The Aspiring Author’s Guide to Literary Agents

The Aspiring Author’s Guide to Literary Agents

If you’re just starting out in your writing career, you might wonder how the whole agent thing works. Getting a literary agent often seems just as challenging as getting published, and you can’t undersell the importance of this decision and the relationship that results. Signing with an agent is a legal and financial relationship that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, but the difficulty in securing an agent sometimes makes writers feel like they have zero power in the dynamic.

If you’re just starting out in the writing game and you’re wondering if you need an agent and how you might go about getting one, here’s what you need to know.

Do You Need an Agent?

Do you have a finished, polished book you think is ready to publish? You may be wrong about just how ready your book is, but typically it’s crucial that you have a finished book. Agents are generally in the business of selling completed books, not vague ideas or books you assume Future You will someday write. If your “book” isn’t so much a completed manuscript as a vision board and some good intentions, hit pause and come back here when you’re actually finished with your book.

It should be noted that this applies mostly to fiction. If your book is non-fiction, you can often get an agent to sign you based on a detailed proposal even if you haven’t actually written the book yet. But that proposal has to be pretty solid, and needs to have some detailed info regarding the market and why you think your book will sell.

And there’s something called “platform” that can affect whether or not you need a completed manuscript. Platform is your established audience—your social media followers, or your newsletter subscribers, or you level of fame and notoriety within a niche. If you have a huge platform with millions of fans who are primed to buy your book, you might find agents a bit more lenient on the whole “must have a completed manuscript or terrific proposal” requirement because your platform reduces the risk.

Now, to the question most writers ask today: Do you even need an agent?

Put simply, that’s the wrong question.

First, we have to define “need.” Can you sell a book to a publisher without an agent? Sure! Of course you can ( I did). Many publishers will look at a manuscript that’s not represented by an agent (often referred to as an “unsolicited” submission), and you certainly don’t need an agent to self-publish your book. So in a very real sense you don’t “need” an agent.

The better question is, do you want an agent? The mistake many writers make is assuming that all agents do is sell your book to a publisher, which seems like something you could learn to do on your own, saving you fifteen percent on every deal. But while agents aren’t magical pixies who can wave their wands and make you rich and famous, they’re professionals who partner with authors to mutual benefit, and they bring a long list of skills and knowledge—access and expertise authors often lack on their own.

If you’re not sure if an agent would benefit your writing career, ask yourself a few questions, including (but not limited to):

  • Do you want to be traditionally published?
  • Do you understand contracts? (I’m one of those special people who thinks they understand contracts but very definitely do not.)
  • Do you know what’s negotiable, and what’s considered standard/boilerplate in a contract?
  • Do you have a comprehensive knowledge of the market?
  • Do you have editors’s phone numbers in your phone? Will they answer if you call?
  • Do you have access to foreign markets and film rights markets, or a trusted partner who has that access?
  • Do you know what’s happening legally with book contracts? E.g., do you know about the new morality clauses being added to book contracts?

If you’re committed to self-publishing, or very confident in your ability to navigate all the legal, editorial, and sales challenges involved with traditional publishing, you’re totally fine to proceed without an agent. But consider what you get in exchange for your fifteen percent.

Agent Basics

A good literary agent adds a lot of value to your writing journey. When you sign with an agent, you’re typically signing a contract giving them the right to represent you—and this is pretty literal, as they’re representing your interests when negotiating deals, contracts, and other aspects of your career.

In exchange for their efforts to sell and promote your work and advise you, a literary agent receives 15 percent of all advances, royalties, and subrights sales associated with your book. This can vary with subrights, depending on specific relationships—for example, if a separate film agent is engaged, you might have to pay them an additional percentage. Fifteen percent can seem like a lot, but those “efforts” add up pretty quickly.

What Agents Do

Selling

The primary service your agent should provide is marketing your work. Contrary to popular misconception, this is a lot of work. Selling your book to a publisher involves

  • Research. Your agent will create a list of potential markets for your book, based on the publisher’s list (what they typically publish) and the stated needs of the editors who work there. They’ll also do market research to come up with numbers that support your book—the size of the potential audience, comparable books that have sold well, and your own sales record and social media platform if relevant.
  • Pitching. Your agent will craft a pitch for your book. This involves everything from the market research they’ve done to the more subtle stuff, like a personalized pitch to each editor based on their relationship and what the editor is looking for. This pitch can vary a lot if your agent thinks your book straddles different genres.
  • Contact and follow-up. It’s one thing to send out a pitch packet to an editor, it’s something else to keep that pitch at the forefront of their mind. Your agent will keep a record of where those pitches are and when they last discussed it with a particular editor, and will schedule follow-up contacts.=
  • Pivots. Even the best, most targeted pitch can come up dry, so your agent will also probably generate some back-up ideas if you exhaust the first list of publishers. This could be as simple as a second-tier list of smaller publishers to target, or more creative ideas like revising the book to hue closer to a specific genre, or contemplating partnerships with other creators to transform the book into something else, like a graphic novel. These sorts of pivots will always be discussed with you, so you’ll always have a chance to reject the idea.

Accounting

It’s important to note that typically your agent (or the agency they’re part of) will handle all the money associated with your book. Your publisher will send payments to the agent (or the agency they’re part of), the agent takes their percentage and then sends you a payment for the balance. Some authors are surprised by this, so keep it in mind. But also remember that your agent will also handle auditing your publisher’s books and double- and triple-checking your royalty statements and sales reports. You might feel like fifteen percent is a lot of money, but the first time your agent spots a discrepancy that results in a higher royalty payout it won’t seem like much at all.

One thing to understand is that if your agent sells a book for you, that financial relationship is forever. Even if you part ways with your agent at a later date, the publisher will send any royalties to them on your behalf, because your agent will be embedded in the book’s contract. If they’re part of an agency and later leave that agency, the money will still go to the agency, and slowly filter to you from there. It’s not a small thing to link yourself to someone else like this, so you should never do it lightly.

Promotion

A good agent doesn’t just wander away after your book has sold. They’ll turn their energies to helping you market and promote it. This can involve:

  • Social media advice. Your agent will have opinions about how you’re using your social media platform, and their advice will be based on not just their experience but the experience of every author they know. Which is probably a lot of authors.
  • Outreach. Your agent can suggest things like a quarterly newsletter, a blog, and other contact points like a Substack or contests. They can also offer some advice and context on how to leverage these tools effectively. These simple steps can increase your audience, promote your book, and raise your brand awareness.
  • Appearances. Your agent is most likely not a publicist, but there’s some overlap. Their deep knowledge of the genre and market means they know what events—conferences, conventions, and other gatherings—are worth going to.

Strategy

It’s often said that writers spend their entire lives working on their debut novel and get six months to write their second. A literary agent can help you figure out what your next move should be after you sign the contract. Sometimes this is as straightforward as conceptualizing a sequel or planning a series, but it could also involve helping you figure out how to branch out, tackle new genres, and think about where you want to be five or ten years into your career. For example, after publishing a sci-fi series, an urban fantasy series, and a two mysteries, my agent noted that I’d written a few articles about writing for Writer’s Digest, and suggested I put together a proposal for a nonfiction writing book. A few months later I signed a contract for what would become Writing Without Rules.

An important aspect of strategy also has to do with disappointment: Sometimes our books don’t sell, or don’t sell well enough. When that happens you’ll appreciate the advice and guidance of an agent who can help you regroup and figure out how to move forward when things don’t quite work out as planned.

Keeping you out of trouble

I don’t know about you, but I’m not always the smartest person in the room when it comes to legal stuff and the implications of things like posting material to my blog or using it in my podcast. Sometimes I wake up to a gentle email from my agent noting that something I’ve posted might make it harder to sell that piece, or could be regarded as problematic due to some contractual obligation or other. Having this kind of partner can save you a lot of headaches simply because we often don’t know what we don’t know.

Subrights

Your agent will most likely have a strategy in regards to subrights associated with your book, like film and TV rights or foreign translation rights. Sometimes these rights will be contractually controlled by your publisher, but if they’re not your agent should have a strategy for pursuing them. This might involve bringing on another professional, like a film agent or a specialist in foreign markets, and there may be a separate contractual relationship with them.

What Agents Cost

Aspiring writers are sometimes confused about the way money works with agents. It’s a lot simpler than you might imagine: Money flows to the author. The first and most important thing to know is that you as the author should never, ever pay an agent to represent you. If a prospective agent tells you that you have to pay them a retainer, deposit, or any other kind of up-front money, walk away. Your agent should only earn money if you earn money (see “Scams” below).

In fact, your agent should never ask you to pay them for anything. If your agent pushes you to pay for editors or any other service that they recommend, it’s another walk away moment, because you shouldn’t be a direct source of income for your agent under any circumstances.

How to Find an Agent

If you decide you want a literary agent to help you sell your work and guide your career, there are a few steps you should follow:

Research

Like everything else in this world, knowledge is power. Agents vary drastically in terms of experience, style, and the types of books they handle, so signing with an agent is about more than simply identifying agents who are currently taking on clients. So you’ll need to put in a little research on a few fundamentals:

  • Genre. Agents are often very specific about the genres they handle—and frankly, if an agent isn’t narrow in what they handle, that’s potentially a problem. Genres are very different—the people who read them are different, and even in this age of consolidation the publishers that serve them are different. So your first step is to narrow your list of potential agents to those who handle the genre that your book falls into.
  • Reputation. Most literary agents are hardworking, legit folks, but every profession has bad apples. You’ll want to check up on any agent on your short list to ensure they don’t have outstanding complaints against them and that they conduct themselves according to professional standards. One thing to look for is whether they’re a member of the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA). While not every agent is a member of the AALA, membership is a sign that they adhere to their “Canon of Ethics.”

Often a simple Google search will reveal if an agent has been accused of wrongdoing or scammy behavior. There are also a few resources you can check out:

  • Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler, where people post experiences and gather information about potential agents.
  • QueryTracker and AgentQuery are literary agent databases that offer a wealth of information about agents, including comments from current and former clients.
  • Experience. Just like you, agents have to start somewhere. Like any profession, people find their way to being a literary agent along different paths, and some of the agents you come across in your research will be starting out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—they may have a wealth of experience from some other aspect of the publishing business, for example, and a lean and hungry young agent might potentially bring some big energy to the job of selling your book—but it’s a data point you should know before making decisions. Checking Publisher’s Marketplace can give you an idea of what the agent has sold. It’s not comprehensive, but it will tell you whether they’ve done any business recently.
  • Style. Working with an agent can be intense and somewhat intimate, so you want someone whose style matches yours to some degree.  Hop on an agent’s social media and see how they operate as you cull your short list. Plus, you can learn a lot about someone from how they manage their social media. Are they fun and sometimes silly? Are they all business? Do they hardly ever post anything? Are they rude and dismissive?

While you’re snooping, you should follow them, too, and try to engage them. This doesn’t mean bomb them with a hundred DMs or photos of their home with ominous messages. It’s okay to respond to a question they throw out to their followers, or praise a book they represented that you enjoyed—but tread lightly. Social media is a weird place. Don’t expect them to remember you from a Twitter exchange, however—this is just a great way to get a feel for a potential business partner.

Landing an Agent

While it can seem intimidating, keep in mind that agents need you—they need talented authors to represent and great books to sell. There’s no reason to be intimidated. At the same time, if agents are telling you that your work isn’t quite ready for prime time, don’t take it personally or get offended. Those are professionals who read a lot of books giving you some free advice. Think about your book objectively and come back with an improved book.

But how do you get into a position to receive that advice in the first place? Once you’ve done your research and you have a shortlist of possible agents, there are two basic approaches:

Query

It’s a song as old as time: See what your potential agents require from potential clients (query letter only, letter plus sample chapters, letter plus entire manuscript) and send out queries.

Every agent is different. Some will take emailed queries, some have specific online portals they require you to use. Some want the entire book, some just want a synopsis. But they will all want a query letter, which is a pretty standard document. While your story is unique in every way, your query letter had better not be. In general, it should be one page long and formatted as a business letter, and it should vaguely follow a specific formula:

  • Intro, in which you introduce yourself, describe any connection you have with the agent (“We met at the Generic Writing Conference last year and you invited me to query you” or “You walked in on me struggling to get into my Boba Fett costume at the Sci Fi Conference and it was awkward”), and describe your book as efficiently as possible—title, genre, word count.
  • Brief setup of your book. This needs to be pretty bare bones—you don’t have space for flourishes, and the agent doesn’t have time. It doesn’t even need to be a synopsis of the whole story—just the first act.
  • A bit about yourself—a bio, basically.

Now, while adhering to this basic structure you can have a little fun. I got my agent years ago by writing a query letter, and I had fun with it—I made a lot of jokes and self-deprecating remarks. That probably didn’t charm every agent I sent it to, but my operating theory is that you should be yourself in query letters, because you don’t want to work with people who don’t share your sense of humor or your worldview.

Send those queries out to every agent on your list. Then walk away and forget about it for a while. Follow up if you don’t hear anything in a few months. Yes, months. Unless the agent indicates clearly that you should expect a response in days or weeks, give them some time. Good agents are inundated with queries. It’s going to take time.

Conferences and pitch slams

Another strategy to use is tracking the conferences your desired agent will be participating in and showing up. Often, agents will do “pitch slams” or other events where you can submit your query to them and they’ll offer you advice—and sometimes suggest you contact them about representation. Even if you don’t get an offer, you’ve at least made the introduction and started a conversation that might someday lead to an offer.

A pitch slam is sort of like speed dating: You walk up to an agent and give them your pitch, which is sort of like an oral version of your query letter—some stats, a synopsis of your book that doubles as a hook, and anything else you can think of that’s relevant. Keep in mind that even more so than the written version, your pitch needs to be quick and efficient—no rambling sixteen-minute plot synopses with 34 named characters, please.

With both querying and in-person pitching, there’s a lot of daylight between “Yes” and “No.” What I mean by that is often agents will offer you a qualified no along with feedback on how they think you could revise the book to make it more attractive to them. This doesn’t mean your book stinks, or that you’re a terrible writer. It also doesn’t mean that the agent is a genius—or that they’ll even sign you if you follow their advice. But it should be taken graciously and thought about seriously. If an agent offers you feedback, they’re trying to help you, so take it in that spirit—and then think about whether or not you agree, or whether or not their advice seems practical in terms of landing them as your agent.

Contract in Hand

While most writers probably land their agents before they are published, some writers manage to sell a manuscript on their own—and that can be the perfect time to land an agent. If you’re weary of pitching and querying and start marketing your book to publishers yourself, don’t throw away that list of agents. If you do sell your novel without an agent (as I did with my first novel Lifers), the best thing you can do is contact the agents who were receptive to your query and see if they’d be interested in representing you. Often they’ll be delighted to take on a client with a sale already in the bag, and they can handle negotiating the terms on your behalf.

Agent Scams

Just like everything else in this world, there are people in the literary world who want to take advantage of you. The vast majority of agents are legit folks who work hard for the money, but some people know that aspiring authors can be easy targets for grift because there’s so much emotion involved. If you’ve been dreaming of publishing your book since you were a kid, you can be tempted to ignore red flags and warning signs when your dream is dangled in front of you by an unscrupulous agent.

Defending yourself against scams starts with recognizing the common signs of one. The Science Fiction Writers of America maintains Writer Beware as a resource for writers, and it has a specific section on literary agents which can be very helpful, and they maintain a “Thumb’s Down” list of agencies that have received complaints. It’s always a good idea to review these resources and others like them when dealing with an agent or agency for the first time.

A few key signs that the literary agent chatting you up is a scam artist include:

  • Requiring a reading fee. If the agent asks you to pay a fee for them to read your book, sample, and/or query, walk away.
  • Requiring you to pay for any service. Whether it’s a marketing fee, a third-party critique fee, or anything else, your agent is scamming you. This is different from a suggestion. Your agent may suggest that you should look into hiring someone, but it shouldn’t be a requirement—and the money should never pass through your agent.
  • Forcing you to pay them for editing services. Nope. If an agent thinks your book is 95 percent there but needs a solid copy edit, they’ll say so, but they shouldn’t require you to pay them—or someone in their employ, or a partner—to do it.
  • Pressure to purchase add-ons. A literary agent often wears many hats—part-time social media guru, unofficial marketing director, full-time therapist and emotional support human—but they shouldn’t offer you additional services like designing your web page or anything else.
  • ‘Selling’ your book to subsidy publishers. If your agent announces they’ve sold your book and it will only cost you $5,000, run away. They’re probably getting a commission, which means they’re just salespeople.

There’s a theme here, right? All these scams have money flowing from the writer to the agent. The way it should always work is the other way around.

Getting an agent won’t magically transform you into a bestselling author or a major literary celebrity—but an agent is an incredible resource that will absolutely help you in your career if you want to be traditionally published. Finding and landing an agent takes hard work—but it pays off.

Further Reading


The Aspiring Author’s Guide to Literary Agents
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