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Identifying a Good Literary Agent: 3 Must-Have Qualities, with Author Neely Tubati Alexander

Updated: Apr 11


Whether through online forums or whispered tales from fellow authors, we’ve all heard the literary agent horror stories. The agent suddenly stops responding, dropping their client like a bad date. Even worse, some authors find themselves shackled to lackluster deals, watching their dreams crumble as their book languishes. The good news is that this literary nightmare is entirely avoidable.


Neely Tubati Alexander's journey is a testament to the transformative power of finding the right literary agent. She began as an unpublished author whose initial manuscript faced “scathing developmental edits.” Yet, through perseverance and dedication, she crafted a finely polished second novel that garnered the interest of multiple literary agents. The agent Neely ultimately selected played a pivotal role, smoothing the path to a swift and seamless publication process. In this post, we'll unravel the three distinct qualities that made Neely's literary agent exceptional and provide you with tips for assessing and selecting your own literary advocate.



Editorial Feedback and Guidance


Neely's Love Buzz manuscript had already gone through extensive revisions, but her journey to publishing success was far from over. Her literary agent offered invaluable editorial feedback and guidance to further refine her manuscript before submission. Neely shared her experience, emphasizing the evolving role of editors in the publishing industry. She explains, “Editors more and more at publishing houses are playing larger roles. They really are your liaison through the entire production process too; and so more and more they are looking for manuscripts to come in really polished and really well done, where there's minimal editing to do. Which sounds counterintuitive because they're having to not only fall in love with themselves, but they're essentially pitching it and selling it internally to their sales and marketing team—their publisher."


Neely's agent possessed an intimate understanding of the publishing landscape, knowing precisely what was necessary to make a lasting impression on editors at major publishing houses. This hands-on approach illustrates the dedication that good literary agents have to their author's success. Neely emphasized,

She was the first person to give me editorial feedback.

So, how can you determine if your literary agent will offer you this invaluable service? Begin by seeking out and contacting authors who are represented by potential agents. Inquire about their experiences with receiving editorial feedback and how it enriched their work. Additionally, research potential agents thoroughly. Many agents mention in their agency bios whether they offer editorial support. If this information isn't readily available, look for blog posts by authors represented by the agent or interviews in which the agent discusses their approach to agenting, including editorial work.



Strategic Submission Process


Once Neely had implemented the revisions recommended by her agent, they were ready to take the next step. Her agent meticulously curated a list of editors from various publishing houses who were an ideal match for Neely's book. This strategic approach was instrumental in ensuring that the manuscript reached the right individuals.


Neely recalls, "So my agent made a list of who she thought the editors were that would be a good fit for it. … We did have the opportunity to have editor calls ahead of time. So we get a chance to get on a Zoom call. They'll tell you what they really loved about it. They'll tell you maybe give you a preview of what some of their editorial notes might look like. So, you can get a sense for, ‘Do we creatively align on our vision for this book?’ So that's a really insightful conversation to be able to have ahead of time." Without her agent's expert guidance, Neely's book might have been sent to unsuitable editors, potentially jeopardizing her chance of securing a book deal.


How can you ascertain if an agent possesses the industry knowledge and relationships necessary to guide your work to the appropriate editors? Begin by exploring the agency's website. Take note of the book titles prominently featured there—are they recent releases? What kind of publishing houses are associated with these books? Do the book covers exude freshness? Additionally, investigate whether the agent is a member of the AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives). While not all reputable agents are AAR members, an AAR affiliation often signifies a high level of professionalism and active engagement in the publishing industry.



Negotiation Skills


As Neely neared the homestretch of her publishing journey, her agent played a crucial role in securing the best possible outcome. Neely didn’t receive just one offer—her book went to auction. Neely says,

It's kind of like a real estate deal. ‘Give me your best and final offer by this date.’ And then my agent and I went over what we had and made a final decision from there.

Negotiation skills are vital in ensuring that authors receive favorable advances, royalties, and contract terms. Neely’s agent had a deep understanding of the publishing landscape, and her agent leveraged this knowledge to create a powerful negotiation scenario.


But how can you assess an agent's negotiation skills before you begin working with them? Investigate the agents' background and experience in negotiating publishing contracts. One effective way to do this is to use tools such as Publisher’s Marketplace, where you can view literary agent’s latest deals along with clues as to how large of a deal they secured.



Conclusion


At the end of the process, Neely had secured a contract with a major publisher. But her story doesn’t end there. Neely already has a contract for her second book In a Not So Perfect World.


As you embark on your publishing journey, seek out a literary agent who can offer you the guidance, support, and expertise you need to make your mark in the literary world.


And during those moments of discouragement, just remember, as Neely says,

It's about skill, and skill is something that you build, and it's through time spent. So if you look at it that way and take some of the emotion out of it, it really is about keeping on.


Wondering how to personalize your query letter? Check out our blog post, “Three Ways to Personalize Your Query Letter: Insights from Author Ash Bishop


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