In essence, a literary agent is someone who helps to sell your book to publishers. They know the publishers, they know how to talk to them, and they can help “smooth” the way of your book into an acceptance. Think of them as a paid salesperson.
Most smaller publishers don’t require an agent – you can submit to them directly. On the other hand, most larger publishers do require an agent. They are just so flooded with submissions that they’d rather have agents do the pre-screening for them. If something comes in through an agent, there is the expectation that the agent properly made sure it was suitable before submitting it. Otherwise the agent won’t be allowed to submit going forward.
So it’s good to know what an agent is, but there’s no need to go out and hire one just yet. If you end up deciding you’re a perfect fit for a publishing house that requires an agent, then that would be the time to do your research.
If you decide you do want (or need) to use an agent, here’s some things to know.
The agent’s job is to work for YOU, the author. They should never require a payment up front. They get paid when the work sells. A standard fee is about 15%. That’s a substantial amount of your profits for someone who simply reads your book and then hands it over to the publishing house – but that’s how the traditional system works. A lot of money changes hands ?.
How do you find a good literary agent?
First, use a site like Writer’s Market to search through agents by genre. Build a list of ones in your chosen genre who are actively seeking to bring on new clients. Do research on each one. How big is their stable of writers? Anyone you recognize from the genre? How long have they been in business?
Look at their list of successful clients. Then contact a few of them. Were they happy with the process? Was the agent responsive? Did they think it was worth the investment – over a lifetime – of their book profits?
Don’t rely on the agent’s chosen list of references. Those are of course the ‘best of the best’. Instead, make those contacts yourself. That way you get a better cross-section of people.
Also, keep in mind that the ones shown as success stories are the ones who worked out. For every one name you see there, there could easily be a hundred or a thousand she failed with. Since you’re not paying any money up front it’s not that you lose money – but you lose a lot of time. It could be your book was hot and perfect when you gave it to the agent. A year later, when the agent gives up and the contract ends, maybe the book isn’t so perfectly poised.
Once you have done your research on an agent and want to take the next step, it’s time to write a query letter to them. We address that in a later chapter. The initial contact with the agent is critical. Make sure you do that absolutely right.
Traditional Publishing - main page
Overview of Traditional Publishing
How Copyright Works
Working With A Literary Agent
... My Concerns about Agents
Finding a Publisher
... Writer's Market
Writing a Query Letter
... Query Letter Tips
... Query Letter Issues to Avoid
Getting To a Contract Offer
Negotiating the Contract
Working With the Publisher or Agent
... Publishers and Editing
Submitting to Magazines
Tips for Submitting Short Stories
Getting Your Book Published
Writing Tips and Online Books
Lisa Shea Medieval Romance Novels
Online Literary Magazines
Lisa Shea Website Main Page