Comma Sense: What Makes a Good Agent?

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What Makes a Good Agent?

Dear Comma Sense:  What is a good agent?  What does one do, what should I expect?  Is it okay for me to call my agent, or should I wait for them to call me?  Help, I have so much to learn on this subject. 

Sincerely,  Dazed and Confused.



Dear Dazed and Confused:  You ask an excellent question.  At the very least, an agent is the first professional to fall in love with your work, a critical connection.  Some agents pride themselves on being tough negotiators, some on being a valuable editorial asset, some on being an author’s port in the publishing storm.  In other words, the role can vary tremendously based upon an agent’s personality and background.  When picking an agent, understanding their philosophy and how it fits with your needs is extremely important.

In terms of the transactional side, an agent submits your novel, negotiates contracts, assists in marketing plans, and advocates on your behalf, particularly in cases of disagreements.  An agent works for you.  Therefore, even as a new author you shouldn’t be afraid to reach out with a polite e-mail or phone call if you have questions.  Establish a time frame for follow up so if there isn’t an answer now, then you and your agent have an agreement on when to speak next.   As with all relationships, good communication and mutual respect is key.

For additional insights, I have asked three authors to share their experiences.  First, Gregg Olsen, bestselling author in true crime and mainstream thrillers, whose career has spanned thirty years and undergone a major genre shift, all while being represented by the same agency.  Next, thriller author C.J. Lyons, who’s been both traditionally and self-published, changing up her agents along the way.  Finally, suspense sensation Joseph Finder who believes the right agent should focus on an author’s career, not just the next novel.


From Gregg Olsen, #1 New York Times bestselling author: “My agent is my career partner.”

I’ve been around a long time — three decades since my first book was published. For most of that time my partner in crime publishing has been Susan Raihofer of the David Black Agency. I say partner, because that’s what I see as the role of the agent. I require more participation in my career than merely selling a book and collecting a commission.

When I saw my sales in True Crime starting to dip along with everyone else’s in the genre (TV was sucking the life out of TC books), Susan and I plotted a strategy to make the switch to fiction. It’s no easy feat. It takes guts and persistence. We found a home first at Kensington and now at Thomas & Mercer and Bookouture.

Here’s why it isn’t easy to change course: Most agents and publishers want their authors to continue their careers in the same lane that brought success in the first place (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it). This is my career. This is what I want to do. It takes a true partner to help made that happen.

How’d it work out? I’ve had an equal number of NYT, USA Today, Wall Street Journal and Amazon Charts bestsellers in fiction and nonfiction.

Gregg Olsen:  #1 New York Times bestselling author of STARVATION HEIGHTS.    Currently, his novel IF YOU TELL has spent 50+ weeks on the bestseller list, and has just been joined by his latest, LYING NEXT TO ME, for an impressive bestselling two-fer.

From C.J. Lyons, New York Times bestselling author of over 40 titles:  “An agent works for you as well as with you.”

I’ve worked with four of the Big 5 publishers as well as Amazon Publishing. My self-published titles have debuted at #2 on the NYT list, won the ITW Thriller award, and have sold millions in print, ebook, audio, and foreign translations.

During my career I’ve had four agents. The first found me after I already had an offer from a NYC publisher, so for him working with me was a no-brainer and easy money. Money that he promptly took, never to be heard from again after the publisher suddenly canceled my debut novel 90 days prior to publication. My agent didn’t help me fight to regain my rights, instead choosing to ghost me.  That tumultuous start forced me to realize I could not hide behind excuses that my agent “would handle the business.” An agent works for you as well as with you.

Every agent I’ve worked with since has brought something of value to my business: editorial contacts in a chosen genre, a reputation as a power broker when it comes to negotiations, skills at selling rights beyond books to film, foreign, audio, etc. Each representative filled a need I had in order to achieve my next career goal—which meant I had to first understand who my audience was (publishers, editors, booksellers and readers), how my work could serve them best (positioning, comparison titles), the value of my work (how much money am I willing to sacrifice by giving them specific rights), as well as my own career goals.

To find the right agent I asked friends for recommendations, read agents’ social media, followed their sales records (Publishers Marketplace is the best resource for this), and finally, queried and then discussed my vision with those interested. Take the time to choose your publishing partners wisely.

C.J. Lyons‘ latest release is THE DROWNED WOMAN, Book #2 in her Jericho and Wright Thrillers, published November 10th by Hachette.

You can read a review of her last book in The Big Thrill here.

From Joseph Finder, New York Times bestselling and multiple award-winning author: “You don’t need the biggest name…you need someone who believes in you…”

I’ve been doing this for almost thirty years, published sixteen novels, and I’ve come to realize that a good agent makes your life a hell of a lot easier. They don’t just negotiate your contract; a good agent maintains pressure on your publisher when it’s needed, like when the marketing budget is deficient. Also, I’ve learned that you don’t need the biggest name or the biggest agency or the most “powerful” agent; you mostly need someone who really believes in your potential and focuses on your career, not just the next book. Basically, having a good agent allows you to focus on writing the new book, instead of having Zoom meetings with publishers.

Joseph Finder is the New York Times bestselling author of sixteen previous suspense novels, including THE SWITCH, a stand-alone thriller, and GUILTY MINDS, the third to feature “private spy” Nick Heller. Joe’s novels HIGH CRIMES (1998) and PARANOIA (2004) have been adapted as major motion pictures.

You can read the Big Thrill profile about him here.


  1. Great info! Thank you Comma Sense, and all your guests for taking the time to chat with us today.

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