We all know that book publishing is a business, but the steps a writer or illustrator needs to take in securing the interest of a publisher is also a business in itself, and a confusing one at best. What is the role of an agent in this process and do you think you might need one to help you in your ambition to get published?
Do you need an agent?
An agent usually earns 10-15% of what the author earns, so if you’re a poet or a short story writer your work will likely not make enough money to make having an agent cost-effective. However, if your writing has more commercial potential, it might make sense to have an agent share the workload involved in helping you to get your foot in the door.
So how do you make sure you have the agent that suits you?
You can pay for a manuscript to be assessed or for a fifteen minute portfolio surgery, but how helpful really are these services in moving a book towards commercial success? It’s a difficult question to answer as there are many variables within the business and different business models to look at which would be beyond the scope of this article. The search term ‘Literary Agent’ in Google brings up an endless list of publishing type business offering to publish your book BUT at YOUR expense.
So what should you look for in an agent? Do you really need one and do you have to pay for an agent’s service?
Artists’ agents are certainly easier to understand and work with: they may make a request for a contribution to the cost of a specially printed catalogue, but normally will take a percentage of what you are being paid instead.
As a represented artist, your artwork will be shown in portfolio meetings and via website to designers and editors who will be looking for artwork for new projects they have commissioned or acquired. When the artist is chosen by the commissioning editor, the brief will be forwarded and a contract issued by the publisher. The agent will invoice the publisher when the artwork is completed and accepted, dealing with any problems along the way. Using an agent to find you work leaves you free to pursue your work and can help to raise awareness of your abilities among clients with whom you might not have direct contact.
The term ‘Literary Agent’ and the nature of what they do is not so straightforward.
Like an artist’s agent, a literary agent is the middle person between an author or artist and a potential acquisitions editor and the publisher they represent. A literary agent’s work is to find an editor who will like your manuscript or idea for a book enough for them to make an offer to publish it. Literary agents can have a network of contacts and relationships with editors at publishing houses so they know what the editors are looking for, and they can be expert at finding the right editor for the author’s submission.
A literary agent will present your idea for a book or your finished manuscript to publishers and, when the book has been optioned, will try to negotiate the best terms in the contract. As literary agents work on commission (usually 10-15% percent), it is in the agent’s best interest to negotiate financially rewarding contract terms with publishers. Literary agents usually do not have any legal training but they will have detailed knowledge of book contracts. Once a contract is negotiated and signed, a literary agent can manage the author’s business affairs in connection with the publishing deal, including secondary rights for film and television, contractual disputes, royalty statements and the chasing of outstanding payments.
The literary agent can suggest changes to a manuscript to increase its value and saleability, but they would not be expected to do line-by-line editing. They can offer encouragement, help shape your career by suggesting new ideas to attract a wider audience and would help guide you towards meeting publisher deadlines, but you should not expect a literary coach. Neither should you expect your agent to be your personal banker, accountant or, indeed, psychiatrist!
Finding the right literary agent for you will require doing some homework: Look at the acknowledgements pages in books which may be in the same genre as you are working on. Find out the agent’s submission information. Carefully write a short letter giving a brief biography (do not do a mass emailing), explaining why you are writing and giving a basic outline of your novel. Once you have found the right agent for you, find out what the contractual obligations between you and your agent will be and make sure that you understand the implications. Literary agents do not charge a fee to represent a writer nor do they ask for a reading fee, tuition fee or mentoring fees, so avoid anyone who tries to charge you for these services!