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What Does a Literary Agent Do?

Whether you’ve just started writing the next great novel or have finished a collection of short stories or a nonfiction piece, you’ve probably heard you need to work with a literary agent to get published. If you want to take the traditional publishing route, this is mostly true.

Few publishing companies accept unsolicited manuscripts. This means you will need a literary agent to get you in the door and represent your interests with publishers.

Literary Agent 101

Basically, a literary agent is your professional representation. He or she is your liaison and intermediary to publishing companies, filmmakers, theatrical organizations, and any other parties that publish, invest in, or use your written work.

Your agent will help you negotiate a decent book contract. In return, you will need to pay him or her a fee of anywhere from 10% to 20% of your advance and royalties. If your royalty rate is 15% of your book’s sale price, for example, and your agent’s rate is also 15%, your net royalty payment will be 12.75%, with 2.25% going to your agent.

A good literary agent can negotiate many different types of contracts for you, including book publishing rights, foreign rights, audiobook rights, eBook rights, film adaptations, etc. He or she will help you from both a business and a creative perspective, managing the following:

  • Keeping track of publishers’ submission requirements

  • Assembling query letters and book proposals for publishing companies

  • Reviewing your manuscript

  • Offering editing suggestions and feedback about your work

  • Getting publishing companies to look at your manuscript

  • Landing and negotiating a publishing contract

  • Liaising with your publisher to arrange speaking engagements and book signings

  • Facilitating licensing agreements

  • Keeping track of your royalty statements and performing other logistical tasks

The Upside to Working with a Literary Agent

1. Working with a literary agent can help you focus on writing. You won’t need to worry about pitching your book and then making endless business decisions. Instead, you can mostly leave the process in your agent’s hands while you move on to writing your next manuscript.

2. A literary agent will aim to land you the best publishing deal possible. Your agent gets paid only when you do, and only as a percentage of your earnings, so negotiating high payments for you is in the agent’s best interest.

3. Agents know the literary market and can advise you on what types of manuscripts publishers are looking for. After you’re published, your agent can help you plan a successful book tour, can hire a publicist, and can offer career advice. Since your agent is paid from your book sales, like you, he or she is motivated to help you sell as many books as possible.

The Downside to Working with a Literary Agent

A great literary agent is invaluable and essential to your traditional publishing career. However, if your literary agent turns out to be inexperienced, self-interested, or even a fraud, you could find your writing aspirations quickly grinding to a halt.

To avoid jumping into business with the wrong partner, do your research. Make sure the agent you’re considering working with is a member of the US Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), the UK Association of Authors' Agents (AAA), the Australian Literary Agents’ Association (ALAA), or a similar reputable organization in your country.

One red flag would be if an agent tries to charge you any money upfront. Your literary agent is paid only when you receive payments from your publisher, never before! Also be wary of agents who charge what they might call a “reader’s fee” to review your query letter and submission.

Trust your gut. If something seems off about an agent’s website or way or operating, move on to your next option.

Another minor consideration is that finding and working with an agent takes longer than either self-publishing, which we discuss below, or submitting your material to publishers directly. Your agent will need time to prepare and submit book proposals and query letters to publishers on your behalf. Then, there will be a wait time while he or she negotiates and finalizes your contract. However, because a majority of publishers require that you submit through an agent, this wait time is generally unavoidable in traditional publishing.

Self-Publishing as an Alternative

If you’re not keen on working with an agent, are looking to get your book to the market faster than is possible with traditional publishing, and are motivated and not intimidated by having to learn the ropes, you may want to consider self-publishing your book.

Depending on which platform you sell through, you could keep up to 70% of profits from your book sales, and you would have more control over the content, the launch, and the marketing of your book.

To ensure the quality of your book and expand its reach, explore our list of resources for self-published authors, where you can learn more about investing in editing services and getting help with marketing.

Getting Started with a Query Letter

If you decide you do want to work with a literary agent and pursue traditional publishing, we can help!

Our team can craft the perfect query letter to hook agents (or publishers), provide a list of targeted agents for your manuscript, and create supplemental materials agents might request, such as synopses and chapter outlines.



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