What Do Literary Agents Do?


As author Nathan Bransford says: “Literary agents are the baleen to the publishing industry’s whale. The Brita to the publishing industry’s drinking water. The pan to the publishing industry’s gold.”

Meaning– they are filters. Agents sift through many thousands of book submissions per year, picking a few gems from the pile to pitch to editors.

Publishers rarely want to receive unsolicited or even “un-agented” manuscripts, so this process saves their staff members from drowning in a deluge of words. The agent is the floodgate. For their work on behalf of their author clients, an agent generally receives a fixed percentage of sales proceeds (15% is standard).

Whether they’re specializing in niche genres or accepting general submissions, an agent will work with an author to:

1) Prepare the manuscript for submitting to publishers/editors.

Because a book should be as good as it can be before submitting to publishers, an agent will often collaborate with an author to make editing and revision suggestions. They will also work with you to help craft a proposal, which is basically the “sales pitch” for your project.

2) Submit your book to publishers/editors.

Here is where an agent really gets to exercise their expertise, knowledge and networking skills.

Which editor still works in the ABC Division of ACME Publishing? Which editor loves your genre? Which ones are risk-takers? Which ones play things safe? Which ones are looking for something new right now?

An agent will know who to talk to how, how to talk to them, and when to follow up.

3) Talk Turkey.

If you’re lucky enough to have received interest from a publisher, the agent will negotiate the terms of the deal (territories, royalties, rights, responsibilities, expectations, advances, etc.) and lead you through the legal minefield to make sure everything is fair and beneficial to all parties.

If more than one publisher likes your book proposal, an agent will help you stay humble through the bidding war!

4) Keep publishers “honest.”

Because an agent only makes money when you do, they will help you stay on top of the business end of things, checking on sales, ensuring timely payments from publishers, etc.

5) Offer advice and advocacy.

Though they’re not exactly the same thing, an agent’s roll is similar to that of a band manager in the music industry; a good agent will keep their roster of authors well-advised, well-informed, and motivated.

Have you worked with an agent before? What was your experience like? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.



Chris Robley is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."



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