Literary agents serve as filters/middlemen between writers and publishers, advocating for the writers they represent and protecting publishers from an onslaught of unsolicited submissions and queries. Agents choose (in theory) only the tastiest morsels to feed the publishing beast since they’ll only get paid if the industry bites– in the form of a book deal for their client.
What does a literary agent do?
For a more detailed look at the tasks and responsibilities of an agent, check out our article “What Do Literary Agents Do?”
But in a nutshell…
A literary agent will go through thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of books per year and pick the ones they feel have the greatest chance of success when being pitched to acquisitions editors at major and minor publishing houses. Essentially, a literary agent is a salesman whose main product is YOU and your book!
As a kind of author advocate, an agent will generally help you prepare your manuscript so it’s in the best shape possible before seeking a publisher. Then they work their connections to pitch your book to appropriate editors. If you’re lucky enough to attract the attention of a publisher, your agent helps you work out the details of the book deal, and (along with some legal help) negotiates for the best possible terms– since agents are paid a percentage of your earnings.
What a literary agent should NOT do
While agents play a crucial role in the success of a particular author or book, there are some things they do NOT do for you on the road towards publication. A reputable literary agent will not and should not:
1. Ask for upfront payment- Avoid agents who charge retainer fees or reading fees. An agent should only earn money if you get a book deal, not before! That is how you know they’ll stay motivated to work on your behalf. Also, an agent should not be billing you for operating costs, office expenses, etc.
2. Charge for editing suggestions- An agent will sometimes make revision suggestions. Since they should only be making money if you get a book deal, it’s in their best interest to get your book into the best shape possible before pitching to editors. They should NOT be charging you for their feedback.
3. Make editing referrals- Beware of agents who make specific referrals to outside editing services. If they do, chances are good that they’re getting some kind of kick-back– and maybe THAT is where they’re earning their real money, instead of getting their clients book deals. [Of course there are cases of legitimate agents connecting authors with good editors, but be alert and sniff out any shady-ness in this area.]
4. Edit your book- An agent’s expertise is in finding the right home for the right book. They’re NOT editors. Yes, they may have editing suggestions that come from years of experience and an in-depth knowledge of today’s book market, but suggestions from your agent are NOT a substitute for working with a professional editor.
5. Guarantee success- If an agent is interested in working with you, that’s great news! Worthy of being celebrated. It’s a big step in your writing career. BUT… it’s only a step. Enlisting an agent is not a silver bullet or a rocket to the top. Hope for the best, but be realistic– it’s possible that your agent will not be able to place your book.
6. Pitch your book to a vanity press- Perhaps this one seems obvious, but be sure to discuss with your agent the types of publishers both big and small that they’ll be contacting about your book.
7. Hold your hand- An agent is supposed to find you a book deal, not be your life-coach. They can be supportive and reassuring, but don’t expect them to counsel you through all the ups-and-downs of your literary journey.
8. Act as your publicist- Again, it’s important to remember that an agent’s role is to line you up with a great publisher– not to edit your book, not to be your artistic therapist, and not to handle all your PR.
9. Take more than a 20% cut- WHEN you finally get that book deal, your agent will get paid– but hopefully no more than 20%! And 15% is the industry standard.
10. Drop everything for you- From reading your initial query letter, to pitching your book, to inking your book deal and beyond, your agent will do a lot of work for you. But you are NOT their only client. Don’t expect them to check in with you daily and don’t expect immediate results.
No one is going to be as invested in your book’s success as you, but your agent does want you to succeed– even if they’re representing a whole roster of authors at one time.
Hopefully this list gives you a better understanding of how you can work with a reputable agent to further your writing career, and what you can and shouldn’t expect along the way.