What is a Literary Agent, and How Can They Help You Publish?
A literary agent is a person who works on an author’s behalf and alongside them to promote their book and get it accepted by a traditional publishing business. They work to get their authors the finest book agreements available and assist them with future writings as well as the publishing process.
Since the vast majority of big publishers do not accept direct submissions from unrepresented authors, agents essentially serve as the entry point for authors to traditional publication. Let’s look at how that works in practice and what agents do more generally.
Literary agents are your entry to traditional publishing
When books first started to be published, authors would mail their manuscripts to a select group of large-city book publishers, where they would wait for approval or rejection. That made publishing simple, and it helped that only those from the upper classes had the time or education needed to compose books.
In a few hundred years, there will be far more authors requesting book deals than there will be room for. Presses now rely on literary agents as a quality control method to handle this inflow of new books and authors, freeing editors from having to read through thousands of submissions at once.
Securing representation is practically a need for any fiction author who wants to land a book deal because so few reputable publishers are open to “un-agented submissions.”
They are often your first editor
“You’re perfect, and I love you; now change.” When agents provide notes on a book that has just garnered them representation, some authors believe this. It’s important to keep in mind that agencies frequently sign authors not because their book is perfect and certain to be a hit but rather because they sense potential in the idea, story, or writing style.
Many agents have editorial experience (just as many book editors have previously worked as literary agents). Agents will work with their authors to get their manuscripts into shape so they are ready to pitch to publishers using their understanding of what makes a book work—and, more importantly, what makes it sellable.
Agents know how to sell your book
Your agent is more than just a person who can help you enter the traditional publishing world; they are your chaperone. They are also aware of which doors to enter.
Agents can carefully choose the editors and proofreaders they know will be most interested in reading your manuscript and whose tastes align with the goals of your project because they are industry experts, effectively increasing your chances of landing a deal. They’ll know which presses are looking for books to sit alongside Tom Clancy in their backlist if you’ve written a military thriller. Additionally, they’ll be aware of which businesses are trying to diversify their clientele and whether they can effectively market your book.
A good agent will be in a position to call an editor and say they have an exciting new manuscript to share and have the editor actively and attentively listen because they will have a strong professional network and personal relationships with editors at publishers of all sizes.
Let’s see what they can accomplish once you fill out the paperwork now that they’ve assisted you in finding the ideal place for your book.
They negotiate the best deal on your behalf
A literary agent will present your work to a hand-picked group of editors and publishers after your manuscript is in excellent condition. Then what?
The agent will set up an auction if more than one editor is interested. During a series of phone calls, the agency will transmit any offers back and forth until each publisher makes their best offer. Simply choose which editor’s proposal appeals to you the most as the author; each will write an edit letter outlining their vision for how you may collaborate as well as a strategy for how their organization can market your book.
It’s their job to sweat the small stuff
Your agent will advise you on translation rights in these negotiations with your publisher and work to keep the rights to film and television adaptations for you (since you’ll earn more money if you don’t have to split any profits from these with your publisher). The advice of an agency is priceless, according to Caroline Leavitt, editor and author of the New York Times bestseller With or Without You. “If you’ve ever seen a book contract, you know how difficult they are to comprehend. I have twelve novels in print. Although I still don’t fully grasp my contract, I have faith that my agency does.
It is your agent’s responsibility to negotiate the best possible agreement on your behalf while ensuring that there is no conflict between you and your publisher. Caroline’s experience has shown that many of these issues can be complicated and technical.
If conflict does occur, your agent will assist you in handling it so that you can have a positive working relationship with the publisher.
Agents will talk to your publisher on your behalf
Your agent doesn’t simply assist you in obtaining a book deal and then desert you. They stay involved in your conversations with your publisher throughout the book-publishing process, and since they’ve done it before, they can tell when the publisher’s conduct is below expectations.
Eve is aware that things aren’t always easy, even when she has a deal in the bag and the ideal author-publisher connection. “Among other things, problems can include not receiving payments on schedule, poor communication, missing deadlines for editorial feedback, title and cover issues, and contract violations. An agent’s duties include pursuing unpaid advances and royalties and acting as the acquiring editor’s point of contact in order to resolve professional disputes.
As Eve says, using an agency as a middleman frees up the author to focus on their role as a creative, maintaining harmony between the author and editor so that both parties can concentrate on the craft of storytelling.
Because your interests are in line—they care about you as a partner and rely on your success to earn a living—you can trust your agent to protect you with the same vigor that you would.
Literary agencies work solely on commission
Let’s discuss how agents get compensated. The income of an agent is made up of a commission from book sales. This comprises a portion of the author’s income and advances as well as, frequently, a share of any arrangements for adaptations. Agents don’t get compensated if a book isn’t sold.
Legitimate agents never ask for upfront payments
Matt underlines that the majority of agencies (who adhere to the aforementioned guideline and the AALA’s ethical code) do not pay their agents until their writers are paid since they take their commission from publishers only when author payments are received, not earlier.
This implies that an author shouldn’t ever be required to pay an agent out of pocket. Publishers frequently pay the literary agency directly into an account with no interest because agents are fiduciaries. After deducting 15%, the agency transfers the funds to the client.
According to Matt’s experience, many publishers are becoming more open to splitting the payments on their end and paying the author only a portion of the commission due to the agency. You should make sure you understand how payments will be made before you sign a contract to avoid confusion.
Writing Career And Savings
If an agent with whom you are in contact requests an upfront payment, proceed with care. Make sure you’re working with an honest professional because your writing career and savings are on the line. Consult a literary lawyer if you have a contract they can review, research their background and agency, look for proof that they are authentic (such as successful clients or favorable feedback on social media), and research their background and agency.
Do your research before agreeing to be represented by agents who approach you out of the blue. You could immediately approach this agent for details about their background if you are unable to learn much about them. Or, you may request that they put you in touch with a client who can serve as a reference, as suggested by Justin Brouckaert of Aevitas Creative Management, who is always pleased to do so for potential clients.
Examine Your Literary Agent
“While I am confident that the clients I provide as references will have positive things to say about working with me, those interactions nonetheless give authors the chance to ask focused, specific questions and to smell out any potential red flags,” the author says.
Ultimately, it is always preferable to be safe than sorry if you aren’t confident that an agent is genuine.
Let’s examine your literary representation needs last because, depending on your publishing goals, you might not strictly require it.
“Holding a brand-new manuscript in your hands and knowing that it’s something extraordinary that you can help distribute to readers who will appreciate and be influenced by it… Nothing else compares to it. You’ll be a part of a fantastic and fruitful partnership if you look for an agent who has that kind of passion for your work.