Publishing Assistant vs “Actual” Literary Agent

Here’s a question from a recent webinar about a publishing assistant reading a writer’s work rather than an “actual” literary agent:

What can we do to ensure that an actual agent sees my query? I’ve received rejection letters directly from publishing assistants, therefore I know that the agent hasn’t seen my query or sample work. Perhaps the agent would have liked it, but if he or she wasn’t able to see it, then both the agent and I miss out on what could have been a wonderful opportunity.

literary agent assistant, publishing assistant
Ditch the toxic publishing assistant attitude. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to have a patient, well-trained, excited pair of eyes on your manuscript…and to get a very close ally within the agency you’ve queried.

This writer seems to have what I would call Assistant Attitude. It’s a belief that the literary agent assistant isn’t really important and that only the big names at an agency can make or break a writer’s chances at representation. A lot of (beginning) writers think very poorly of publishing assistants and are shocked — shocked! — to learn that these are the people reading their queries.

The Strengths of a Publishing Assistant

You’re More Likely to Get a Timely Response

I invite everyone currently suffering from a case of Assistant Attitude to consider, perhaps, the complete opposite viewpoint. The truth is, publishing are amazing. Especially when it comes to going through the slush. First off, they are often the hard-working, unappreciated souls who make sure your queries get a response. Would you rather you submission languish in obscurity while a big shot agent caters to clients, makes book deals, speaks at conferences — you know, agents — for a few months or years, or would you rather an eagle-eyed publishing assistant go through submissions and respond to you in a timely manner?

They’re More Likely to Give Your Work Careful Consideration

Here’s another thing to consider: Publishing assistants are hired directly by the agent and know the agent’s tastes intimately. They also tend to pay more attention while reading. Would you rather a literary agent assistant read the whole query and sample or the agent glance at it and reject after reading a sentence because they are overwhelmed with a deluge of other submissions?

Assistants are also on the hunt and spend more time and energy giving writers a chance. A really busy agent may not invest a lot of time on a promising-but-not-ready-yet writer. Their publishing assistant, though, could really spearhead a writer’s growth and give someone some editorial feedback, a shot to revise, an invitation to resubmit, a phone call, etc. Some assistants can even take on their own clients (see how to select a literary agent for more thoughts on this). Since this is a chance for a literary agent assistant to prove him or herself — and use the training they’ve received directly from the agent you’re targeting — most assistants and new agents are really hungry and eager to lavish prospective clients with attention.

They Have Access to the Agents

Finally, literary agent assistants are often the ones who champion things they find and recommend them to their bosses. “Stop what you’re doing and read this right now. It came in through the slush but it’s really good” is a very compelling argument when it comes from the right source. Who do you think an agent will listen to? A random query or a personal recommendation from their trusted colleague?

I don’t have a full-time publishing assistant because I work from home, but I do have a wonderful, savvy, genius intern-slash-reader. My intern sometimes cruises my slush and picks out which queries sound the most promising. Sometimes, she emails me to tell me that I need to request something ASAP OMG it is the single best thing she’s ever read. (My intern can get really enthusiastic and persuasive.) So what do I do? If I’m near a computer, I zoom immediately over to that query to see what’s getting her so excited, of course. My intern is a tough cookie and has very discriminating taste — like me — and so I trust her judgment completely. When she gets excited, I’m often not far behind.

Publishing Assistants Are People, Too

Assistant Attitude is toxic and it’s actually the writer missing out on the opportunity of a patient, well-trained, excited pair of eyes on their manuscript…and to get a very close ally within the agency they’ve queried. Assistants are people, too, and some of the smartest, brightest, and most dedicated I’ve ever met, to boot.

My manuscript editing services will help you improve your project so it has a better chance at rising to the top of the slush.

34 Replies to “Publishing Assistant vs “Actual” Literary Agent”

  1. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for explaining the system! Being an assistant sounds exhausting, but fun. Which brings me to my question–what happens to assistants when they finish their term or internship? Do most go on to be agents or head into publishing houses? Do many get out of the book game altogether?



  2. Anyone with “Assistant Attitude” might want to ponder this: TWILIGHT was picked out and championed by Jodi Reamer’s assistant. I believe Stephenie Meyer thanks her in the acknowledgments….

  3. I am represented by an assistant, and she is FABULOUS. Her enthusiasm cannot be matched, nor can her turnaround time. Plus, she knows her stuff. She worked at a big house as an editor, and so when she offered me representation she sent me a 6-page, over-the-moon list of revision ideas–all of which took my book and brought out the strengths to a new degree. She works closely with the agents at her agency, and when it comes time to send to publishers she’ll be pitching alongside an agent who has a list of draw-dropping sales. As she garners more sales experience, she’ll be promoted to associate agent and then they’ll find another talented, promising person to be the new assistant.

    Thanks for this post, Mary.

  4. Wonderful post, as always. I’ve seen this a lot on blogs and in forums and I think it’s a shame. Like you said, I’d rather *somebody* read my query. If it’s an assistant who takes the time and then forwards it on to an agent who’s busy working with clients then that’s fine. I think the Assistant Attitude just comes from a lack of understanding about (read: lack of research in) the industry and what agents really do with their time.

  5. I think assistants are properly referred to as “godsends.” (C.f. Janet Reid.)

  6. One of my full requests came directly from an assistant. The rejection came from the agent. It blew my mind that at least two pairs of eyes were considering my work.

  7. J.K. Rowling was also plucked out of the slush pile by an Assistant! Wonderful blog post — thanks so much for sharing (I also enjoyed your link back to the conversation about newer vs. established agents).

  8. Priscilla Mizell says:

    Your intern sounds awesome! Thanks for the blog post.

  9. One of my most enthusiastic full requests came from a reader at a big agency. She called me up after reading my query to request the full and compliment me on the premise, and when she finished reading the MS, she dropped me a note to let me know she was handing it off to her boss with her enthusiastic seal of approval.

    I knew not to get my hopes up because the actual agent hadn’t seen it yet – and I was right not to! But my correspondence with the reader made me very happy. If she happened to be taking on clients someday, I’d contact her in a heartbeat.

  10. I have an email archived from an enthusiastic assistant and re-read it whenever I need a pick me up. (Which, in this business, is often, lol.)

  11. Thanks, Mary, for this post. I’ve only been reading your posts for the last few weeks, but I think this, like so many of your entries, is spot on. What it comes down to – bottom line – is respect. If writers, of whatever level, want to be respected, they need to treat those who take the time to read their work with respect. It’s what I teach my kids with regards to their teachers and their peers. It’s just common courtesy, or at least it should be.

  12. I love this post. One of my favorite blogs was one by an anonymous intern (the intern) who retired a while ago. I liked her blog so much, I used her as a freelance editor on my book and she did a great job. I love interns and assistants, they rock!

  13. Chelsea Pitcher says:

    This is such a great post. I recently received a request from an assistant, who was super sweet and very efficient. She even emailed me back to let me know my submission was received. I think it’s important to remember that assistants have to be diligent in order to survive in this business, and it’s unfair to act like they’re some kind of roadblock. Plus, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a junior agent’s profile read: “She began as an intern/assistant at this agency.”

    The bottom line: it’s easy to blame others for the rejections we get, but in reality it tends to come down to A) the concept isn’t right for that particular agent or B) the writing just isn’t there yet. Thanks, Mary!

  14. Whenever possible, I always try to seek out the “right” assistant by name, because an assistant is more likely to be looking for something new to find, than an agent who’s already too overworked with their paying clients.
    We’re all looking for that big break, why shouldn’t they? 🙂

  15. I’ve searched out assistants’ contact details because I figure they’ll be less jaded than their bosses… and so might be more willing to take a risk/stick their neck out. My experiences have all been good. You do tend to get more feedback from them too, especially if you can personalise the query to the assistant somehow (which I did with one).

    That said, I did have one email from an editor’s intern that was hilarious in its condescending awfulness. I wish I could spill the details. But that would be mean… and condescending.

  16. Stephanie Myers was actually plucked from the slush pile by an assistant. I think that about covers it.

  17. Thanks for your post! Writers can get discouraged sometimes, especially if they’re unpublished and only see their side of the querying. Reminders that everyone is a part of the process help writers refocus their energy positively on the project.

  18. Well-said.
    Considering the massive volume of queries agents receive, isn’t another pair of eyes just a blessing? When querying it’s easy for writers to forget that agents sooooo want to find something yummy in their slush. Ditto for the agent’s assistant or helpful eagle-eyed intern.
    Thanks, Mary!

  19. Your post reminds me of something a former boss said about the university where we worked, to the effect that you want to make sure you are in with the administrative assistants, because they’re the one who make things work.

    It’s slightly different from an agent’s assistant or intern, but both admin assistants and agents’ assistants and interns are know what they are doing. The biggest difference is that administrative assistants seldom have the opportunity to become university faculty, while agents’ assistants and interns will gain experience to go with their competency, so that someday given the right circumstances, they too will be able to become agents.

    The other point is that we all have to start somewhere, and that includes writers. We new writers wouldn’t want agents to say something similar about about a new writer, would we?

  20. This is the topic that usually has me sending people to Stephenie Meyer’s website: “My big break came in the form of an assistant at Writers House…”

  21. I <3 assistants/interns/slush readers. I've had a few of them write me very nice letters too.

  22. When my YA novel chapters were doing the rounds late last year it was an agency assistant who requested a full read and then (less than a month later) gave critical feedback and welcomed a re-read once changes had been made.

    If a query/submission doesn’t interest the assistant then it’s unlikely to interest the agent.

  23. I am an agency assistant and my colleagues and I LOVED this post! We are always first port of call for any submissions. If I love something, I am very vocal about it. Of the four slush pile submissions I have been cheerleading in the last 6 months ALL have been taken on by agents – three by us, and one decided to go to another agency (BOO!).

    We are young, and hungry, and know our agents’ tastes inside out. If it wasn’t for us, they wouldn’t have the time to read anything! I get so frustrated when unpublished authors are rude or snippy to me and this post was like an ice-cold can of Coke on a hot day.

  24. Couldn’t agree more, great post Mary! There is more chance of getting published with the assistant than without one. I don’t know where you agents fit it all in.

  25. Melissa K says:

    Thanks, Mary! Insightful as always.

  26. I think this author is really missing out!

    On the editorial side I think assistants can be just as important.

    REJECTIONS from assistants can be very helpful. When I get a letter, ADDRESSED to ME, with specific feedback on WHY my work isn’t right yet, I do a little dance. When something gets plucked from the slush it means I’m doing something right! When they tell me what’s not working yet, I have an opportunity to fix it.

    After I fix it, I do another little dance.

  27. Really true about the assistants having some fresh enthusiasm. I would think it would be better to get them to champion you than to go straight to the agent. : )

  28. Joyce Lansky says:

    Great post. Maybe I should send the assistant some chocolates, or better yet, an outstanding query letter. 😉

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