If you have your sights set on a career in traditional publishing, then chances are, you’re going to need a literary agent.
Here’s everything you need to know about what a literary agent is, what makes a good agent, why you might or might not want one, and how you can start the process of finding the best literary agents for your career goals as a writer.
What is a literary agent?
A literary agent is someone who represents your book or books to traditional publishers, including all major publishing houses. A literary agent also helps you improve your work and opens doors to new publishing opportunities. Most publishers will not consider your work for publication without a trusted agent acting as the intermediary, which means an agent is necessary for many authors.
A literary agent will usually have a background in business, traditional publishing, or law, as a good portion of their job revolves around ensuring that you receive a fair contract from the publisher when selling your work. Regardless of their background, though, they have a passion for literature, bringing books to the market that they love, and helping authors grow their careers.
Many literary agents start out in assistant roles at an established literary agency (or at multiple literary agencies), where they can learn from senior literary agents who’ve been in the business for years, if not decades.
From there, legitimate agents will work their way up throughout the business and publishing world, at which point they might land a senior role at an established agency or branch off to create a new agency of their own.
What does a literary agent do?
A literary agent’s job is extremely varied. They perform many roles during every step of the traditional publishing process. An agent’s typical responsibilities include guiding the author through their publishing journey and ensuring they secure the best deal possible.
Before an offer of representation
When reputable agents are open to submissions, they’ll receive hundreds, even thousands, of book pitches (called query letters), from writers all hoping to be represented.
The agent will sift through these query letters as they’re able (sometimes this can take months, though, just due to the sheer volume of queries received) and then, if a query letter intrigues them, they’ll request either sample chapters or all of the completed manuscript for further reading.
Note that most agencies won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts right away—they’ll let you know if they’re interested in seeing more once they review your query letter.
After reading the entire book, the agent will then let the author know if they’d be interested in representing them. Once an author accepts an agent’s offer of representation, that’s where the real work begins.
After an offer of representation
Once the agent ushers you into the business side of publishing, there are a few steps you’ll go through before getting that book deal.
The editorial stage
After the offer, most agents will work closely with the writer to fine-tune their manuscript for submission for publication. This will look different for every author and every agent.
Good literary agents are very editorial, helping writers make a book absolutely perfect. They might ask the writer to rewrite certain parts of the book or to make other edits.
Other agents, however, are a little more hands-off and might allow writers to drive the editorial direction of their work, relying on them to get most of the edits and proofreading finished on their own.
The submission strategy
Once the agent and the author agree that the manuscript is in its best shape possible, the agent will begin putting together a submission strategy. This means looking at all of the publishing house options that are available to the author and working alongside them to decide which publishing opportunities would best align with their career goals.
From there, they’ll compile a list of book publishers (and, more specifically, editors that work for those publishers) that they plan on submitting the book to.
Submitting to a publishing house is similar to the querying process. However, while the author submits a cover letter to agents in pursuit of representation, the agent will be responsible for submitting your book pitch to publishers on your behalf, hoping for a sale and to get the book published.
During the submission process, again, each agent’s and author’s process will differ. Some agents will let their clients know every time they send a submission to a new publisher. Some agents will share rejection letters and feedback from publishers. Some agents won’t give the author any updates at all, unless there is a sale.
The R&R, or “Revise and Resubmit”
Sometimes, a publisher will ask for what’s known as an “R&R” or a “revise and resubmit.” This means that the publisher likes the book enough to consider it a second time, but they’d like some changes to the book first.
The publisher will pass along feedback and what they’d like to see changed (either via email or a phone or online meeting). If the author is interested in making those changes, they’ll work with the agent to ensure the changes are made according to the publisher’s requests, then resubmit the book to that publisher for a second consideration.
The submission process last until a sale is made, or until the agent has exhausted all potential publishers that they could possibly pitch your work to (and this can take over a year, in some cases, depending on how many publishers your agent feels are viable options).
Getting an offer from an editor
If a publisher and their editor offers to buy your book, the agent now has to let all of the other considering publishers and editors know. When one publisher is interested in a work, it usually signals to other publishing houses that a book is worth a closer look—so, if you get one offer on a book, it’s not out of the question to receive even more offers. (Everyone wants what’s in demand, after all).
From there, you and your agent will negotiate contracts and consider which book deal will be best for you, in terms of your career goals.
Maybe your primary concern is money, so you want to go with the book contracts that will give you the highest advances. Maybe you’d prefer to go with a publisher with impressive distribution resources (because who wouldn’t want to walk in to any Target and see their book on the shelf?). Maybe you want to go with a publishing house that’s offering you a deal for not just the one book, but for several books that you haven’t even written yet!
Whatever the case may be, the agent’s job is to negotiate publishing contracts to get you the best book deals possible, helping you make the best decision for your written works and needs.
After the book sells
Once you accept a publisher’s offer, your agent’s work is still not done. They’ll act as an intermediary between you and the publisher, making sure your contract is upheld, ensuring the publisher pays you in a timely manner, reviewing royalty statements, etc.
This is also the only time that your agent gets paid in the entire process. All of the work up until this point has been done completely for free, with the expectation that your work will sell in the future (which is why agents can be so picky about the clients that they take on; they want to know that you’ll make them money eventually).
Your agent will take a small percentage of whatever the publisher pays you. This commission generally ranges from 15% to 20%.
But this isn’t the end!
Once your book sells, you’ll likely want to start on another (and, in fact, many writers start on a new manuscript as soon as their agent begins submitting their previous book to publishers). For new works, you and your agent will work together to determine what concepts might be best for the marketplace, based on prior sales and successes, or lack thereof.
Having an agent: Pros and cons
The topic of literary agents can be a divisive one within the writing community.
Some say that agents aren’t worth their fees and that they’re just glorified middlemen.
Others say they could never navigate the complicated, it’s-all-about-who-you-know world of publishing without them. They appreciate that they can simply write the book and let their agent take care of everything else.
However, regardless of your feelings on literary agents, it’s just the truth that major publishers will not consider your book for publication without one—and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
That said, there are a lot of writers who don’t care whether or not they’re published by a major, “Big 5” publisher (the Big 5 in publishing are Penguin/Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan—including all of their dozens of imprints).
If you want to go the self-publishing route, or would like to publish through an indie or small press, you don’t need an agent. In fact, you may find that, if you want to go with an indie or small press, not having an agent may work in your favor since they won’t take a cut of your earnings.
Another unfortunate fact about most literary agents is that they often have a certain type of book, and certain genres, they like to represent.
Maybe they represent both adult and YA, but not children’s books, or they represent fantasy and sci-fi, but not mysteries. Even fewer represent short stories, essay collections, and/or poetry.
So, if you’re a writer that likes to jump genres a lot, you may struggle finding an agent who will represent, and sell, everything that you like to write or want to write one day. (Luckily, some literary agents work under the assumption that they’ll like anything in your writing style, but many agents do have their definite not-interested genres.)
A word on bad literary agents
Yes, there are, in fact, bad literary agents out there. Not all agents truly have your best interests at heart.
Some could say this is because the publishing industry is a cut-throat business and everyone has to look out for their own interests. But when you’re going into partnership with someone—and both your livelihoods depend on the other person—you likely want to know that they have your back.
Bad literary agents include those that stall your writing career by taking forever to get back to you on projects, or who take multiple months to help you prepare your manuscript for submission; those that are unwilling to talk to you about their submission strategy and whether or not it aligns with your career goals; and those that do not care about negotiating contracts for your best interests (instead, they’re just trying to make a quick buck).
Unfortunately, bad literary agents aren’t always easy to spot. Most authors are forced to rely on heresy from other writers to learn about who they should or shouldn’t query. A good place to double check reputable literary agents is Writer Beware, which highlights noted scams and disreputable agencies and publishers swanning around the industry.
If you’re planning to query agents soon, you may want to make an effort to network with other querying or recently agented writers, to see what information and advice they can provide.
Finding the best agent for your needs
If you’ve decided that you want to work with a literary agent, in order to avoid bad agents or just agents that aren’t right for your needs, sit down and think about your career goals as an author.
Do you dream of a big contract for multiple books, distributed worldwide, and a big advance check? Do you want to sell the foreign rights or film rights for even more money?
Then you’ll want to do some research to find literary agents that have a track record of snagging those types of deals for their clients. (A handy place to find this information is on Publisher’s Marketplace.)
Do you want a heavily editorial agent with lots of industry knowledge who will help you polish up your book to gleaming perfection?
Then look for agents that follow that process. Ask agented writers about their agents’ processes and, if you get the chance to talk with an agent, don’t be afraid to ask about the same.
Do you want to jump genres and hop between age groups?
Find an agent who represents everything you could ever want to write.
Then, when you find agents that tick all the right boxes and you do receive an offer, heavily vet the offering agent—via referrals, networks, etc.—just to be sure you’re making the best choice for your needs and picking the right agent for your career.
Should I work with a literary agent?
You should work with a literary agent if you want to be traditionally published by one of the Big 5, you want that extra editorial touch before presenting your work to publishers, and/or you want a career partner that will help you reach your goals (albeit for a cut of your income).
You maybe might consider not bothering with a literary agent, though, if you would prefer self publishing or to publish with a small or independent press. Likewise, if you work in more experimental genres or formats, you may struggle with finding an agent, as well as a traditional publisher.
It all depends on your goals as a writer. Whatever you decide, there are myriad paths to publication. Getting an agent is just a step along one of those paths.