New Literary Agents vs. Established Agents

Before I dive into how to select a literary agent, let me just state the obvious: I am a fairly new literary agent, therefore, my outlook on the issue is a bit biased. However, I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to sway you unfairly. There is a lot to be said for being the client of an established agent, but there’s also a lot to be said for being the client of newer literary agents. This isn’t going to be me playing the realtor who tries slapping creative adjectives on something undesirable.

how to select a literary agent, new literary agents
How to select a literary agent: time and experience separate established and new literary agents.

So, what’s the difference between newer literary agents and more established agents? Time and experience. As Ben Folds says, “time takes time,” so the only way a newer agent becomes a more established agent is through living and working in publishing every day. All agencies have rank. At my agency, we have Andrea, who is the President, then we have a Senior Agent. After that, we have five Agents and two Associate Agents (including myself). The “title” of each agent depends on the amount of time they’ve been with the agency and the number of books they’ve sold. That’s really all you need to know about rankings. (All the other concerns are internal and mean more to the agents themselves than to writers.)

Established Literary Agents

Let’s talk about established agents and how they factor in to selecting an agent. These are the Presidents or Senior Agents, and sometimes the Agents, at an agency. They’ve been around for (usually, again, this is general) about three/five years or more and have amassed an impressive sales record. They have strong relationships with editors and their projects often get more careful consideration when they land in an editor’s inbox. They’ve proven themselves as people who have great projects. People editors want to work with again and tell their colleagues about.


  • Great reputation
  • Strong relationships and lots of trust
  • Impressive sales and client lists
  • Clout, clout, clout


  • Very selective, so it’s sometimes hard for a debut author to be considered.
  • Most established agents don’t get a lot of their clients from submissions — they weigh referrals much more heavily.
  • The longer an agent works, the busier they are. They have bigger client lists and they’ve done more books. For every book you sell, there is work attached to it (contracts, paperback reissue, royalty statements twice a year, marketing, foreign and subrights sales, etc.). The more books an agent has sold, the more work they have to devote to their existing sales and clients, and the less time they sometimes have.
  • Agenting is all about taking risks on writers and the possible return on that time and energy investment. More established agents might select writers who are very advanced already, and not take as many risks on debuts who have something special but need a lot of work.

So it’s a trade-off. An established agent has wonderful pros but they keep their clout by working hard and staying very busy. Smaller writers or debuts sometimes feel like they disappear on a bigger agent’s list. When you’re considering a more established agent, ask yourself what is more important to you: their clout when dealing with editors or feeling like a big fish in their small pond? You’ll always get the former with an established agent, but you may not get the latter.

New Literary Agents

Onto new literary agents. They’ve started as an intern or an assistant at an agency and worked their way up. They may have been agenting for a year or two or three. They’re building their relationships with editors and they don’t have as many sales under their belts. In a business that’s all about reputation and relationship, they’re still working on a lot of those factors.

This is often tempered, though, by the reputation of the newer agent’s agency. An agent who is hired by a very well-regarded agency has some clout already — great agencies keep their reputations by choosing great employees. And a newer agent’s senior colleagues are usually great resources, giving advice, reviewing submission lists, suggesting editors and otherwise speeding up the time/experience process. But the newer agent is still an unknown until they get more business. And their tastes and market knowledge are still evolving, so editors take that into consideration when they see a submission from most new literary agents.


  • Less personal clout — though they might have agency clout and mentors within the agency
  • Fewer big name clients and impressive sales
  • Evolving taste and market knowledge
  • Personal relationships with editors are still developing


But there are pros, too. And, again, I speak as a newer agent, so take this with a grain of salt. The pros:

  • New literary agents are hungry for sales and to build their careers. (Most agencies pay commission only, so making those sales, building those relationships and getting off the ground are very high-stakes matters for newer agents.)
  • Newer agents have more time to devote to existing clients and might be more willing to take on writers/projects that need a lot of work — they are sometimes more open to the risk of developing a writer.
  • Most newer agents have something to prove and are the ambassadors of their agencies, going to all the conferences, making the rounds with editors, getting their name out there. They’re on the up and up and have unknown potential — the newer agent who plucks you from the slush might grow into that senior agent one day, and you could be one of their loyal, long-term clients as they gain prestige.

Much like we’re taking a risk on you when we offer representation and start developing you as a writer, with a newer agent, you’re taking a risk on someone who is at the beginning of their writer career, too. If it works out, you could be in a great, prestigious relationship.

How to Select a Literary Agent: Build a Varied Query List

Take these things and what you want as a writer into consideration when you’re looking into how to find an agent for your book. With newer agents, DO make sure that they have some sales under their belts and that they’re with a reputable agency. In this industry, it doesn’t really take much to hang out a shingle and call yourself a literary agent. If a newer agent is backed by a reputable agency, that’s a huge vote of confidence (as I’ve experienced firsthand, as a newer agent with a prestigious agency). If you’re getting ready to query, I’d suggest picking a list that has both newer and established agents and seeing where you get more responses.

ETA: As Bryan points out in the comments below…newer agents won’t take just anything. Newer agents have to build reputations and go out with great projects, so it isn’t necessarily easier to get past the threshold of a newer agent. And established agents will work with stellar debuts, too! Bottom line, as it is in any other post on my blog: write a great book!

Did you find this practical advice useful? I am happy to be your manuscript editor and consultant for writing and publishing advice that’s specific to your work.

49 Replies to “New Literary Agents vs. Established Agents”

  1. Mary,

    This post should ressonate with aspiring writers. As my business owner husband always says, “You give what you get.”

    We want to be noticed and given consideration. We need to return that respect. Because the reality is: everyone was new at some point. Nobody started at the top. Not writers, not agents and not editors.

    And yet, not all agents are created equally. Personality and agency should go a long way in assessing the value of an artistic partnership.

    Thanks~ cat

  2. Lucyinthesky says:

    You are so spot on.

    I had the Agent. A huge name with huge clients and thought I had struck gold. That because they were a huge name and chose me and my book, it would be a bestseller. It didn’t sell. Big Agent had much bigger fish to fry with their higher powered clients and I took the back burner. A lot.

    So I left.

    Then I found newer agent at good agency. No sales yet, but they were hungry. And they loved my writing. And I felt special, needed AND wanted. I have no regrets at all with signing with a newer agent. I much prefer the hands on, communicative approach. It works for me.

    Sometimes it takes getting what you think you want to see what it is you really do want.

  3. Great points, Mary. I think a well-rounded list of newer and established agents is the way to go. Ultimately, the thing I found was that I needed someone passionate about my stories and believed in me as a writer.

    Great post.

  4. This post reminds me of when I worked in Corporate America, and my company had to hire third party vendors/administrators to handle something out of our expertise.

    We’d often go for the small-to-mid-sized vendors, who donned fewer bells-n-whistles, but worked like heck to make the relationship positive and lasting.

    Great post, Mary.

  5. Great post! I have come to my own conclusion’s, through a lot of reading and observing, that having a strong agent/agency behind you is key, but also that having said agent/agency really read/love/understand and connect with what it is you write. A few years ago agency’s that did not usually buy/sell kid lit, suddenly jumped on the band wagon, because the future of books, in general looked bleak, but the kid lit world still appeared to be plugging along. Many authors snagged young and hungry agents from agency’s that had no past in kid lit. It felt good to get an agent, but did they know the market and which editor/s might really connect with this work? Probably not. They were looking at the dollar sign. I really want an agent/agency that is all about the kid lit world, not just because it’s hot off the Twilight/Potter train, but because they are passionate about children’s literature. (Hope this post makes sense–Just had a wisdon tooth pulled so Vicodin is draining the little wisdom left in the gaping hole!)

  6. This is a fantastic post. Thanks you so much for sharing. As an aspiring author and a college senior looking to become an agent, this is a very helpful post. 🙂

  7. Whenever I see a new agent at a fantastic agency, my first response is, “Sweet!” Those agents always go to the top of my list, because I figure they’ll be hungry and, at the same time, have a great team backing them.

  8. Another thoughtful post, Mary. You’ve done a great job of explaining both sides, and I appreciate your honesty. You have a knack for explaining things in an organized, concise and clear way. (I’d hire you as a reporter:)) Keep up the great work.

  9. I have 2 friends who signed with newish agents, only to find themselves without representation a few years later when their agent decided the career wasn’t for them. That was a concern when I queried, and the reason my own query process was skewed towards established agents.

    I’m happy with my agent – very happy, actually! – but if I ever (curse, spit) find myself in the position of having to go through the query process again (gag, curse, spit), I will probably make the list a bit more even.

  10. “Lower Nob Hill”? LOL. As if said realtors would ever walk alone there, day or night.

    Once again, you’ve taken a topic and discussed it with clarity and insight. Thanks!

  11. I’ve heard several authors talk about their experience with so and so big-named super-prestigious agent and they usually sound a lot like Lucyinthesky’s comment.

    Great breakdown, Mary. Thanks!

  12. I recently signed with a newer agent who is establishing a client list but is everywhere getting her name and her clients’ names out. She’s on Twitter, interviews and guest postings on blogs, her blog, online forums, etc. I can tell she’s committed to being a successful agent, and I’m excited to a part of her journey.

  13. Great comments by all. I’m still new to the writing/publishing game. The first time I subbed a piece, I didn’t pay much attention to new verses established agents, but when you think about it, it’s an obvious factor. One that I will carefully consider when I next manuscript is ready for query.

  14. Thank you for this informative and common-sense post. I’ve been mulling over this very issue and I appreciate the time you took to lay out the pros and cons.

  15. Natalie Aguirre says:

    Thanks for setting out the pros and cons of both. There are a lot of pros to a newer agent. For many of us are newer authors, it would be fun to grow with a newer agent who has the experience and assistance of her/his agency. We all have to start somewhere. I remember having to apply for a job as an attorney at a legal aid office that I had interned at several times before I got picked over the “experienced” attorney. It was frustrating until they finally said yes.

  16. I query an even split but I definitely have gotten more reads from newer agents. I must admit that there is something intriguing about being a new author with a new agent. It kind of feels like we would be making the journey together.

  17. Yet another post that makes me despair just a little. There are so few agents I actually want to work with. That’s partly because so few want PB authors, but also because I feel I want some kind of connection with an agent before I query them. I’m finding it so difficult to suss agents out – often they give the same answers in all the interviews I can find online and if they don’t blog, it’s even harder.

    I guess I’ll just keep harassing the same handful of agents who’re willing to look at my stuff! He he he.

  18. Once again, your post is so darn timely! I had interest expressed by both a newer agent and an established one. You’ve provided a great delineation of the issues. Great post Mary and thanks!

  19. Another very well thought out and written post, Mary. Thanks so much for giving pros and cons for each kind of agent. I am shortly going to be in the position of querying agents, and frankly, had already decided that my “short list” ( actually pretty long) would be newer agents that I had learned something about, but this post just cements my thoughts.

  20. Ah, it reminds me of when I was a ‘green’ rider who bought a ‘green’ horse. For green rider, substitute just learning to jump hunters, and for ‘green’ horse substitute ‘barely broke’ i.e. will stop when you haul on the reins, but turning is optional.

    Sometimes you can learn so many things together, but then again, sometimes you outgrow each other.

  21. I think it’s important to say (as a person who has an established agent with a solid sales record at a large agency…) that I had no referral, no “in”, and am a debut novelist. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think there’s a misconception that landing a newer agent is easier than landing one who’s been at it a few years… I think, if you write a great book, you’ll have interest on either side. If you write a sub par book… well… you probably won’t attract much interest. To me, it comes down to the elusive “Click” between agent and writer.

  22. Bryan, you’re so right – on both counts. I can imagine that as a newer agent you’re almost LESS wiling to take risks with a debut author, because you need to establish yourself as an agent first. As for the clicking thing – that’s what I need to do more research on. I can’t find all the info I want online, so I’m saving up for New York in January. I hope I’ll meet some folks at the conference and figure out who’s my man/woman… and I hope even more that they’ll feel the same!

  23. Did you take your meds today, Bongo? You sound so. . . reasonable.

  24. P.S., Bongo. . . and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Mary must have given you what-for. I sort of miss the camel references.

  25. KellieD — LOL. *snort*

    Franz — You never told me where in NY you’re moving!

  26. Bongo: Right. I guess I’ve come across the perception that an author’s work can be lesser in quality because they’re “just a new agent…” I’m not saying I agree with this, but it’s something that is implicit (sometimes thinly veiled…) in the comments I’ve heard.

    Good luck hunting for virgins.

  27. Great post and great comments with lots of insight!

    Writing the book right is the hardest part, finding an agent and then editor as passionate about the book as the author is a close second. 😉

    Obviously we want an agent who is passionate about our work, but the rest of the factors will depend on personal preference.

    The established vs. newer agent decision seems to be a risk either way. With the established agent, you risk taking a back seat to the established clients. With a newer agent, you risk not having the clout of the established agent. So it all boils down to which risk you feel more comfortable in taking. 🙂

    I love a good game of Risk . . . hmm . . . I think I need to redesign my Risk board. Risk: Publishing Edition . . . everyone will be playing it in the future. 😉

  28. This is a very interesting topic. I will agree obtaining an agent that will take your interest at heart and who loves your writing is the best advice. The other part needed is someone who is a good negotiator and fighter for your interest. You need someone who will get you the best deal.
    The part that comes from experience is knowing the editors and having a reputation of knowing what is good. Over time a good agent will grow with the author and look for markets for his work.

    To me it is definitely like a marriage, a journey to be shared and nurtured by both.

  29. It’s funny, your post echoes the sentiments of a literary agency feed I follow. They often send out notes about new agents and list many reasons why new authors should consider new agents…

    It’s really hard to break into publishing since alot of people don’t want to represent you if you have had little or no publishing past, and it seems to me that newer agents are little more ready to dive in with a writer that is as green as a spring leaf.

    Thanks for the insight, and as I embark on the scary trip of trying to find my first agent for my YA mystery/suspense – I will be taking this post to heart. In fact, I’m printing it to save in my notebook. 🙂 Thanks again!

  30. Bongo, I’m saddened to read you think successful querying is a ‘numbers game.’ Your commitment to this blog (and its owner) gave me the impression you were all about true love, destiny, fate, that type of thing – calling it a numbers game makes you sound kind of cynical. Has your broken heart broken your spirit too?

    Mary, don’t worry, I’m not moving to the apartment above yours (although if I did, I would definitely knock on your door to ask to borrow Sushi so my daughter could spend hours stroking her). My gawjus family is headed to Buffalo in July for two years. Far enough away not to be a total stalker but close enough to come visit for the SCBWI conference in January!

    PS How about we go with Franzipan? I quite like the sound of that.

  31. Well said, Mary! Retweeting as we speak.

    As a newer agent myself (but at a well-established agency, just not neccessarily in the YA/MG world I specialize in) I am hungry and agressive. I’ve spent hours upon hours upon hours searching out editors and introducing myself. And I’ve probably sent more revision requests than most agents do.

    I think that’s probably a key part of being a new agent. We’ll consider projects based on the potential as much as what’s there now. If we think we can guide a good project to being great, we’re going to be agressively pursue that, because our client list isn’t jam-packed yet. Established agents might just send a form rejection instead.

    So its not that new agents take on “sub par” material, its that they’re willing to go to bat on 1, 2, 3 rounds of revision to get to where a project needs to go. As time goes on and my client list fills, I’ll be doing less of that, simply because my clients will have to come first.

    The first project I sold (at auction, no less) was a direct result of a revision request.

  32. Great post, Mary. I know I’ll be looking at newer agents when I start querying. But the agency they work for and who their colleagues are will also play a role in my decision.

  33. Ziggy Dragon says:

    Mary, this is a great post. A lot of interesting points, and reasonably unbiased. 🙂 Got a question: how much do agents at the same agency collaborate? If you find a hot prospect, do you talk to your Senior Agent and get suggestions, advice, info? Would they give tips on negotiations? & stuff like that…

  34. Thanks Mary! I’ve wanted to know this for quite some time.
    Personally, I think I would prefer a newer agent.

  35. I’m way late commenting but I’m reading your backlist, so I might leave a few belated comments. Anyway, this was an excellent, informative post. It addressed a ton of things I’ve been thinking on. Thank you!

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