Literary Agents: What Are They?

In the past, I’ve talked a lot about how to write and rewrite a fiction novel manuscript. But unless you’re doing it just for the LOLz, you probably have aspirations of someday being published. Now, you might decide that self-publishing is the right thing for you. And that may or may not be true. It’s certainly been right for me to this point. But at some point, you may find yourself asking, “What are literary agents, and what can they do for me?”

Even if you want to maintain your independence and continue down the self-publishing road, answering those questions for yourself can serve to validate your decision to maintain your indie-lifestyle.

What are Literary Agents?

Literary agents have several main roles:

  • Select saleable manuscripts. Bear in mind that well under 1% of all submitted manuscripts are strong enough to sell.
  • Work with the author to get the manuscript in perfect condition to sell. This means extensive editorial work, often lasting months.
  • Identify the right editors at the right publishing houses. The agent needs to have excellent contacts and keep those contacts up to date, and understands the current market for fiction and non-fiction to make sure your book meets the needs of that market.
  • Conduct auctions. There’s more than one way to sell a book. Agents need to choose the right way, then sell it professionally, with drive and conviction.
  • Negotiate contracts. Publishing contracts are long and technical. Additionally, with the advent of ebooks, those contracts are changing fast and key terms are constantly moving. So you do need an expert on your side.
  • Make foreign sales, and handle film and TV rights. Again, that’s a complex business involving expertise and strong contacts. Not a game for n00bs.
  • Guide writing careers. Long term, good literary agents become a partner of sorts, nudging your career in the right direction while keeping you from making wrong turns. Writing is an insecure business, so good literary agents can make a massive amount of difference.

So what does that all really mean? Literary agents will shop your manuscript to publishing houses, using insider knowledge to find the right editor. If editor A at publisher Y doesn’t buy fantasy trilogies, literary agents can save you six months and a cryptic rejection letter just to learn that for yourself. If editor B has a full list and isn’t buying at all, then the agent just saved you another six months. When Editor C agrees to take a look, your manuscript will jump to the head of the line, because Editor C trusts your agent’s judgement. And if editors don’t trust your agent’s judgment, you probably shouldn’t either.

So, to save yourself a lot of time sending a manuscript to publishers who can’t buy it, you just have to get an agent. Right?

No. Remember that literary agents make their fees on sales they make. (Typically they take a 15% commission.) Because agents work for money and not for love, they simply aren’t interested in representing you if there’s no realistic prospect of them making money. Well under 1% of manuscripts are strong enough to sell. So you need to be realistic about whether your book is likely to get an agent or not.

Once a publisher is agreed upon, literary agents handle contract negotiations and stand as a buffer between you and the publisher. Without an agent, there can be a lot of friction between a writer and publisher—their primary goal is to make money, your primary goal is to get your book into print without it getting butchered into the bargain. And you might want to make money as well.

Lastly, literary agents grease the wheels. One party moans and complains, and the agent auto-magically translates this into a polite request for the other party. For example: Author sees first draft of cover and tells Agent it sucks. Agent informs the Publisher that Author was doubtful when first shown the artwork. Publisher then informs Agent that the cover is non-negotiable, and Author can perform an anatomically difficult physical act. Agent tells Author: “You know, it sort of grows on you.”

Tune in next week for more about literary agents!


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Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in The Business of Writing, Writing Life

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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