The Literary Agent, Why you’ll want one and How to get one


Why you’ll want an agent

Some major publishing houses won’t even look at your work if it wasn’t submitted through an agent. Many editors prefer negotiating contracts through an agent rather than an author. The editor and agent speak the same language. Agents know the editors and publishing houses better than authors and thus also know how much wiggle room there truly is when negotiating the contract.

Publishing houses undergo a lot of take-overs and buy-outs, meaning they are subject to change. Different publishers under the same house will not compete against each other for the same manuscript. You need to know who belongs which house. The agent knows this.

Editors don’t stay put either. Make sure the editor you address in your query letter, is truly still found at that address. The agent know who is who and where to find them.

Agents might be willing to help you improve your manuscript to make it marketable so an editor will want to offer you a contract. An editor will either offer a deal or reject you, they don’t have time to pull you up to par.

Agents know how to handle international publication, including translation processes and international copyright laws.

Only an agent knows a good contract from a bad one. You can have a lawyer look at the contract if it gets to that point, but the lawyer will not know the standards of the entertainment business and you can still end up signing a bad deal.

The agent deals with making publishing houses actually pay for the work once it’s bought and published. This allows the author to keep communication with their editors pleasant and facilitate smooth cooperation.

Where to find one

Agents are always looking for new authors. That’s how they stay in business. Still, you need to make the first move.

Option 1

Direct submission using agents listed in books such as ‘Guide to Literary Agents’ where agents list their wants and submission requirements. Do not submit to multiple agents at the same time. They respond quicker then editors and some will only bother reading your work if they have it exclusively.

Option 2

Get a recommendation from an established author. The author should also recommend you to the agents.

Option 3

You’ve already submitted work to an editor, who recommends you get an agent. This means the editor sees potential in your work, but wants you to improve with proper help before getting the publishing house involved.

How to tell the difference between a good agent and a bad one.

A good agent will not make absolute promises about being able to sell your work. It’s their job to get it seen by editors but they can’t make editors buy it if they don’t like it. You made the product, if it sucks, it won’t be bought.

A good one is willing to let you know who else he or she represents and you will be able to confirm this for yourself.

Good agents makes their money by selling manuscripts to publishing houses and getting their cut from the profits. A bad agent makes their money by charging a ‘reading fee’, meaning they want you to pay them to even look at your work.

Warning signs of a scammer

  • A PO box instead of an address
  • Solicits works through direct mail. Good agents don’t need to fish for clients.
  • Ads in writer’s magazines. Good agents already get a ton of manuscripts unsolicited, they don’t need to put ads out.
  • Will not tell you who else they represent or give you names that are impossible to confirm.
  • Agent claims to own a publishing house. Come on, which are you?
  • Charge fees or hide additional fees in legit fees that cover expenses made through copying manuscripts, postage etc.
  • Commission rates above 15%.
  • Guarantees your work will be published. No legit agent can do that.
  • Can’t show sale numbers with legit publishers.
  • They refer you to book doctors: people who tell you your work is sooooo close to publishable! But it just needs a tiny little wee bit of work! And they’re super willing to help you, for a price…

How to submit your work

Step 1

Select an agent listed in books such as ‘Guide to Literary Agents’ where agents list their wants and submission requirements.

Step 2

Write query letter to this agent. Wait a week. No reply? Select a new one and send the query to them, and so forth.

Step 3

An agent calls and asks if anyone else has seen the manuscript. Answer honestly. Send a synopsis, sample chapters or the full manuscript if they ask for it. Hold your submission to other agents.

Step 4

You’re insanely lucky and a second agent also calls to see your work! Tell them agent#1 has it and that you’ll be in touch once you heard back from them. This way you keep both agents in play, while confirming interest in your work is justified and without making anyone angry. Remember, you have to work with the agent you end up with. You want that working relationship to be a positive one.

Signs it’s time to switch to a different agent

  • Your work isn’t being bought.
  • Your agent literally tells you to find a new one.
  • You disagree about which market to sell your work to, which prevents your ability to grow.
  • Your current work is within a genre that your current agent doesn’t cover.
  • You have an opportunity to work with a better known, better established agent who can promote your work to higher tier editors.

Mayer, B. (2011) The Fiction Writer’s Toolkit: A Guide to Writing Novels and Getting Published.