In today’s digital publishing environment, many authors wonder if having a literary agent is at all necessary. The short answer is yes. If you are seeking a traditional publisher for a novel or memoir, a professional literary agent may be more important in the congested marketplace than ever before. On the other hand, if you are writing poetry or an easily -categorized non-fiction work you may be able to go it alone.
Obviously, the method of delivering content to consumers has drastically changed in the past 25 years, and publishing professionals use digital tools to find and negotiate for literary property. What hasn’t changed is that personal relationships are essential for success in publishing.
WHAT DOES A LITERARY AGENT DO?
A literary agent represents you and your work of fiction or non-fiction to book publishers, and sometimes to television/film producers or other content outlets. You could think of the literary agent as your salesperson. Professional agents charge a standard fee for their services: 15% of the author’s earnings on any sale, both initially and for the life of the book.
There is more to the profession than selling a book project. The literary agent often serves as your legal guide, marketer, contract negotiator, accountant, psychologist and personal coach.
When the agent sells your work, you don’t get paid directly by the publisher, unless you have some special deal. You get paid by the agent. For example, if an agent sells your work to a publisher such as Random House or Simon & Schuster, for, say, a $25,000 advance plus 8% royalty on sales over 10,000 copies, the publisher will send a check directly to your agent. Of the advance, the agent will keep $3,750 (at 15%) and send you a check for $21,250. They’ll also get their cut from any future earnings from that specific project.
Many deals these days are smaller than they once were, but the transactions work pretty much the same way whether the sale price ranges from millions to less than $1,000.
The agent’s job is not only to find a buyer for your work but to obtain the best royalty rates and terms for your project. Good literary agents work with major publishing houses because big publishers often pay more than small ones, though an agent may seek a deal with a university or smaller press, depending on the nature of the project.
Working with an agent provides you with some distinct advantages. They have strong relationships with established houses. And they know what type of material editors may need to round out their particular lists for an imprint or fill a hole in their seasonal schedule. Thus their success rates are higher for placing your project with a publisher than if you go it alone.
Remember: unlike hiring a lawyer or an employee, the author is not allowed to choose an agent; the agent chooses the author.
HOW CAN I GET READY TO ATTRACT THE RIGHT AGENT?
What you the author can do, however, is present the best case for why the agent would do well to take you on. At that point, you become the salesman. To attract a professional agent is your job. That’s where all this business about query letters and proposals and outlines and having a “platform” or online following comes into play.
Writer’s Digest has an excellent article on how to write the perfect query letter to an agent.
Forbes Communications has some tips on how to build an author platform.
Jane Friedman has an excellent article on how to write a book proposal.
SO, HOW DO I FIND THE PERFECT LITERARY AGENT?
Not all agents are reputable or effective. Before you even get to the stage of pitching a project, do your homework. Know who you are approaching—what kinds of projects they have sold, what categories interest them, whether they are new or seasoned on the job. Are they likely to really “get” and be passionate about your work?
What may seem like a dream project for one agent may hold no interest for another.
When an agent makes an offer of representation, you want to be sure he or she is the right person for the job. You don’t automatically have to snag the first agent who comes along.
Here are a few ways to search for an agent:
- Decide what category is an appropriate fit for your manuscript, such as romance, mystery, non-fiction, memoir.
- Read the foreword and afterword of books similar to yours to see if the author mentioned his/her agent’s name. This person may be more likely to be interested in your work. TIP: Consider picking books that are a few years old. If an agent just sold a book exactly like yours that released this year, he/she may not be interested in a similar one this year. But a manuscript comparable to one he/she agented three years ago may catch her eye.
- Search for the agent or agency by name on the Internet. Visit their website and read their bios. Find out not only what interests them on the job, but how they spend their leisure time.
- Attend a writer’s conference and secure a book pitch with an agent, or at least note the names of the agents who are presenting. Even if you are not directly pitching them, explore whether they represent books similar to yours.
- Investigate online lists of literary agents. Here are a few to consider:
- Authorlink.com, Find an Agent selective list of about 30 top agents vetted for professionalism. FREE
- AgentQuery.com. About 1,000 agent listings. FREE
- Literary Marketplace. Expensive. About $400 plus.
- Publishers Marketplace. Relatively expensive, $300/year.
- Querytracker.net.About 2400 agent listings. FREE
- Writers Digest’s The Guide to Literary Agents blog. FREE
- Writersmarket.com. About 400 to 600 agent listings. Subscription: About $72 per year.
When searching for a literary agent make sure they handle your type of material. You probably don’t want to query a children’s agent with a murder mystery.
HOW TO SEPARATE GOOD LITERARY AGENTS FROM BAD ONES
Sometimes a great deal of money can be involved in the sale of your book (we certainly hope so); you’ll want an agent with integrity.
One way to start your investigation is to ask around. When you have made a list of several agents that look appealing to you, ask colleagues, writers’ groups and organizations, and editorial services. Also, search for reviews or ratings on the Internet.
The Association of Authors Representatives has a strict code of ethics that member agents must follow. Many good agents do not belong to the AAR, but the best agents adhere to the AAR code of ethics, whether they are members or not.
A reputable agent will follow these basic principles:
- A good agent will keep a separate bank account for the client he/she represents. He or she will deposit funds received from the publisher promptly and make payment of earnings due promptly.
- The agent should fully disclose to the client as soon as possible the possibility that a deal is working.
- An agent should not receive a secret profit in connection with any transaction involving a client.
- The agent’s books should be open to the client at all times concerning the client’s transactions.
- You have the right to dispute the agency’s royalty figures if you notify them in writing. And they have a period (usually about 90 days) to settle the dispute.
- Your affairs should be treated as private and confidential at all times except for information disclosed to interested parties as part of the process of making the sale or placing rights.
- The practice of a literary agent charging a client or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works, including outlines and proposals is subject to serious abuse. The publishing industry frowns upon such charges unless they are to cover the actual cost of returning materials.
- The compensation for agency services is subject to the client’s approval, as pass-along charges incurred by the agency in the client’s behalf, such as long distance calls, special messenger fees, and These fees should only be charged if the client has agreed to reimburse such expenses.
- The agent should keep the client apprised of all offers or declines for the work.
- The agent should never represent both the buyer and the seller in the same transaction. In other words, if an agent sells your work and is paid a commission from the sale, that agent may not also charge you a fee for selling the work. That would be double compensation.
We wish you well in your search for representation.
If you have questions or concerns, feel free to comment. We welcome your feedback.
And do check out or FIND AN AGENT recommendations on Authorlink.com
Also, you may want to take a look at HOW TO GET YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED