What does a literary agent do?
A literary agents (often just referred to as an "agent" or a "lit agent") is one of the most important people you'll meet in your professional writing career. You, as an author, probably already know that they're your go-between in the publishing world when it comes to dealing with editors and publishers, but is that all that a literary agent does? What else do they fill their days doing? In this article, we'll explore the responsibilities and duties of literary agents, and how they can help authors navigate the publishing world.
At their core, literary agents are people-persons. Their days are spent cultivating relationships not only with authors (both existing clients and prospective talent), but also publishers and editors. After all, there's no point having the next big novel trilogy in their hands if there aren't any publishers that'll take their calls!
They also act as the gate-keepers of talent. It's very rare these days for publishers and editors to accept direct submissions from authors (new and old), and the most common way that a publisher finds a new book is via an agent. The literary agent will find a new author with a finished novel (see how below), then they'll present the work to the editor of a publishing company, and (hopefully) a deal will be struck. So it goes without saying that the first people to ever read the books you find on store shelves were usually literary agents.
What does a literary agent do for authors?
A literary agent's primary responsibility is to represent authors and their works to publishers and the world at large. This includes for new authors who haven't yet been published, to seasoned pros with ten books already on the shelves. In this, a literary agent could be viewed largely as a "sales" role where they will ‘pitch' an author's project to an editor in the hopes that they'll be interested in publishing it. From there they'll negotiate deals and contracts with the editor/publisher on behalf of the author. These negotiations would include things like advances, royalties, and other terms of a publishing agreement (such as the number of books being bought in a deal, or when milestones are set for).
Let's say, for example, that an author is unhappy with a certain term in a contact (for example, they're not allowed to publish other books until the contract in question is complete) it is the agent who will take the concern back to the publisher. For the more introverted amongst us, disputing a contract ourselves with a big, scary publisher that's holding our future in their hands would be a non-starter, so it's helpful to have someone there whose entire job is going to bat for you! They get to play the "bad guy" with the publisher while keeping your image squeaky clean. The other big thing they do is help guide your career and professional development. This would involve advising you on which contact terms are industry standard, and which terms could be challenged. It might also involve advising you to not reject an offer because it offends your ego!
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Are all literary agents the same?
Broadly speaking, the majority of agents will spend their days doing roughly the same things: managing their stable of authors and their projects; meeting with and pitching editors; negotiating contacts. But there are a few things authors need to keep in mind when searching for their own agents.
The first thing is that, just like authors, literary agents stick to a few genres that they represent. Sometimes this will be broad categories like romance novels or young adult. Often, they will list on their website half a dozen genres that they're interested in.
When you begin your search for an agent of your own, you'll need to pay attention to these interests. The first reason is because, otherwise, they'll simply ignore and reject your submission to them. If they only rep romance but you sent them a comedy western, you're just wasting everyone's time. But the bigger reason to pay attention to these genres is that they're an indication of the publishing contacts that the agent has. If they say they only rep romance, there's a good chance they only have the contact details (and can book a meeting with) editors and romance publishers. Sales in this arena is all about relationships, and an editor that knows a certain agent always brings them quality material (and the type of material that they're looking to publish!) will be happier to take a call or a lunch and discuss the project.
The other big difference between literary agents is how much interest they have in the creative side of the publishing industry. Obviously, all lit agents love books and love reading (they'd better, as that's how they spend most of their day!), but just like a sports agent who can spot the next big Quarter Back but couldn't throw a football to save their life, not all literary agents can write a coherent sentence. (But that isn't to say they still can't recognise a good one!)
Some agents like to be hands-on with editing and (re)developing novels before they're sent to publishers. This will more often be the case for new writers who don't yet have any deals, but even seasoned authors will turn to their agents for advise on where to take their fifth book or what they think is missing.
The flip side is an agent who isn't interested in this, and is exclusively focused on the sales aspect of the relationship.
Neither type of agent is better or worse than the other: it is 100% down to your wants and needs as an author.
With all that said, though, you need to remember that agents are looking for novels that are "nearly there" (if not "there" already) from new authors, in terms of how ready they are to send to a publisher. Your agent will not be sending out your work in progress. And, more likely, and agent won't take on a new client if their novel isn't already at a state where it can be sent to a publisher. They simply have too many submissions requesting representation to take on projects that still need major work. It isn't uncommon for an agent to like a story and give the author some suggestions and direction for improvement with the offer to read it against if/when the changes are made, but this is not how you should go about contacting an agent. You need to make that great first impression by already having a book that's as great as you can make it.
How do literary agents find authors?
Well, that question is actually the wrong way around, as it's almost always authors that go out and find agents! (There are some high-profile exceptions to this – such as the ex-Youtuber Lindsay Ellis who was first contacted by her agent – but unless you're already famous in another field, no-one will be beating down your door.) We'll be writing a full guide to finding a literary agent, but we'll briefly describe the process below.
The hardest and longest part of querying agents is actually figuring out which agents to query! "Querying" is the term used for contacting (usually via email) an agent to tell them about your book and asking for their representation.
Once you have your list of prospective agents (and you will need a list of at least a dozen or more names) the actual querying, as just stated, is simple: some agents will have an online form that you fill out, usually with a cover letter introducing yourself and your project, as well as the first several pages of your manuscript. More often, an agent will request the exact same information but in an email.
These submissions will all then go into what is affectionately termed the "slush pile".
The slush pile is the ever-growing list of author submissions that an agent and their agency must review. If you ever listen to an agent speak, they'll tell you that they spend just about every spare minute of their day (including over breakfast, in bed at night, and probably on the toilet!) reading through slush pile submissions, looking for any authors and any projects that catch their eye. This is why literary agents are often considered the gate-keepers of talent, as we mentioned in the introduction, because if they don't like your submission at this stage, then it's most likely not getting any further in the traditionally published realm. (Which isn't to say it'll never make it, but it might require something from submitting it to other agents or going back for another draft.) Sometimes this step will be handled by an associate or assistant of the agent in question, but any applications that make it further into the process will eventually land in front of the agent.
This process might sound cruel and exclusionary, but it's a simple fact of life that these agencies receive way more applications than they can handle, both in terms of reading them but also the number of authors they can represent. The unfortunate truth is that they're often on the lookout for any reason to reject your submission, which is why it's so important to make sure you've dotted your Is and crossed your Ts.
Usually, your first submission will only include the first several pages of your manuscript. But, if you're lucky enough to make it past the slush pile, you'll be asked for the full manuscript! From there, if they like it, they may offer to represent you then and there. Or, if they're a junior agent at their agency, they may need to pass it up the chain of command for approval. But, in any case, this is how you get your foot in the door!
From here, all the fun stuff on your agent setting up meetings with editors take place! As mentioned, this is the first time that a publishing house will get to see anything about your work (but hopefully it won't be the last time!).
What a literary agent does for you
Your literary agent is your partner in the publishing game who succeeded when you do, and helps guide you towards that success. They know the publishing industry inside and out, and they know where you'll fit best within it and how to get you crammed in there! They'll find you the publishing deal and negotiate to get you as many zeroes as possible!
In short, they're your professional representative, and an invaluable part of your writing journey.