There seems to be a lot of confusion out there about what literary agents actually DO. To some people, it just doesn’t seem worth it to give away 15% of their earnings to some random person–and I suppose that’s a valid point of view. I think for many people, though, that attitude stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the agent’s role in an author’s career. I’m firmly pro-agent because of the diverse services they bring to the table.
So, what does a literary agent do?
Discover new talent
This is what most people think of when they hear “literary agent”–someone who sits around reading all those query letters and lovingly-prepared manuscripts, looking for the next bestseller. Here’s the reality: most agents do their query/manuscript reading at home, on evenings, weekends, lunch breaks–in their free time. Their actual workday hours are spent doing all the things listed below for their existing clients. Next time you’re feeling bitter because an agent is taking forever to answer your query or read the full manuscript they requested, remember: they’re using their free time to give you a chance at achieving your dream. Be patient, send them a little long-distance love, and write something else while you wait.
Edit and Polish
For many traditionally-published writers, your agent is your first editor. They’ll help you hammer out those dents in your plot, fix your character arc, and add that final layer of polish to your manuscript so it’ll shine for the editors at the publishing houses. Your manuscript should be as close to perfect as you can make it before you even query an agent, but it can always be better. This is part of why agents have to be absolutely in love with your book to be willing to represent it; by the time your book goes to press, they will have read your words almost as many times as you have!
Pitch to Editors
This is the other part everyone knows about: agents use their inside knowledge of the industry to pitch your book to editors they believe will be as excited about it as they are. Think of it like Querying: Round 2; the agent has to research which editors are a good fit for the manuscript and craft a pitch, very similar to what you had to do when querying. This is where the real magic is. For more details, check out the great AgentQuery.com article where five different agents describe the process of pitching to editors, listed under resources below.
Negotiate Your Contract
But what happens when they pitch your book to editors and someone wants to publish it? Contracts. Lots of legalese. Literary agents know what’s standard in a traditional publishing contract with regard to rights, royalties, advances, licensing, timeline, option on future work, and much more. See the resources at the end of this post for an excellent article by agent Rachelle Gardner on publishing contracts. Essentially, the agent is there to protect you and make sure you get the best deal possible, plus manage multiple offers and conduct auctions if you’re just that popular and special. If you aren’t working with a literary agent, you’ll really want to hire a lawyer for this stage to avoid getting screwed.
Manage the Schedule
An agent acts as a go-between for you and the publisher, keeping everyone on both sides of the agreement on-time and moving. They make sure the editor gets your editorial letter to you on time, make sure you stick to your deadlines, monitor the production schedule, pass along important news and milestones (cover designs, etc.), and much more. They’ll also be the first reader for anything you send along to the editor.
Handle the Money Issues
Before I get into what agents do to help you manage your authorly finances, let’s clear up one area of frequent confusion. Agents only get paid when you do.
Let me say that again.
Agents only get paid when you do.
Any agent who asks for money up front is a fraud. Agents are paid a percentage of the earnings that come from the books they’ve sold for you. Typically that percentage is 15%, though it can be higher if you and your agent are in different countries. Agents who negotiate other rights deals, like film and foreign translation rights, often make more as well: 20% is standard. That percentage is deducted from both your advance (the money your publisher pays you just for writing the book) and your royalties (the money you make from each book sold after your publisher has earned back your advance)
So, all that said, agents don’t just take a portion of your money–they often help you understand your earnings. They receive the royalty statements from the publisher, explain the breakdown to you, and audit all of your earnings statements to ensure that you (and they!) are being paid as agreed. They are not an accountant, but they’re another checkpoint for errors. This is a valuable service, especially for those who are much better with words than they are with numbers.
Manage Your Career
Even after your books has been published, some agents continue to be the go-between for you and the publisher for things like arranging book tours, conferences, and signings. Some will even advise you on matters of promotion and marketing, though that’s really outside their realm of responsibility. Every agent is different.
Some agents sign with you only for one book, and once that book is published you’re free to seek another agent for future projects. However, many agents sign you for your whole career as a writer. These agents will read your future work and advise you on how your new projects fit into your career and brand. They’ll help you navigate tricky things like breaking into new genres once you’ve established yourself elsewhere, jumping age categories, and more, so long as your new projects are the kind of thing they represent. Agents are your guide to the publishing world.
The Long Story, Short
Agents do a lot of work for no guaranteed payoff. They’re like those lawyers you only have to pay if you win your case. They do so much work for you before they ever see a dime. You know, kind of like people who pour years into writing books on blind faith that one day, someone might actually want to read them. An agent is always on your side, in your corner, fighting the good fight for you. And always remember–agents love books. It’s why they do what they do.
At the end of the day, we all love great stories. Let’s work together to deliver them to the world.
How do I get an agent? How do I choose the right one? How do I know they’re legit? The answers to all of these questions and more, dear creatures, are coming soon. Check me later. I got your back.
Agents on Pitching to Editors:
What Does a Publishing Contract Cover?:
Janet Reid Rants: So What Exactly Do You Do Really?:
The Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR):