In the weird, wonderful world of publishing, there are a few key figures that everyone knows about: publishers, editors, and literary agents.
But do you really know what those folks do all day?
In an age when anyone can upload a file and start selling their book on Amazon in a few clicks, why do these old-school roles still matter? How do they add value to your publishing journey?
Let’s take an in-depth look at the literary agent, one of the key figures in the traditional publishing industry. We’ll check out what they do every day to help you and your book succeed, what it might cost you to work with an agent, and how you can find an agent.
We’ll also talk with publishing industry experts and agents themselves about what to do—and not to do—if you want to work with an agent, and how to get the most out of your relationship.
Let’s get started!
What Is a Literary Agent?
No matter what creative industry you’re talking about—film, TV, books, music—there’s usually someone called an “agent” working in it.
That’s because, when you get right down to it, creative people want to be creating, not worrying about business matters. But the businesspeople who put that creative material out to the public want to make sure little things like deadlines are met, and that contracts are signed, paperwork is filled out, and so on.
So a kind of go-between developed between creative professionals and business types: the agent.
Agents are kind of like business managers for creatives: writers, actors, artists, musicians, and so on. They handle all the nitty-gritty details so that you can get on with the important work of creating.
What Does a Literary Agent Do?
Agents do a lot of things that authors can do for themselves, but that takes a lot of time and effort to keep on top of.
The key part of any agent’s job is getting their client’s work. They negotiate deals like publishing contracts or speaking gigs, keep track of licensing arrangements, and coordinate payment from all those different deals.
But agents do far more than just making deals!
Literary agents, in particular, often partner with the authors they represent to improve a manuscript, working together on edits and development to refine the book until it’s sure to knock the socks off a publisher.
The agent also puts together a query and pitch package for the book to submit to publishers, helping put the manuscript’s best foot forward and show exactly why the publisher should pay top dollar for that book.
A great pitch package is more than just a summary of the book. In nonfiction, it includes a summary of every chapter and its content, a basic marketing plan, an examination of other comparable books on the market, and more.
Basically, it’s a mini-business plan for your book…and that takes a lot of work to put together! Agents know the style, format, and content that will appeal to a busy acquisitions editor and they can put together a package that’ll impress.
Former agent Elizabeth Evans (now an independent editor) says, “It’s not often discussed in the publishing process, but I think an important part of being a good agent is understanding how to help a writer create his or her most powerful work.”
At the core, an agent helps you make the most of your creative career.
A Day in the Life of an Agent
Agents spend most of their time reading submissions and sending notes on the books that come across their desks. They field dozens, if not hundreds, of queries every week and have to quickly evaluate whether the book is ready to publish—and whether it has market potential.
If something interesting and well-written comes across their email, they’ll request the full manuscript to review, to make sure that the writing through the whole book lives up to the promise of the query and the sample pages.
When a book really hits home, they’ll offer to represent the author—you!—and then start the process of working with you to refine the book, create a pitch package, and find a publisher.
If you’re lucky, the agent will be able to start an auction for the rights to publish your book, getting several interested editors at different publishing houses to bid on it. The combination of the most money and the best terms and marketing support wins!
Once the book is under contract with a publisher, the agent’s work doesn’t end! Now, your agent will help coordinate edit timelines, marketing support, book tours, and more.
They’ll also keep track of contract details and collect your royalties on your behalf.
Once the book is published, some agents will also help sell subsidiary rights, which are other ways to make money off your writing. Some agents represent subsidiary rights themselves, while others have someone in their agency whose entire job is to handle subsidiary rights.
These rights include film or TV options, foreign translation rights, audiobook rights, and more.
All in all, subsidiary rights can add up to a lot of income for you as the author! But making all those deals can be very time-consuming, so it’s really handy to have an agent pursuing all those options on your behalf.
An agent’s day varies constantly, but on an average day, your agent is probably:
- Calling editors to discuss possible projects
- Checking royalty statements for accuracy
- Making notes on a client’s new marketing plan
- Scanning Publishers Weekly to see what’s been selling
- Writing a query for a new book
- Responding to pitch emails
- Fielding phone calls and emails from clients
- Taking notes on client projects
- Reading new manuscript submissions (often after standard working hours!)
How Much Does a Literary Agent Cost?
With everything an agent does, it seems like they’d be pretty expensive to hire, right?
Well, yes and no.
Reputable agents don’t charge you anything up front.
A few agents out there charge a “reading fee” to consider your work, but those are usually new to the industry and don’t have a lot of contacts…they often make their money from reading fees, not from selling books to publishers, so it’s best to stay away from them.
Reputable agents like those who belong to the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) adhere to a strict code of ethics, pledging to represent you and your work to the best of their ability. They have to disclose any fees they might receive from other groups, as well as any fees they might charge, and they have to protect your money and your financial privacy.
In exchange for all their work, agents are paid on the back end, meaning they earn a commission on sales made from your books.
When they sell a book that you’ve written to a publisher, the agent is entitled to a certain percentage of all your earnings from that book, usually about 15%.
Since your agent will receive your royalties from the publisher on your behalf, they’ll subtract their fee from the amount before sending you the rest.
So basically, you never actually have to pay your agent—they handle the finances and will send you your pay after deducting theirs.
Is an agent worth that 15% of the amount you’ll make?
That’s a personal opinion, but think about how much time it takes to send out query letters, follow up, polish a manuscript, figure out licensing, negotiate a contract, etc. What’s your time worth?
And what’s it worth to you to have someone looking for great publishing deals on your behalf so you don’t need to? Or so that you make much larger advances or get a better cut of royalties?
Yeah. For many authors, a great agent is worth every penny!
Do I Need a Literary Agent?
In our current golden age of self-publishing, easy ebook creation, DIY tools, and social media marketing, does an author really need an agent to succeed?
Many authors today have achieved a full-time income and more without ever working with a literary agent.
However, there are still some very good reasons to use an agent. Let’s look at 6 reasons you may want to get a literary agent:
1. Agents Handle Business Matters So You Can Write
Writers need to write. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the best way to sell books is to write more books.
An agent will take all that off your plate, searching out the best possible fits for your novel and handling the time-consuming and stressful submissions process on your behalf.
The agent will also handle contract negotiations and other business matters, giving you more freedom and space to create, rather than handle administrative stuff.
2. Agents Can Get You a Better Book Deal
While it’s possible to make a great living as an indie author, if you’re looking to get a six-figure advance and the power of a major New York publisher behind your book, you’re going to need an agent.
Yes, some indie authors have gotten huge deals from major publishers…but that’s only after years of slowly working to increase their sales and platform. If you want to shoot for a big advance for a multi-book deal because you think you have a can’t-miss book written, you’ll need an agent to approach the Big Five on your behalf.
These big publishers don’t accept submissions that don’t come from an agent—the agent is the first round of screening to make sure that books meet a certain quality standard. Editors at the Big Five trust the agents they work with regularly to search out quality manuscripts and present only books with big sales potential…so they’re not willing to accept pitches from any writer off the street when they could have pre-screened quality candidates instead.
Most established agents have networks of contacts throughout the publishing industry. They might have worked with a particular editor a number of times and developed a relationship that can get your book to the top of the pile for review.
In other cases, agents used to be editors, contracts managers, or other key employees at a publishing company. They can use their connections from that old role to help boost your book’s chances of being acquired.
Either way, agents know who to call, how to approach them, and what they’re looking for.
By being tuned into the industry in a way a writer isn’t, they can reach out to the editors who are most likely to offer top dollar for the right to publish your book.
They can also start auctions or bidding wars between multiple publishers, increasing your possible advance, or work to get more favorable contract terms for you.
3. Agents Can Smooth the Publication Process
An agent’s job doesn’t end when they sell your book to a publisher.
Your agent acts as your go-between, negotiating the contract, helping with scheduling, and hashing out details of the publication process.
Do you need more time to finish your edits and revisions? Your agent can help make that happen.
Does the publisher want to send you on a book tour right when you need to be getting the kids back to school? Your agent can help resolve the conflict.
Are you not getting enough marketing support from the publisher? Again, this is what your agent is there to deal with!
You are the one paying your agent. They’re on your side. If you need help getting good terms on any element of the publishing process, your agent is there to support you!
4. Agents Can Help Fine-Tune Your Writing
Many agents—but not all!—will help authors polish and fine-tune their writing, meaning that you might not have to pay a freelance developmental or copy editor to help you with your work.
It’s still a good idea to hire an editor before submitting any book for publication—you always want to put the best possible manuscript you can out for review—but with a very hands-on agent, you may be able to simply self-edit your book thoroughly before sending it to him or her to discuss.
From there, your agent will make suggestions to help fine-tune the writing and polish it up so that it’ll be even more appealing to editors…and therefore most likely to get top dollar!
If you want your agent to be an “editorial agent,” be clear about this up front. Some agents do not do editorial work, developmental commentary, or other literary polishing—they strictly sell manuscripts and handle business matters. If you want a hands-off agent, you can find one; similarly, if you want an editorial agent, you can find that person too. You just have to be clear up front about your expectations.
5. Agents Can Help You Shape Your Career
Are you considering a move into a new genre?
Contemplating a memoir or some nonfiction in a new area of expertise?
Thinking about starting a new series?
Your agent may be able to help you choose which project to work on next based on their knowledge of industry trends and editor wish lists.
Because agents interact with editors every single day and often talk about what the editors at various presses are looking to publish next, they have their finger on the pulse of the publishing industry.
They may be able to help you decide that vampires are on the way out, and so your next series should really focus on mermaids.
Likewise, they might be able to help you decide that juicing isn’t the best topic to write on when everyone is desperate to acquire books on the paleo diet.
A savvy agent can also help you decide whether the time is right to try your hand at screenwriting, and may even be able to make some introductions for you there.
They can also offer insights onto the age range of books that are selling (is it time to try YA or middle grade writing?), suggest topics in your field that are underrepresented on bookshelves, or recommend professional development opportunities like conferences or trade shows that you should try.
Agents do well when their clients do well, so they have a vested interest in making sure you have a healthy, happy, productive creative career.
Think of your agent as your partner and coach and you’ll understand why one might come in handy even in the self-publishing era!
6. Agents Can Help You Self-Publish
Some agents are very progressive and aren’t just interested in massive Big 5 publishing deals. They know that their clients often write a variety of different books, some of which might appeal to a big New York publisher and some that might be better served with a different approach.
These creative agents often offer self-publishing assistance, typically acting much like a book shepherd or publishing coach to help you navigate the self-publishing process. The fees they charge may vary, so be sure to ask whether they’re charging fixed fees for services, a percentage of sales revenue, etc.
Other agents will take over the self-publishing process for you (again, for either a set fee or a percentage of sales), handling all the editorial, print production, and distribution on your behalf.
You’ll give up some money for these services—much like you would if you paid a self-publishing service—but you’ll be free of the worry of finding and managing your own team and will, again, wind up with more time to write!
Many of the agents who work with hybrid authors—those who want to publish traditionally, self-publish, and basically do whatever works best for each individual project—are very flexible in the services they offer.
If you have a book that you’d like to self-publish, your agent may step back and let you handle the whole thing…but then offer to help you sell foreign translation rights and film or TV rights when the project is complete.
Always be sure to talk with your agent (or potential agent) about their approach to hybrid publishing and be sure you know how they’d handle things if you chose to self-publish one of your books.
Finding a Literary Agent
If you would like to find a literary agent that would be a good fit for you, check out our detailed guide to getting a literary agent.
You can also check out our list of literary agents for each genre:
- 30 Literary Agents Now Accepting Science Fiction and Fantasy Submissions
- 60 Literary Agents Now Accepting Romance Submissions
- 30 Mystery and Thriller Literary Agents Now Accepting Submissions
- Nonfiction Literary Agents Now Accepting Submissions
- List of Young Adult and New Adult Literary Agents Now Accepting Submissions
- Historical Fiction Literary Agents Now Accepting Submissions