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What You Need to Know about Literary Agents

At a certain point in a writer’s career, he or she will be faced with a professional dilemma: should I get an agent? At one time, the general consensus was that every writer needed an agent if they wanted to experience any kind of success. That’s not necessarily the rule of thumb today; the rise of e-publishing and self-publishing are giving writers a lot more options. Many writers have been published without the help of an agent, and many writers with agents are still waiting to see their names in print. In this post, we’re addressing the most common concerns on this topic to help you wade through the uncertain waters of signing with an agent.

What can literary agents do for your writing career?

What does an agent do?

An agent works on your behalf to sell your manuscript to publishers. Among other things, they act as the liaison between the writer and the publisher. They will advocate for the creative integrity of your work, keep you on track with your writing schedule, help with the editing process to meet publishers’ requirements, negotiate a good deal, secure foreign and screenplay rights, and much more.

Even though writing is a creative process, successful writers know that it is still a business. Many writers are too busy doing what they do best – writing! – to pay enough attention to the business side of their work. This is where the agent comes in.

Do I need an agent?

The answer will be different for each writer, but the real answer is no. You do not need an agent to get your work published. That being said, you may want to use an agent in order to save you time and improve your success rate. Agents have expert knowledge on the publishing industry, and know which markets are best suited for your writing – knowledge you may not have.

An agent is only necessary to help shop your novel. You won’t need an agent if you’re writing short stories or poetry. A good time to look for an agent is when you’ve completed at least one manuscript and have a good idea of what your next few books will be like.

How do I find an agent?

Keep in mind that just because you want an agent, does not mean they necessarily want you! An agent is looking for material that sells, and if they don’t think they can sell your work, they probably won’t want to waste their time. With that in mind, begin browsing the internet for agents who are accepting new clients, and who focus on your genre of writing.

Next, you’ll submit your query. This should include: the first three chapters of your manuscript, a brief synopsis, and a cover letter listing your publishing history and asking for representation. Most agents will include submission guidelines on their websites – be sure to read these carefully! It can take time to find an agent; they get nearly as many submissions as publishers. Be patient and do your research to make sure you’re reaching out to someone who’s a good fit for you.

How do I recognize a bad agent?

Many writers are nervous to sign with an agent because they’ve heard horror stories of agents ripping their clients off. Here are a few warning signs:

–          If an agent charges you a fee to read your manuscript, or any upfront expenses
–          If an agent refuses to give you references of books or authors he’s recently helped to publish
–          If the agent recommends you pay a “book doctor” to edit your manuscript
–          If the agent refuses to give you the names of the publishers they’ve submitted to

If you have a circle of writer friends, talk to them first. Are they happy with their representation? Have they had any bad experiences with a particular agent? Word of mouth is the best place to start. Also, every country has its own literary agents association. Any reputable agent should be listed here.

How does an agent get paid?

Your agent should not get any money up-front. They only receive payment when you do, and normally get about 15% of the advance and royalties on your book.

We’d love to hear from you! Tell us about your experience with agents in a comment below.