Jane Friedman

Ethics & the Literary Agent: What Rights Do Authors Have?

Today’s guest post is a literary agent Q&A by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.


By definition, literary agents are writers’ representatives. They work for writers, negotiating offers from publishers until their client deems them acceptable. But in today’s complex agent-author relationship, many writers feel that they aren’t in the position to negotiate with their agent, partly because they don’t understand the publishing landscape as well as their agent does, but also because they are wary of coming across as difficult or demanding.

Although it’s becoming more common for writers to change agents several times during the course of their careers, most would prefer to stay with one agent. But are writers really in the position to speak up if they feel that an agent isn’t honoring their obligations, contractual or otherwise? If they do speak up, what are the consequences? I asked Mary C. Moore of Kimberley Cameron & Associates and DongWon Song of Morhaim Literary.

SANGEETA MEHTA: When it comes to queries, some agents have a “no response means no” policy. From the agent’s point of view this is understandable, as sending out declines takes time away from their existing clients. But many writers feel that they deserve some sort of answer within a reasonable amount of time, especially those who have researched the agent and followed the agent’s submissions guidelines. Would you advise these writers to query only those agents whose policy is to respond?

Mary C. Moore: The submission response time is an issue that needs to be addressed by the writing community. It’s become impossible for agents to keep up. I get 12-15 submissions a day. And I’ve heard higher numbers from bigger agencies. Pre-internet, a writer had to invest time and a little money in submitting via snail mail. Now it’s just a click of a button. I would love it if literary agencies could follow in lit magazines’ footsteps and start charging a nominal fee to submit, i.e. a dollar per submission, about the cost of a snail mail sub. At least a writer would pause and consider if they really do want to submit to that particular agent, and the money could be used to pay submission readers. In return the writer would be guaranteed a timely response. But the AAR would need to be convinced.

In the meantime I understand those “no response means no” agents. To respond to every query (as is policy at our agency) we have to either respond daily (impossible), set aside a whole day or weekend to work through the submissions that have piled up (at the cost of our non-work lives), use a slush reader (who often does it for free), or close down to submissions. Plus we ourselves aren’t paid during the hours it takes to respond to submissions. Believe me, most of us feel the weight of the slush pile like a yoke, and although we want to be as supportive and responsive to everyone, it’s impossible. So in actuality, those agencies that have the “no response means no” are giving your submissions a fresh look, as they don’t have to worry about responding to 50 emails after yours.

DongWon Song: If an agent’s policy is “no response means no” then you don’t really have a lot of options if you haven’t heard back in the allotted time frame. That said, and my colleagues will probably kill me for pointing this out, if an agent doesn’t respond and they consider that a “no,” then an email confirming it’s a pass can’t very well do more harm. It’s possible if your nudge is irritating they’ll remember that in the future, but a polite check-in seems reasonable. I wouldn’t hold your breath for a response, though.

But plenty of good agents don’t respond to all queries. I wouldn’t consider this an indicator of whether or not you should submit.

Most agents don’t provide feedback on a query letter or the first few pages of a manuscript, as this isn’t part of an agent’s job. Also, there’s always the possibility of an angry response or some other kind of backlash. If a writer really is open to feedback, however, how can they communicate this? By indicating this in their query letter, though at the risk of sounding unprofessional? By very politely responding to a pass letter and requesting a line or two of feedback?

MCM: We don’t normally give feedback because there just isn’t enough time. On the rare occasion we do, it’s because we saw potential and want that writer to think of us in their next submission. Angry responses and backlash don’t faze us. We get those often in response to the form rejections anyway—they are deleted and the writer blocked.

We assume a submitting writer is open to feedback (if you’re not, you shouldn’t be trying to get traditionally published!), so please do not indicate so in your query or respond to a pass requesting a line or two of feedback. Those requests only serve to make us feel pressured, and we have enough pressure from the 200+ queries after yours. It’s not unprofessional, it just makes you appear naive as to how the publishing industry works. Those responses are also deleted (although the writer is not blocked).

I like to use a 3-tiered form rejection system.

  1. Your basic rejection (most common),
  2. The concept has market potential but the writing is too rough, or
  3. The writer is skilled but I subjectively didn’t connect with it.

This system is the best I can do to personalize feedback.

DWS: This one is tough and there’s not a lot a querying author can do to indicate that they’re open to feedback or not. In most cases, we’ve all been burned by sharing some thoughts, which leads either to a poor reception or an assumption of a greater connection than the spirit in which the feedback was offered.

That said, if I feel like I have a specific, actionable editorial thought that’s worth sharing with the writer I will generally do so. It’s rare that I have something that concrete when passing on a manuscript and I’m not requesting a resubmit, but if I do I’ll share it.

I generally don’t look to see if the author has indicated that they’re open to feedback or not. If you’re reaching out to me to work with you, I assume you’re interested in what I think. If that’s not the case, then deleting my email unread harms neither me nor the writer.

If a writer receives a request to revise & resubmit (R&R) from an agent, they usually must wait several months for the agent to make a decision. Again, this is understandable, as reviewing a full manuscript is very time consuming for the agent. But if an agent doesn’t respond in the promised amount of time (assuming such a promise is made), and since no actual agreement has been signed, do you think writers should be able to freely send out their manuscript to other agents?

MCM: What you are referring to is an exclusive. When an agent sends an R&R, they want first shot at the revision, as it’s their notes the writer is incorporating. However, it should be established before the writer begins the revision how long an exclusive read the agent gets. Between two to six weeks is a fairly standard time frame. If the agent is unable to read the manuscript in the agreed upon time, then the writer is free to submit elsewhere. Both parties should be clear about the rules of their exclusive agreement and communication is key. If an agent has invested the time in an R&R, they will very much want to be updated on its status.

Important to note: an R&R is a lengthy editorial letter or phone call in which the agent requests major developmental edits encompassing plot, pace, character arcs, world-building etc. It is not a quick personal note as to why the agent has passed on your submission. Those brief personal rejections just mean the agent saw potential in your writing, but they probably do not want to see the same manuscript again.

DWS: Absolutely. That said, it would behoove said writer to communicate that intent to the agent with enough time for the agent to respond. I don’t consider an R&R a permanent exclusive. I don’t think it’s inappropriate for a writer to ask about expectations on timing on a resubmission. While I wouldn’t consider that a concrete exclusivity window, establishing some sense of a time frame is helpful to all parties. Once that has been exceeded, I don’t think I could be mad about that writer sending the work out, so long as I was notified ahead of time.

Before signing with an agent, is there a way for a writer to gauge how dedicated the agent will be to their current book project, and to their writing career as a whole? For example, is it appropriate to ask how many publishers the agent plans to submit their project to, and what happens if it doesn’t sell? Or more personal questions about if the agent plans to remain in the field for the foreseeable future, or if agenting is their main, full-time job? Could such questions backfire for the writer and potentially encourage the agent to lose interest? 

MCM: Rather than ask the agent a ton of awkward questions that you’re only going to get positive spin answers on, it’s better to do research to gauge how an agent works. If you do get an offer, ask if you can reach out to their other clients on social media, in particular the ones that are yet to be published or still early in their careers, and get their take. And you should have done research on their agency itself before submitting, e.g., does it have a long history in the business? If it’s newer, who is the founder and what is their experience?

It’s pretty hard to get an agent to lose interest from a few questions. We expect to be interviewed as well, and it always surprises me when the author has zero questions (you know who you are, current clients)—although maybe try not to come across as distrustful or like you’re grilling them. That could turn us off. Clients who are unreasonably demanding and/or confrontational can be difficult to partner with.

DWS: I approach signing a client as a long-term commitment. Ideally an author-agent relationship is one that persists over the course of your mutual careers. This can be decades. So, of course you should enter into such a relationship with open eyes. I tell prospective clients to ask me the most uncomfortable questions they can think of.

An agent is a business partner. If you want to have a long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationship, you should discuss what happens in the hard moments up front, because the life of any writer is full of difficult decisions, setbacks, and challenging moments. You deserve to know what kind of agent you’ll have in those moments. If you need someone to hold your hand, make sure that’s the agent you’re signing with. If you want to be left alone to figure things out, then make sure that’s what you’re getting.

Remember, just because someone offers rep doesn’t mean you have to say yes. An agent represents you. An agent works for you. It’s your career. It’s your life. It’s your work. Don’t let a bad partner ruin that.

Sometimes an agent-author agreement is signed right away, but the agent will ask their client to revise before submitting the book project out to publishers. If, upon seeing the revision, the agent still doesn’t think the work is ready, and the writer doesn’t think she can continue to revise or write a new book, is there no choice but to end the agreement? What’s the best course of action for the writer if the agent wants to part ways, but the writer doesn’t?

MCM: I ALWAYS have my clients do at least one revision. This is a given with most agents, so expect it and iron out that your visions align before signing the contract. And honestly, if the agent wants to part ways, it’s in the author’s best interest to agree. Cut ties and spend the time finding a new agent who shares your vision.

DWS: Again, an agent is someone who should want to work with you and someone who believes in your work. If they’re not committed to your career over the long term, you should seriously think about whether or not this is the person who’s going to get you to where you want to go.

Now, that said, if what the agent is really saying is that this isn’t the project to go out with right now, or this project isn’t salvageable, then maybe you should listen to them. As an agent, I don’t sign a book, I sign a writer. Sometimes that means telling a writer to trunk a novel that’s not ready or not right for the market. Sometimes that means finding a different angle to approach the industry than the one that got my attention.

A writer can always terminate their relationship with their agent, especially if they sense that the agent may be violating the AAR’s Canon of Ethics. But if a writer were to report their agent to an organization like the AAR, wouldn’t they be limiting their chances of finding new representation? Risk being ostracized from the industry? 

MCM: Hmm. This is a provocative question. It’s true, the publishing industry is fairly small. The AAR has around 400 agents, and I’ve heard the number of legit but not certified agents is around 1,500. Every agent has a few or more horror stories of writers behaving badly, so the instinct is to believe the agent. However, if the writer has conducted themselves professionally and not ranted about it on social media or tried to smear the agent, but simply terminated their agreement and reported the issue, they shouldn’t have trouble finding someone new. And because it such a small community, most of us have heard whispers if not shouts about those types of agents, so we’re usually aware of who they are. We don’t like “schmagents” any more than writers do.

DWS: Not really. We all want the bad eggs out of the industry. Too many writers already aren’t inclined to trust agents, so if someone really is violating the code of ethics, we all have a vested interest in that being dealt with. It’s possible that the agent’s friends might not be inclined to take you on, but at the end of the day, it’s not a uniform market. While one or two agents might take notice in a bad way, most won’t have any attachment to the situation.

It’s not a big industry, but it’s also not one that is run with any kind of top-down architecture. Frankly, agents in particular are an ornery bunch so if someone tried to tell us to blacklist someone, many would take them on purely out of spite.

No one agent, or really anyone in publishing, can break your career. Anyone who is telling you so is using abusive tactics to control your behavior. Your agent works for you. If they’re failing you, you not only have the right to fire them and find someone who does a better job, you might want to consider if others should be made aware of that particular agent’s practices.

Aside from quality of writing and salability in today’s market, what factors do you take into consideration when making an offer of representation to a writer? Do you think that the success of an author-agent relationship is based more on trust than anything else? How do you know if you can trust the writer, and vice versa?

MCM: Maybe I’m nitpicking definitions here, but trust isn’t the word I’d use, rather respect. Mutual respect is the most important first factor, as it’s easy to establish and maintain if both parties are professional. Trust comes later. Usually I can spot an unprofessional type from hints in the initial query, but if not, and I’m looking to request the full or offer representation, I research the author online extensively. I find those long forgotten blog-posts about hating publishing gatekeepers or rants about submissions on forums. I check out their social media and what kind of persona they have online. Do they pick fights? Make troll comments? Are they quick to jump into mobs? Constantly complaining? I’m all for passion—as artists we thrive on it—but I need to know you can wrangle it to have respectful relationship with the community at large—i.e. your potential reader audience—and me. And vice versa! An agent must respect their client as a professional, or they shouldn’t offer them representation.

DWS: I have a rubric that sometimes I draw out as a triangle, but really it’s three factors. You need to be good at the craft of writing. You need to be good at marketing and promotion. And you need to be good at being a professional (good at communication, collaboration, deadlines, etc). Generally, you need to be really good at least two of the three.

Now, you can succeed by being really great at just one — pretty sure everyone is thinking of at least one example right now— but if I find someone who’s got all three, it’s an immediate yes for me.

The success of that relationship depends on a lot of factors and there are lots of reasons author/agent relationships end. Most of the time it’s for good reasons that make sense. Sometimes it’s a dramatic, gossip-worthy blowout, but the vast majority of the time it’s because either things weren’t working out financially, they just weren’t getting along, or their tastes and interests drifted apart.

Trust is paramount, though, and is something that needs to be earned and maintained. Clear communication is extremely important. I go out of my way, possibly too far, to disclose biases I might have and the relationships that are factoring into any decision we might be making as a team.

Do you have any other advice to writers who sense that there is an imbalance of power between them and their potential or current agent but are afraid to speak up? As an industry, what do you think we can all do for writers to help them feel more comfortable and reassured that agents really are their advocates? 

MCM: The reality? Although we are in this for the love of books, agents only make money when their clients make money. We HAVE to be advocates, because that’s what makes us successful. It doesn’t make sense to sign a project and then ignore the author, no matter the agent’s personality. Reading and editing said manuscript, researching the potential client, phone calls, networking with the right editors, pitching the project, all take time. Time unpaid. Hopefully it’s an investment to secure future commission, but not always. So if a writer is sensing distance from their agent, it’s likely because the agent has realized the time-investment is not going to pay out, and out of necessity they must move on to other projects.

It is important to realize however that “other projects” can come from the same client. Preferably so, considering the aforementioned time investment. I like to discuss a client’s next project as soon as we go out on submission with their previous one, so they will be off writing as I’m out shopping their work. There can be months of no communication during this time. But we both know that the other is working, moving toward a common goal.

My advice is: always be working on the next project(s). This will help you to stop obsessing about whatever your agent is doing for you. It will keep the conversation going as you’ll be pitching them ideas—which will in turn reveal if it makes sense to stay together in the foreseeable future if they like/dislike your pitches. And that will hopefully show you that your agent is your partner, not boss, and that you and you alone are in control of your career.

DWS: Communication is the bedrock of a successful author/agent relationship. If you don’t feel like you can talk to your agent, then you need to seriously consider why that is. In most cases it’s in your head. Those of us in this business can often be anxious, shy, and awkward. I mean, at the root of every publishing professional and writer is someone who liked to sit in quiet rooms with a book, right?

But if you do reach out and you’re still not getting the support you feel you need, then you need to consider if this is the right agent for you. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad agent. It may just mean you have different communication styles and needs.

Agent/author is about fit as much as it is about quality or talent. There are more agents out there and it can be scary to leave yours when you feel like you worked so hard to get there, but you’ll be better served in the long run to find someone who gets you.

I think as an industry we need to be a lot more open about what authors should expect from agents and talk more about failure without shaming either party. Agents can be defensive as a group, but I hope we can get to a place where we can talk more openly about our practices and make sure we’re taking care of the community as a whole.


Mary C. Moore (@Mary_C_Moore) has been with Kimberley Cameron & Associates since 2012. She represents all fiction genres from middle grade to adult. Currently obsessing about finding a female-driven and authored super epic adult fantasy. Find out more at marycmoore.com and kimberleycameron.com.

DongWon Song ‪(@dongwon) represents science fiction and fantasy for adult, young adult, and middle grade readers as well as select nonfiction. He was formerly an editor at Orbit and a product manager for the ebook startup Zola Books. He’s an adjunct instructor in the publishing program at Portland State University. Learn more at www.morhaimliterary.com and www.dongwonsong.com.