What Do Literary Agents Do?

Before signing with an agent, many authors don’t realize just how much a literary agent does on behalf of his or her clients. Not all agents fill all of the roles we’ll discuss today–for example, some line edit client work and others do not. But then, not all authors want an agent to perform all of these functions, either. The key is finding an agent who offers the range of services you’re looking for, and who makes a good personal and business fit for your needs. Before you sign with an agent, talk with him or her about business practices and preferences, to ensure a proper match.

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And now, let’s look at what agents actually do:

1. Selling Client Work to Publishers. Agents pitch (and hopefully sell) clients’ book-length works to publishers. Many agents represent only book-length fiction, though some represent private anthologies and works of other lengths as well.

2. Negotiating Publishing Contracts. After an offer comes in, the agent reviews and negotiates the publishing contract. Good agents keep up to date on the current industry standards in contract language, & push for the best possible contract terms.

3. Acting as the Author’s Intermediary With the Publishing House. If the author disagrees with something the publisher does, or would like to request a change to jacket copy, cover art, or a deadline, it’s the agent’s job to deliver that news. Agents are often better equipped to deal with a publisher’s “no” or difficult situations, especially compared with newer authors.

4. Offering critique and comment on the author’s manuscript. Not all agents are “editorial” (meaning they don’t all offer in-depth critique) but any good agent will give the author feedback on finished manuscripts. I prefer working with an editorial agent, and my agent’s feedback often points out issues that neither I nor my critique partners noticed.

5. Acting as the client’s sounding board for new ideas. At least once a year, I meet with my agent in person, by phone, or by email to discuss my writing plans and future projects. Good agents help authors choose which ideas to develop, and how to approach them in effective, salable ways. The agent’s enthusiasm for a project can also spark the author’s creativity, inspiring an even better approach to the work. This is one reason it’s so important to find the right agent match, however. If an agent isn’t excited about the projects the author wants to write, there may be a mismatch. This is one reason it’s important to have an honest conversation with the agent before you sign–to see if you’re on the same page.

7. Review of sales and accounting statements from the publisher. Publishers normally send royalty checks and sales statements directly to the author’s agent. Authors often have difficulty understanding royalty statements, but agents have the experience to review them for accuracy.

8. Sub-rights management and sales. Even if an author “can” submit a work to a publishing house, it’s harder for authors to sell subsidiary rights (for example, translation, foreign sales, and movie rights). Literary agents have more experience in this area, and can work with specialist agencies to manage these specialized rights.

9. Re-selling a series (or new works) if a publisher drops the author’s work. Nobody likes to discuss (or anticipate) failure, but publishers often “release” an author–for many reasons–midway through a series. Agents help the author find a home for the next project–sometimes, even the next series project–and help the author’s career remain on track.

10. Helping hybrid authors with various aspects of their careers. Some agencies have also started helping hybrid authors with self-publishing, for example, by connecting authors with experienced printers, cover artists, and copy editors. While most agents don’t represent purely self-published authors, many are willing to talk with authors who want hybrid careers–another reason to research prospective agents carefully before you query.

Not every agent is a good match for every author’s business style and needs. The key is finding the agent who meets your needs.

The right agent is more than just a person who pitches your work to an editor. When the fit is right, the author-agent partnership offers benefits far beyond obtaining an offer or negotiating contracts. However, the wrong fit often results in frustration for both the agent and the author. Take the time to research agents thoroughly, and to talk to the agent (by phone or in person) before you sign.

Have questions about literary agents or how agency representation works? Feel free to ask in the comments or tweet me using the #PubLaw hashtag!