7 Critical Things a Literary Agent Does

Literary agent in a meeting discussing what literary agents do

Many of us look to literary agents to sell our manuscripts to publishers. The hope is that those agents have built the right connections with influential editors so we can launch our careers as professional authors. However, being a literary agent is more than a simple sales job.

Literary agents perform a variety of roles in service of the authors they represent. The following nine activities are critical to the long-term success of any author:

  • Build Relationships with Editors
  • Critique Your Manuscript
  • Pitch Your Manuscript
  • Negotiate Contracts
  • Advocate on Your Behalf
  • Provide Career Advice
  • Offer Emotional Support

The purpose of this article is to outline those seven critical activities, while at the same time providing other critical information you need in order to make an informed decision about whether or not you should work with a literary agent.

What a Literary Agent Does

The best literary agents do more than sell books. They play a variety of roles in your publishing journey, from advocate to counselor. Here are seven steps that outline those important functions.

1) Builds Relationships with Editors

Literary agents are in the business of sales, and it’s a lot easier to sell a product to someone who knows and trusts you than it is to try and close a sale with a complete stranger.

That’s why one of the primary jobs of a literary agent is to build relationships with editors.

Even though editors are no longer the sole arbiter of whether or not a book gets published, it has no chance of getting published unless and editor loves it and is willing to become your internal champion at the publishing house.

2) Critique Your Manuscript

A good literary agent falls in love with a story, not whether or not a manuscript is polished.

Don’t get me wrong, you need to believe your manuscript is ready for publication before you query any agents, but the agent is going to see opportunities to make it even better.

That might mean something as simple as tightening up a scene or two or they could see a major plot hole. You don’t have to make the changes, but at the very least you should strongly consider them.

You want the agent to believe in the manuscript as much as you do. Besides, if you prove to be temperamental or hard to work with, why would they want to introduce you to agents they’ll need to work with again in the future?

3) Pitch Your Manuscript

Once there’s an agreement between you and your agent that your manuscript is ready to go to market, it’s time to pitch it to the right editors at the right publishers.

How do you know who the right editors and publishers are? That’s the agent’s job.

Professional literary agents know the types of books that each editor is looking for, and they understand which imprints at each publishing house publish the similar titles to the books that you’ve written. Now it’s up to your agent to play matchmaker and find you the perfect match.   

4) Negotiate Contracts

A middle grade author signing a publishing contract with her literary agent sitting next to her

Having a literary agent is not a replacement for a good entertainment attorney (even though some agents have law degrees). However, good literary agents don’t just know their way around publishing contracts—they’re familiar with how those contracts differ from publisher to publisher.

Either they have personal experience negotiating points in those contracts, or one of their colleagues does.

5) Advocate on Your Behalf

Lean on them to help you understand what to expect in your publishing contract, and ask lots of questions. Just make sure you take the responsibility to not only read but to understand what you read. If you sign a contract you don’t fully understand and something goes wrong, you only have yourself to blame.

Literary agents are advocates for the authors they represent. The good news is that you’re in this together. After all, they don’t make money unless you sign a publishing contract—and the higher the contract, the more they’ll get paid. They also look out for your best interest to ensure that you keep as many rights as you can, while at the same time trying to maximize the marketing efforts to promote your book.

6) Career Advice

The two of you are a dynamic duo—but instead of Batman and Robin, it’s more like Batman and Alfred. Or maybe you’re Frodo and your agent is Gandalf. Or Luke and either Yoda or Obiwan. Anyway, you get the picture. No one will be more professionally vested in your career than your agent.

I’m going to assume that you want your writing career to last more than your first book deal. You can get great advice from other authors, and even from your editor. But your literary agent is set up to give you the best advice.

She wants you to succeed because she cares about you and because it means that she’s finding success. She will also have the benefit of knowing the current publishing landscape through her dealings with her other authors—as well as through conversations with other agents and editors.

7) Emotional Support

Literary agents understand that many of us are temperamental artists, whether we want to be or not. The publishing industry isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a career filled with rejection every step of the way and now and again that rejection will affect you more than you ever thought it would.

Here are some scenarios that could trigger self-doubt and depression:

  • Your manuscript is rejected by several editors
  • You have interest from editors, but none of them are at a Big 5 publisher
  • You aren’t working with the most powerful editor at a publishing house
  • You get a long editorial letter from the editor requesting a ton of changes
  • Your book doesn’t get a book tour, end cap displays, or much marketing support at all
  • You don’t make any bestseller lists
  • You don’t win any awards
  • You get a bad review from Kirkus
  • You don’t sell as many books as you’d hoped
  • You didn’t get invited to speak at a writers conference
  • You got invited to speak at a writers conference, but not as a keynote

Struggling with those issues Your agent has been there with other clients, and they’ll help you find the right perspective. Just remember, you never want to get the reputation as being high maintenance.

Sure, your feelings are real and your agent is always there for you. Just remember that your happiness and contentment is ultimately your own responsibility.

Okay, now that you understand the seven key functions of a literary agent let’s look at some other critical aspects of the relationship between agent and author.

What is an Agency Agreement?

Author shaking hands with her literary agent over her agency agreement

An agency agreement is a contract between a literary agency and an author that sets the terms of the business relationship. I signed agreements with both agencies that represented me, but not all agencies offer agreements. Some prefer an agency clause that’s inserted in your publishing contract.

The Author’s Guild recommends an agency agreement over an agency clause for a variety of reasons that range from the potential of awarding agencies with undue income to driving layers of difficulty for your heirs.

Make sure you push for an agency agreement and when you do, have it reviewed by a lawyer.

What an Agency Agreement Covers

How Much Should You Pay a Literary Agent?

Nobody likes contracts. Negotiations can feel awkward and there can be fear on behalf of an author. What if you ask for changes and the agency drops you because they think you’re too difficult?

That likelihood is low, but if it happens then you were with the wrong agency. Here are a few important things that your agency agreement will cover.

Authors don’t pay literary agents directly. Instead, reputable agents earn a commission of the royalties received by an author for the books that agent negotiated. Here are the standard rates:

  • 15% of domestic sales
  • 20% of foreign subsidiary rights and translations
  • 15%-20% of film rights
  • 15%-20% of audio book rights

Do Agents Represent Everything You Write or Just Specific Manuscripts?

Agency agreements typically cover a specific book or series of books for a defined period of time. If an agent negotiates a contract with a publisher for that book or series, she then receives a commission on the royalties in perpetuity.

However, an agent may ask for first right of refusal to represent all of your books, which makes sense for you and the agent. Building continuity often gives you an edge.

Agency Expenses

Your agency agreement will likely ask you to cover common expenses like printing your manuscript or using a courier to send your manuscript to an editor across town.

The good news is that most of that happens digitally in today’s marketplace so these expenses should be minimal. Make sure there is an annual cap for those expense. The Author’s Guild recommends that you require approvals for anything over $75.

Don’t Forget the Termination Agreement

Sometimes relationships don’t work out, so make sure that your agency agreement includes a termination clause that give specific definition to how long it takes for the clause to go into effect, and what happens with the books they’ve already represented, the books they are in the middle of pitching to editors, and books that are in development that have not been pitched yet.

What is an Agency Clause?

Literary agent and middle grade author discussing the agency clause

Some literary agencies prefer an “interminable agency” clause to an agency agreement. An agency clause grants the agency the exclusive rights to represent the book for the life of the copyright.

The believe of the Author’s Guild is that the agencies who use it simply do so out of habit and that there is little benefit on their behalf. In fact, is the opinion of the Guild that the “interminable agency” clause can cause the following problems for an author:

  • It may entitle an agency to unearned income. The agency earns a commission for negotiating your contract, but their cut should end once the book goes out of print. Granting their commission in perpetuity is virtually the same thing as giving them permanent ownership shares in your intellectual property.
  • Complications for your executor. Your executor will have to track which of your books is still under contract, and if they are your estate would have to pay the agency royalties even if you decide to self-publish books that had gone out of print.
  • Agencies go out of business. If an agency isn’t around for the entire term of your copyright (your lifetime plus another 70 years), what would your estate do?
  • Conflicts with other agreements with that same agency. There are known cases (most notably with the William Morris Agency) where the interminable agency in the publishing contract conflicts with the author agreement. The Guild believes it would render the clause as unenforceable, but you might have to go to court.

The good news is that most reputable agents to relinquish the requirement to represent out-of-print books when asked.

Common Questions About Literary Agents

The following is a list of common questions about literary agents that will help you better understand what a literary agent does. The objective is to help you decide if you need a literary agent to represent your work.

Do you need a literary agent to sell a book to a publisher?

In some instances, you will need a literary agent to sell your manuscript to a publisher, in others you will not. Editors at large publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

How hard is it to get a literary agent?

Instead, they rely on trusted literary agents to act as gatekeepers who supply them with the very best stories. However, there are a number of smaller publishers and independent publishers who accept submissions without an agent.

For most of us, getting an agent is no easy task. For others, it was not difficult at all. The truth is that if your pitch is strong and your manuscript demands attention, you’ll eliminate most of the competition.

The bulk of submissions that agents receive are easy to eliminate due to poor writing, tired plots, or overall lack of interest. Still, the submission process is more than the quality of your pitch. It’s about timing, and maybe just a dash of luck.

Do agents only work with established authors?

The good news for writers looking for representation is that even the most successful literary agents are looking for new clients. However, if they have a deep roster filled with bestselling authors, they can be picky. But for every established agent there’s at least one new agent looking to build her career with exciting new authors.

Do you need a book deal before you get an agent?

There are authors who will tell you that they couldn’t get a sniff from an agent until they procured their own book deal. Once they did, agents were hungry to swoop in, negotiate the contract, and the reap the financial rewards for the hard work that the author did.

In my estimation that’s extremely rare. Most agents don’t expect you to come to them with a book deal in hand. Of course, there’s no doubt it would make it easier but it’s by no means a requirement.

Does having an agent guarantee that you’ll get published?

Signing an agreement with an agent is exhilarating, but it’s no guarantee that your book will be published. In fact, authors with a proven track record of sales get released by agents because those agents are unable to sell new works from those established authors.

Are the best agents in New York City?

A literary agent on the street in New York City talking on a cell phone

Most of the best literary agents in the world live and work in New York City, but not all of them. There are fantastic agents in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Colorado Springs.

However, the advantage to living in New York City is that’s where most of the publishing houses are located, which means that where most of the most influential editors live.

Yes, video conferencing, texting, and email have made it possible to do business from just about every square inch of our planet. However, there is something to be said about physically spending time with someone. It can help grow a bond that a conference call might not achieve.

If you are interested in working with a literary agent who is not in New York City, that shouldn’t be a deal killer. However, at the very least you’ll want to make sure whoever you sign with travels there a few times each year.

Where to Look for a Literary Agent

I’ve compiled a list of resources to help you find a literary agent once you’re ready to start your search. Be sure that your journey begins with The Definitive Guide to Middle Grade Literary Agents (2019), which we update on a regular basis.

Related Questions

What is a Query Letter? A query letter is a one-page pitch document where an author requests permission to send a literary agent an original manuscript for the purpose of that agent representing that author and then selling the work to a publishing house.

Who are Famous Literary Agents? There are a few well-known literary agents, however, the level of fame depends on your proximity to the publishing industry. Names include Morton Lloyd Janklow (Danielle Steel), Sterling Lord (Jack Kerouac), Andrew Wylie (Salman Rushdie), Jodi Reamer, Esq. (Stephenie Meyer), Donald Maass, and Noah Lukeman.

Jon Lewis

Jon S. Lewis is the bestselling author of nine novels, including GREY GRIFFINS (Scholastic), CLOCKWORK CHRONICLES (Little Brown), CHAOS (Thomas Nelson), and a few comics for DC. He is also an award-winning digital marketing executive.

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