What is a Literary Agent?

If you’re thinking of publishing traditionally, you need to know what a literary agent is. These are the people who will get you in the door, because most big publishing houses don’t take unsolicited submissions these days. (And if they do, they might just be a Hybrid Publishing company, which often just wants to take your money.)

What, Specifically, Are They?

A literary agent acts as your representative. Their job is to sell your work—to publishing houses, and film or theatrical producers. Agents work with both new writers and bestselling authors, and they act as the go-between for you and your publisher. Not only do they go out to get you contracts, but they negotiate to get you the best deal possible.

In short, they represent your business interests.

Unlike with self-publishing, in which you must pay each editor and designer you hire, agents don’t get paid by you. They get paid by commission. Generally, they get 10-20 percent of the sales (of your work) that they negotiate on your behalf.

What Do They Do?

Literary agents cover mostly the business aspect of publishing, but they can also be of use on the creative side of things. The main thing, however, is that they get you work. They negotiate and oversee publishing contracts but can organize licencing deals as well.

They also tend to stick by you for future deals. When it’s time for you to begin looking at publication for a new manuscript, your agent will put together pitch packages, chapter samples, and queries to send out to publishing houses. They’ll have a marketing plan in place for the overall pitch, and they’ll track these multiple submissions they’ve sent out on your behalf.

They can even help you creatively. A good agent will review your full manuscript and/or collection of short stories and offer you creative insight and edits along the way. They have invested interest in you and your work, after all, and want to be able to present the best version of it to the publishing world that they can.

Where to Find Agents

Many agents can be found through a simple internet search, but sometimes it takes some real digging to discover one that matches your book.

Some great resources include Poets&Writers and The Writer’s Union of Canada: Literary Agents.

Like readers and editors, agents have areas in which they specialize, and you won’t get far with an agent outside the range of your work. Just like you need to be able to sell your book to them, they need to be able to sell your book to publishers for contracts. If they don’t think you’re a match, if they’re too busy, or if they don’t think your book will sell, they won’t take it on; remember, they’re trying to make money, too. Of course, your book doesn’t need to be perfect from the get-go—you’ll have editors to work with once you do get that contract—but an agent with often only take you on if they can envision your book’s future.

Beyond searching for one, though, you’ll want to make a good impression. Put in the work; do the research. Agents always have a preferred method of how things should be, and to show right off the bat that you have that attention to detail, make sure what you submit perfectly matches not only industry standards, but their standards as well.

How to Ask One to Represent You and Your Book

Once you’ve found an agent that you think will like your book, you must approach them. How do you do that? You could submit a portion of your manuscript based on their submission guidelines, but that rarely (if ever) lands you a deal. What you need is a query letter [Related Article: What is a Query Letter?], which is similar to a cover letter for a resume. It is an introduction of you and your work, and it works to be a hook to grab the agent’s attention and interest.

I won’t go into detail about query letters and how to write them here, so feel free to also access my other articles for more information.

Back to agents.

Benefits of Having an Agent

First and foremost, they can land you lucrative book deals. As mentioned above, most of the Big Five publishing houses do not accept unsolicited submissions from authors—especially new authors. They’re too busy to slog through hundreds (thousands) of applications every day, so they rely on trusted and professional agents to submit authors’ work instead. Smaller publishing houses may still accept submissions straight from authors, but if you want those big contracts with the best possible deals, an agent is the way to go.

Secondly, having an agent means you don’t need to worry about the business side of writing. They’ll take care of all of that for you, negotiating money, deals, licencing, etc. so you can focus solely on your writing. While it’s helpful to know enough to follow along with the business end of your work, you don’t need to stress about doing what’s best for you.

An agent will help guide your writing career in ways that you just can’t do on your own and is a great help to have, but here come the cons:

Downsides of Having an Agent

Cost: Agents will take 10 to 20% of whatever they negotiate for you. Since they’re paid by commission, it’s in their best interest to get you the best deal possible, but that’s still a large sum of money that doesn’t go to you. Whether you believe that’s fair given the amount of work and stress they take off your shoulders is up to you.

Trust is also a big issue. While doing your initial research about agents, make sure you’re also choosing a reputable one. One way to confirm is to see if they’re a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), which you can check and also read the agents’ ethical code of conduct when representing clients. It’s sad that this needs to be done, but you need to be careful in a world where anyone can say they’re anything.

The final thing about traditional publishing is that it takes a while. Most of the time, it takes 2-5 years to go from manuscript to published book, but if you think the wait is worth it, this isn’t such a bad thing. First, you have to submit your work to an agent, then wait for their reply. If they decide to represent you, then you have to wait while they query, pitch, and negotiate your work with publishing houses.

Should You Get an Agent?

In the end, it’s all up to you. If you want to get published traditionally, do the best you can with your work, then do your best looking for an agent as well.

However, if you are met with rejection after rejection from agents, don’t give up. If you think that self-publishing will solve the problem of rejection—don’t. That’s not an honourable reason to self-publish. Choose one method from the beginning and stick with it. If you’re not getting any bites, maybe your book just isn’t ready for the publishing world. Remember, even bestselling authors don’t always get their first book published. N.K. Jemisin, bestselling Science Fiction and Fantasy author, has said that the first book she drafted was The Killing Moon [2012], even though the first book she got published was A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms [2010]. You should always be working on the next book, even while you’re querying one you’ve just finished.

Related Article(s):
What is a Query Letter?
From Pen to Published

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