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Best Practices for Working With a Literary Agent

FEATURED IMAGE New York Book Editors 01 17 22 Best Practices for Working With a Literary Agent

If you want to go with a recognizable publisher instead of self-publishing your book, you’ll need to find legitimate representation. This means you’ll need to get a literary agent. But getting a literary agent is not easy, and there are a few things to know when working with them.

In this guide, we’ll explain what a literary agent does and what you, the author, should do to create a successful relationship with your agent.

Let’s get started.

What is a Literary Agent?

Work With a Literary Agent

A literary agent, also known as a book agent, is a person who represents authors. In particular, a literary agent helps authors get a publishing contract. They read manuscripts, agree to sign an author that they’d like to represent, and then they shop the author’s book around to publishers.

Literary agents are focused on the business side of the literary world. They have a strong understanding of what sells and what doesn’t. Therefore, a literary agent will only agree to represent an author when the agent believes the book has a good chance of selling. And it’s not just for the sake of their reputation. Literary agents only get paid when your book sells. Agents earn a percentage from the sale of your book.

Think of your literary agent as your business partner. If they take you on as a client, your literary agent advocates for you, wants the best for you, seeks out the right publisher for you, and will work tirelessly to ensure that you secure the most favorable contract from a publisher.

Think of your literary agent as your business partner. But, you can also think of them as your best friend. Here's why:

You can also think of them as your best friend. They’ll be there to offer professional advice about your manuscript, hold your hand while guiding you through the world of publishing, and encourage you when you’re down because of a lack of offers.

Agents are a necessary component in the literary industry. Without literary agents, publishers would be bombarded with nonstop manuscripts. Therefore, most publishers only accept recommendations from a literary agent. A literary agent’s endorsement holds a great deal of influence because publishers trust the expert opinion of agents.

While they work as the go-between for you and a publisher, they’re always in your corner. After all, they get paid when you do.

Many literary agents may start their career as an editor. This gives them a greater understanding of the literary world, from representation to production. This also allows them to forge relationships with editors and publishers.

A literary agent may work independently, but they most likely work for a literary agency.

What Does a Literary Agent Do?

Let’s take a closer look at what a literary agent does, and why their service is necessary to authors who want to get published with a traditional publisher.

Acquire Submissions

Literary agents often (but not always) seek out new submissions. Sometimes, an agency may be inundated with a lot of manuscripts and close their submissions until they have the opportunity to sort through what they’ve received. Agents accept submissions most often through their website, email, and social media.

Here are the do’s and don’ts of approaching a literary agent.

Represent Authors

After identifying a book that they believe in, an agent will offer to represent the author. If the author accepts, the agent will then work directly with the author to ensure that their manuscript is in the best condition possible before shopping it around to different publishers. The agent will represent the author and act in the author’s best interest when it comes to payment, publishing agreements, and rights.

Specialize

Literary agents often specialize in a particular genre or group of genres. When looking for an agent, it’s critical to seek out those who represent authors in your genre. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time and theirs.

Advise

A literary agent will act as a trusted adviser. They will give you advice on what to tweak in your book to make it more sellable. They’ll explain what to expect when publishing your book, which is invaluable if you don’t understand the process. You can lean on their wisdom when they’re explaining the terms of a publishing contract.

Maintain Relationships With Top Publishing Houses

One of the biggest benefits of working with a literary agent is that you gain access to their large list of contacts. It’s part of an agent’s job to network with publishers, specifically buyer editors. Buyer editors work for a publisher. Their job is to acquire books and oversee the book’s production at the publisher. A literary agent needs a good rapport with these editors. If they develop relationships with key decision-makers, literary agents can then recommend your book and you’ll have a higher chance of getting accepted.

Negotiate Contracts

Agents usually get paid 15% out of your advance and book royalties. Because how much you get impacts how much they get paid, it’s in the agent’s own best interest to ensure that you get the best deal from a publisher. If multiple publishers are interested in publishing your manuscript, agents can also conduct auctions to find the best deal.

Read

It may go without saying that agents are readers, but they probably read more than you think. They’re constantly reading, not just manuscript submissions, but they’re also reading best sellers of multiple genres to keep up with trends. They research the market to ensure that they’re finding books that will sell to today’s audience.

Manage

A literary agent will oversee the production of your book, from submission to publication and beyond. They’ll be your representative when it comes to contract negotiation, marketing, and publicity. A lot of what agents do occurs between the agent and the publisher.

What are the Best Practices for Working With a Literary Agent?

Work With a Literary Agent

Here’s what you need to know before working with a literary agent:

Sell Yourself

Before your agent sells your book to others, you must first sell your book to them. Be sure to do your research. Know who the agent has represented before, and decide if they’re the best choice for you. You’ll also use this information when making a personal plea to the agent (i.e. a query letter). Help the literary agent understand why you’re the right pick for their agency, and explain what shelf your book will go on (and why).

Here’s how to write a darn good query letter.

Sell Yourself a Lot

You can’t just query a handful of literary agents. To increase your chances of getting an interested agent, you need to send out dozens, if not hundreds, of query letters. Be sure to tweak each query letter to the specific agency. Customizing your query letters also improves your chances of getting a response. And after sending out those queries, be patient. It takes a while for agents to go through their submission pile.

Be Transparent

Always be transparent with your agent. If you’ve been published before (even if it was self-published) or if you’re currently working with another agent, let your potential agent know. They’ll find out eventually. This is why it’s important to be truthful at the start of your business partnership so that you don’t lose your agent’s trust down the road.

Inform Them of Other Offers

If you hit the jackpot and get multiple offers of representation from different agents, be sure to let other agents (who haven’t responded back to you) know about it. Some agents use other agents to vet authors, and will then offer to represent after there’s interest.

Carefully Consider the Contract

Don’t just sign up with the first agent to make an offer. Read through the contract and ask someone else to read through your contract. It’s best to hire a lawyer, but you can also work with anyone who understands contracts and is not emotionally attached.

Know Who You'll Be Working With

Some agents are hands-on and will be there to answer every question. Others will be there for the big moments but otherwise work indirectly through their assistant. This isn’t necessarily bad, because an assistant may be able to dedicate more time, especially if that agent is busy networking and promoting your book. It’s a good idea to know who you’ll be working with, so ask at the start of your relationship.

Listen to Your Agent

After you’ve decided to sign with an agent, trust them to guide you through the publishing process. They’re experienced, so give them the respect and freedom to conduct the business side of things.

Final Thoughts

If you want to increase your chances of selling to a Big 5 publisher…

If you want expert guidance to help you navigate the world of publishing…

If you want to establish a trusted partnership with an industry expert…

Get a literary agent.

Remember that your literary agent is your strongest ally in the industry and they want to help you succeed. Follow the above tips on how to work with a literary agent.

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