for you. When you sign an agency agreement, you become one of their clients or the authors they represent. 

2. Some agents are former editors and will work back and forth with you to perfect your proposal and/or pitch. Other agents will take your proposal, add a cover letter and get it out to various publishers. Before you sign, I encourage you to ask about how they work with their authors and make sure it is the right fit for what you need.

3. How frequently does the agent communicate with you? Do they send you the rejections? Years ago, a well-known agent represented me and he never sent me the rejections. Instead, he would tell me, “Everyone passed, Terry.” When I asked who, he never gave me the specifics but repeated “everyone.”  When I was an agent, I sent each rejection to the specific author. Maybe you don’t want your rejections but ask about this practice ahead of signing.

4. Does the agent work with you on a list of possible publishers or do they create the list and handle it? Does the agent guide your future projects and bring you writing opportunities they have discovered from speaking with publishers? 

Some additional areas to examine include years in the industry, their list of other clients and ask if you can speak with a few of their clients. Also use google and see what you can learn. Also ask about their negotiation skills with contracts and some of their results. The business of publishing is filled with complexity. These are just a few of the questions to ask and make sure you have the right fit before you sign with a particular agent or agency. The agent or agency you select is an important decision. My encouragement is for you to ask questions before you sign their agreement and make sure it is the right fit for you and your writing goals.  I know many excellent literary agents. Writers have multiple choices in this area—whether you are aware of it or not. Good and clear communication is a critical part of the process.


As writers look for a literary agent, this prolific writer and editor has seen an imbalance in publishing. He calls writers into a balanced approach. Learn the details here. (ClickToTweet)

W. Terry Whalin, a writer and acquisitions editor lives in California. A former magazine editor and former literary agent, Terry is an acquisitions editor at Morgan James Publishing. He has written more than 60 nonfiction books including Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams and Billy Graham. Get Terry’s recent book, 10 Publishing Myths for only $10, free shipping and bonuses worth over $200. To help writers catch the attention of editors and agents, Terry wrote his bestselling Book Proposals That $ell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success. Check out his free Ebook, Platform Building Ideas for Every Author. His website is located at: www.terrywhalin.com. Connect with Terry on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.


Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hi, Terry,

Great advice in this article.

I think many new authors are so excited if any agent offers to represent them that they don't want to ask questions for fear of messing things up with that agent.

But every agent isn't a good fit for every author, so it's good to ask questions ahead of time - before you get into a "bad marriage" with your agent.


Terry Whalin said...


Thanks for this comment and feedback. I can understand the author's fear which you pointed out. In many ways authors can act so needy and eager to sign with an agent, they sign with the wrong one and get stuck. Asking the right questions during that negotiation period before the author's signs with the agent is really important and often ignored to the author's detriment.


Karen Cioffi said...

Terry, thanks for this helpful information on seeking a literary agent, mostly on being careful and asking the right questions. I like Suzanne's analogy of possibly entering into a bad working marriage. It's also good to know that there are agents our there and authors have choices.

Terry Whalin said...


Asking the right questions is a key with agents--and you'd be surprised how many authors don't ask questions. Even as an acquisitions editor who sends contracts to authors to publish their books, I'm surprised how few questions I get from authors. The details are important and one of the ways you clarify those details is to ask questions.


Authors Need to be Realistic

By Terry Whalin  @terrywhalin Over the years, I’ve met many passionate writers. One brand new writer told me, “My book is going to be a best...