How to Work With Literary Agents | NY Book Editors
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Here's What Literary Agents Want You to Know

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If you'd like to publish your book the traditional way (i.e., with a publisher vs. self-publishing), you need a literary agent. A literary agent serves as your representative and can get you in front of publishers who would never consider you otherwise.

In the world of traditional publishing, your literary agent is your biggest advocate. Getting a literary agent isn't easy and you may have questions, including:

  • What is a literary agent?

  • Do I need a literary agent?

  • How do I find the right literary agent?

  • What do I need to know about working with a literary agent?

In this guide, we share the answers to all of these questions and more. Let’s get started.

What is a Literary Agent?

Also known as a book agent, a literary agent is an author’s representative. They serve as a liaison between authors and publishing companies.

Think of a literary agent as your business partner. They will agree to represent you if they think your book is saleable both to a publisher and to the general public. Once in a contract, a literary agent will work on your behalf to ensure that you get an audience with publishing companies. And, in addition to leveraging their massive network, your agent is likely to be a skilled negotiator who can get you the best deal for your book.

Work With Literary Agents

Do I Need a Literary Agent?

When you first start on your journey to publishing a book, everything is unfamiliar. This can make the entire process stressful. But publishing should be an exciting time. You're finally making your book available to the public. By securing a literary agent, you take a major step forward in your path to becoming a published author.

A literary agent plays a necessary role in traditional book publishing. Think of them as guides, because without them, the gate is locked. Here’s why:

At some point, almost everyone has a story to tell, whether the story is a memoir, a children’s book, or a sci-fi saga. While not everyone will approach a publisher with their book idea, even the few who do can completely overwhelm a publisher. The average publisher can receive hundreds or even thousands of manuscripts per week. This is why many publishers completely reject unsolicited manuscripts. Otherwise, the publisher would be inundated with publishing requests from author-hopefuls.

The literary agent acts as the first entry point to the world of publishing. If you’re able to convince an agent that your book is worth a second look, then the odds are in your favor of getting a book deal eventually. Publishers trust agents to vet manuscripts first. An agent’s endorsement doesn’t automatically guarantee a book deal, but it does remove some of the publisher’s initial apprehension about an unsolicited manuscript.

This is another big reason to partner with a literary agent. Networking is a huge part of their job. They maintain relationships with acquisitions editors at many publishing houses, and will know who to approach with your manuscript. For example, a large publishing house may have several smaller imprints. Your agent will know which imprint will be the best option for your manuscript.

Your agent will likely send your manuscript to several publishers. Sometimes, a query garners the attention of multiple publishers. When this happens, the literary agent may entertain multiple bids. This is the best-case scenario because you'll likely walk away with a better book deal.

Your agent will be paid a percentage of what you, the author, are paid. For this reason, they have a vested interest in finding the best possible deal.

How Do I Find a Literary Agent?

There are literary agents for every genre. Most agents specialize in one or more literary genres and will only entertain queries for books written in their preferred genres. So the first step in finding an agent for your book is to narrow your search to agents who specialize in your genre.

Before you spend time trying to find agents on Google, start with our literary agent search service.

With our service, you don't have to scour the web to find agents. We'll send a list directly to your inbox. This will save you time and eliminate the frustration of searching multiple sites and social media.

You will receive an email every Wednesday with a list of reputable agents who are accepting queries in your genre. In fact, in your subscription, you can choose two genres. We have 16 different genres you can choose from. Click here to sign up for our literary agent alert service.

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

Follow these simple but powerful rules to work effectively with literary agents.

Complete Your Manuscript

The rules are different for fiction vs non-fiction. If you're writing a non-fiction book, it's okay to create a detailed proposal that outlines what you plan to cover. Learn how to pitch your non-fiction manuscript like a pro here.

If you’re writing fiction, you should have your book 100% complete before sending out queries to literary agents. This includes polishing up your first draft through the magic of editing.

Why is it important to have your book complete before querying agents?

Two words: Quick response. You should be able to strike while the iron is hot. If an agent responds to your query with a request for the rest of the manuscript, the last thing you want to do is say, “I'll send it to you in six to 12 months.” The agent won't wait that long. The market may not even wait that long. You must be prepared to send a manuscript immediately. Agents don't gamble on your potential.

Work With Literary Agents

Know What to Look for in an Agent

Always look for an agent who specializes in your genre. Most agents are straightforward. They'll spell out exactly what genre they represent, usually on their website. And, of course, if you use our service, we’ll only send you agents who specialize in your genre and who have represented authors and books that you respect or like.

Bottom line? Focus on agents for your genre. Otherwise, you'll waste their time and yours.

Read the Rules

So you've made a list of agents who specialize in your genre. Great! But don't forget this next step: Before sending out the queries to literary agents, be sure to read their submission guidelines carefully.

Send Queries in Batches

Don't send too many queries and don't send too few. The sweet spot is between five to 10 query letters at one time. If you don't get any response back within two months, consider reworking your query letter.

Interview Potential Literary Agents

When an agent responds positively to your query letter, keep this in mind: You may be excited, but don't automatically sign with the first literary agent who expresses interest in your work. While they may be the right fit, there may also be a better fit out there and you may not find them if you rush this step.

Here are a few questions you can ask a literary agent during your interview to find out if they're the right partner for you:

Here are some questions to determine whether they're the right partner:

  • What makes you the best choice for representing this book?

  • What changes to the book or my proposal, if any, would you like before you pitch my book to a publisher?

  • What is your commission?

  • What is your preferred communication method? (Email, phone, text)

  • How often will I get updates from you?

  • How soon will you pitch my book?

Expect Agents to Help You Improve your Manuscript

While an agent isn't an editor, they are literary professionals with an eye for what sells. Use this advice to improve your manuscript, which will increase your chances of getting a green light from a publisher.

No book is perfect. Every book can benefit from the expert eye of an agent who knows what sells.

An agent may roll up their sleeves and offer in-depth editorial advice. But more often than not, they’ll give you a sense of direction and expect you to make the necessary adjustments. At this point, you can use an editorial service, like ours, to refine your manuscript so that it’s ready to be shopped around to publishers. Of course, you can also do this before reaching out to a literary agent, too.

Establish the Lines of Communication

How often you hear from your agent will vary based on the agent's personal communication style. Some agents are very communicative, keeping authors in the loop every step of the way. Other agents may only contact you when they have an offer.

Most agents are busy and won't be in constant contact with you. Instead of networking with authors, agents are usually networking with acquisitions agents. They're busy selling your book and others that they represent.

Be Patient

Publishing is a waiting game. The beginning will require a lot of work on your end, so it will feel busier. In the beginning, you’ll find and research potential agents, send out queries, interview agents, and polish your manuscript and query letter. Then, once your manuscript is firmly in your agent’s hand, the only thing left for you to do is wait.

Be patient during this time. Or, better yet, get started on your next book while you wait!

Final Thoughts

Your literary agent will play a central role in your success as a traditionally published author.

Use the above tips to ensure that you’re working effectively with your agent and getting the most from your professional relationship.

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