What A Literary Agent Does and Why It Matters

So I haven’t written a post in a while on my ongoing publishing series on getting an agent, publisher or publicist. Click on the FAQ tab and scroll down to the “ABOUT YOU” section for more information on previous posts. Click on any one of the links for more detail. And if you don’t see what you’re looking for, you can always mail me via the “mail icon” on this site with any questions. I’m happy to help where I can.

So as part of this series, I think it’s time to outline the value of having a Literary Agent as opposed to not having one. Many people may tell you that with the changing landscape of publishing, securing an agent isn’t necessary. After all, you can submit to many flourishing independent small presses on your own or during their open submission periods, and you can self-publish in a snap (both in POD and digital e-publishing formats). I went a long time without an agent (while I was between my second and third). However I did have a literary lawyer who negotiated my contracts so I wasn’t technically in no-man’s land.

While going solo may certainly be a viable option, here’s why I think you will be better off with an agent. Simply put, to get a deal with a “Big Six” publisher (or big five, or whatever it is now), you will likely need an agent. Most of these publisher imprints will not accept submissions that aren’t represented by an agent … which means that your chance of getting in the door is nonexistent. And don’t even think about “making up” an agency because they can check this easily, and of course that impacts your credibility and trustworthiness.

That said, getting an agent is not all unicorns and rainbows. I’m on my third agent, but hopefully third time’s the charm. Finding an agent who clicks with your vision both professionally and personally isn’t easy. On the one hand you have to look for the sales track record–that’s Business 101. You need a savvy, successful, gutsy agent who can SELL your book, and one who has established relationships with editors. On the other hand, you need to feel like there’s a connection with this person–after all you’re going to be working day in and day out with them. You need to click. Compatibility is a factor in all your other relationships so why should this one be any different? What your gut says matters and you should definitely take it into consideration. So now that I’ve said all that, what does a literary agent actually do?

Here are the top 10 reasons why I think a Literary Agent is worth their salt. Again, this is based on my personal experience so different avenues/options may work for other people. This is also stuff that MY agent does for me, which again may be different from other agents and other author/agent relationships.

1) An agent has relationships with editors at major publishing houses. This means your agent can get you in the door and knows what these editors are looking for. These relationships are critical for agents to be successful, and in turn, for you to be successful. In addition, your agent can pair you with an editor who will hopefully be a great fit for you and your book.

2) An agent knows the industry and the market. This means that your agent can tell you if your New Adult manuscript may not be the right fit for a particular publisher or whether a specific imprint doesn’t accept books in a certain genre.

3) An agent is your advocate. They represent you and go to bat for you if necessary. Bottom line, you need someone who believes in you and your work, and who is enthusiastic about working with you.

4) An agent negotiates your contracts with your publisher. He/She should know or be familiar with industry benchmarks like foreign rights, rights reversions or option clauses or percentage payments. They will make sure the terms of your deal are fair and in your best interest.

5) An agent handles subsidiary rights, foreign rights, media rights, film rights, etc. These are areas that earn you more money and gain you more exposure as an author. You want an agent actively selling you in these markets/areas.

6) An agent oversees the publishing process. They make sure that your publisher meets agreed-upon goals/objectives and keep you on track. They make sure you get paid on time and/or address any issues that may come up during the term of the agreement.

7) An agent provides pre-submission suggestions to improve your work. They can critique your proposal or your manuscript to get them in ship-shape for submission (minor editing, structural suggestions, etc.)

8) An agent negotiates mulitple offers (oh, happy day!) and ensures that you get the best deal/terms (advance, royalties, etc.)

9) An agent serves as your advisor. Who wouldn’t want someone in their corner providing free career advice? What if I want to write in a different genre? Or try something insanely different? I love being able to bounce ideas off my agent. And I know she’ll tell me the truth, even if it may not be what I want to hear. A story about a teen who transforms into a cockroach by night and finds love over a piece of moldy cheese? Um, that’s a no.

10) An agent provides moral support. An agent doesn’t necessarily have to do this but I can’t tell you the number of times my agent has talked me off a ledge or gotten me to focus on specific priorities. That’s just a bonus … a much-needed, totally under-appreciated, amazing bonus. So if you have that with your agent, treasure it. And make sure to tell your agent “thank you” once in a while.

That’s it. My two-cents on why an agent matters. On top of these things, my agent is also responsive (I can contact her at any time for anything … freak-outs included). She gets me and she’s selling my work. All in all, win WIN. If you have a fabulous agent who does other things I haven’t included, be sure to let me know in the comments. At the end of the day, agents take care of all the stuff that makes it possible to focus on what we as writers do best … WRITE. So what’s not to like?

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