Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Literary agents are near-mythical figures to many authors, taking the form of all their dreams and worries about publication. Some authors imagine them bringing the news of million-dollar movie deals, while others fear they’re waiting to cheat them out of as much cash as possible.
The truth is a good literary agent is the best friend an author can have, but like any ally, they can only help you if you understand what they’re meant to be doing.
In this article, I’m going to be addressing some of the misconceptions about literary agents, as well as exploring what they can do for clued up authors ready and willing to work with them.
Many of the jobs agents do can be performed by a writer, depending on their free time and expertise, but their most important job is one for which they are uniquely equipped.
Submission to publishers
An agent’s initial job is to submit an author’s work to publishers. This is something authors can do for themselves, but agents have a far greater chance of success.
First of all, agents know who to talk to. They know the acquisitions editors at publishing houses, so they know who’s looking for your type of work and how to get in direct contact with that person. A good agent will have personal contacts with influential people, meaning that when they submit your work it’s far more likely to be given a chance.
Agents also act as a form of recommendation; if your work has passed their own screening process then publishers know it’s good enough to at least be considered. Of course agents only earn this kind of reputation by having a robust screening process, so it’s not that case that they can be paid to talk you up when your work doesn’t merit it.
These factors mean that your work is more likely to be read, and to go to the top of the pile of what the acquisition editor is reading next. And more often than not there is a physical pile. Manuscripts really do fall off, get lost, or get mistaken for something the editor has already read. This is far less likely to happen when an editor is giving your work priority, and knows they’re going to be discussing it with an agent (even if they’re just going to decline it).
That said, many publishing houses now only accept submissions which come through agents. Influential as they may be, agents are still competing against each other for publishers’ attention. Your manuscript is unlikely to be hand-delivered with a ‘return by’ date, it will just carry the enhanced importance of an established professional relationship. There’s also little chance that an agent’s recommendation will influence whether your work is accepted or not, just whether and how quickly it’s considered.
Your work must be finished when you submit it to an agent, because although they may sometimes edit, they are not editors.
Editing for salability
Agents will frequently have feedback or changes they want a manuscript to undergo before they send it on to publishers. These changes, however, will be in favor of salability. That is, they will be geared towards making your manuscript as suitable as possible for the existing market.
Current trends in subject and style will be taken into account, as well as any specific things the agent knows particular publishers are looking for. It’s entirely your decision whether to make these changes or not, but you should never, ever, ever depend on this kind of advice being forthcoming.
When submitting to an agent you must offer finished work and be satisfied that it’s finished. Agents are inundated with incomplete work from authors who think part of their job is to help them finish. This is quite simply not what agents do, and making this mistake is the easiest way to get yourself ignored.
When selling a house, estate agents might have some advice on minor things that will make it more attractive but they’re not going to put up wallpaper for you, let alone build a wall. In the same way it’s an agent’s job to sell an existing product, and calling them in when that product doesn’t exist is the fastest way to get any future correspondence deleted immediately.
When submitting to an agent, be ready to make some changes, but don’t count on them making your work any better. It’s also a good idea to know what you are and are not willing to change in advance. Salability isn’t the same as quality, and you’re only hiring an agent to give you sound business advice. The responsibility for the finished product is yours, and so creative responsibility must be as well.
Agents shouldn’t be, and aren’t usually, dictatorial. They’ll give you as much help as you ask for, but after providing thorough and expert advice they’ll respect your decisions. It’s your role to make sure your finished product is as geared towards publishers as it can be while still meeting your own standards.
Of course, an agent’s job doesn’t end when your work is accepted by a publisher.
Agents are author advocates, which means they argue your side with publishers in business transactions. As they tend to work on commission (usually around fifteen percent) they’re motivated to get you the best deal possible.
Agents act as well-informed middle men between you and a publisher for all business matters. Things like contract disputes, royalties, fee collection, tour dates, deadlines, and territorial rights will go through them. This allows you to stay on a good footing with publishers, and puts the job of arguing for a good deal on the shoulders of someone who is financially motivated to get the best deal but not emotionally involved in the decision.
Again, agents have existing relationships with publishers which helps to smooth the whole process, and their expertise can help you understand the subtext of a deal and shield you from any negativity.
While not necessarily legally trained, a good agent will be expert in the publishing business and author rights, making them an expert ally.
You can of course navigate your own deals if you have the time and ability, but agents are not out to cheat you. Agents work by reputation, so they won’t get far if they start negotiating rubbish deals for their clients. They also know publishers, and so have a better understanding of policies that will influence different deals.
Agents have insider knowledge of the publishing industry, which means they’ll be able to give you insight on where the market is going at any given time.
If there’s a new topic that’s about to become huge, a new editor who’s looking for something specific, or an anthology being planned that there’s time for you to prepare for, they’ll give you the advice you need to make a profitable decision down the line.
Agents are continually on the lookout for opportunities that would suit you, actively seeking out new contacts who might be interested in your work. Because of this, whether it’s before, during, or after publication, a good agent is a great contact for an author to have.
Literary agent: Author ally
More and more publishers will only deal with agents, as a way of dodging an onslaught of not-ready manuscripts. We’re not quite at the point where a writer must have an agent to be published by a publishing house, but we’re getting pretty close.
But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a good relationship with an agent is a great boon for an author. Having another professional taking a vested interest in your work feels fantastic, and agents’ contacts and abilities almost always benefit the authors who seek out their help—that’s why you see them so frequently mentioned on the ‘acknowledgements’ page.
For more on hiring the right professional for your needs check out Why Your Editor Should Be Multifaceted, and You Can Save Time And Money By Choosing The Right Editor.
Are you on the lookout for an agent, or have you decided to strike out on your own? Either way, let me know about your experiences in the comments.