The first thing every writer needs to know is what a literary agent is, and why you might need one. A literary agent is the person who represents writers and their written work to publishers, and producers. An agent’s job is to promote your work. They can help get your work in front of publishers who do not accept unagented submissions, provide valuable career advice on contracts, and help you to get the best possible price for your work. Agents are usually paid a percentage of the proceeds of the sales that they negotiate for their writer clients (usually 15 – 20%). Working with the right agent can often make the difference between a mediocre career and a bankable author.
Begin by reviewing your work. Decide on the genre of your work and the type of agent you would like to have represent you. Not all agents will have the same credentials, background, or literary interests. Some will be attorneys, specializing in Intellectual Properties, others will be certified through groups like the International Independent Literary Agents Association, the Association of Authors Representatives (US), or the Association of Authors Agents (UK). Still others will be independent agents.
Then, check the internet to review agent listings – several resources are shown in the reference section of this article. You can also check your local library for one of the many publications listing names, addresses, and other contact information for literary agents. Be sure to choose an agent that specializes in the kind of book you are writing, or have written
Pull your manuscript together. Polish your work and be prepared to present it to your potential agent as a sample of the product you are going to ask him/her to represent. Be aware that many agents will reject you as a client, based upon the potential they see in your submission, so make this your best effort. Clean up your word use, grammar, and syntax. Make sure that your plotline is complete. And ONLY send what is requested by the agent.
Compose your query letter. You are going to be presenting a business proposition to the agent: this book is my product. Are you interested in introducing it and me to the literary world? Can you sell it? This is your only opportunity to present and sell yourself as a writer to the agent you are contacting – make the most of it.
Always remember that not everyone who holds his/her self out as an agent is reputable. Watch out for the scams. Some (but not all) of the most prevalent are:
- An “agent” receives your submission and recommends a single particular editing person or firm fix the alleged faults in your work. There is a very good chance that the agent and the book doctor are part of a scam. Many so-called book doctors and editing services do actually help make marginal manuscripts and proposals publishable. Unfortunately, some pump writers up with false hopes, charge outrageously for generic suggestions, and pay literary agencies and publishers kickbacks for referring suckers to them.
- You submit your work to a literary agency, and before they’ll look at it, they request a “reading fee.” Or, after a free review, a “marketing fee,” “contract fee,” “retainer” or “expenses” are requested before they’ll consider representing you. Legitimate agents do not charge reading fees. Any incidental expenses, as explained in your contract, are deducted from advances and royalties that come in for the writer.
- If the “agent” offers to publish if you will help to “defray” expenses – run. Though some co-publishing arrangements might be legitimate, most share the weaknesses of traditional vanity presses — no quality control, extravagant promises and failure to deliver the goods.
- An invitation to be considered as a client is always questionable. Reputable literary agencies don’t send out generic solicitations. Any generic solicitation is likely to lead to a request for money.
- Regard any paid advertisement from a literary agent in a magazine, or the equivalent in an internet newsgroup, with skepticism. Legitimate literary agents receive submissions through listings in directories and writer referrals.