what is a literary agent

So you’ve decided you want the cachet, not to mention the advance payment, that comes with publishing your book the old fashioned way. But where do you get started?

Finding a literary agent is your first step if you want your book to be published by a major, traditional publisher. Literary agents are experts at presenting books to editors at major publishing houses. They know who to contact to submit your book, they know what companies are looking for, and how to negotiate the best possible deal. Their job is to take what you’ve written and present it in the most appealing way possible for editors. Whether it ultimately gets picked up depends on your book, but agents will have the skills, knowledge, and connections to give it the best possible shot. So what’s involved in finding, choosing, and signing on with a literary agent?

Do You Need a Literary Agent?

First of all, not every category of book is appropriate for a major publishing house, and not every book will be of interest to agents. They’ll be considering not only the likelihood of getting a deal but also the likely size of your advance, which determines how much they earn. The size of the advance will depend on the scope of the audience that a publisher envisions for a given book. Agents will take this into account, and you should too. This means that books with small, niche, target audiences, and non-fiction specific to trades and academic fields, may not get much attention from agents.

The books most suitable for large, major publishing houses include genre fiction like romance, science fiction, and fantasy, young adult, as well as non-fiction with a clear hook and an author with an established platform—basically, a reason to think readers will be interested in what the author has to say. Perhaps you’re already a respected expert within your field, or maybe you just have a well-established social media following.

If your book doesn’t fall into these categories, look into mid-size and smaller presses, independent publishers, university presses, and the growing world of self-publishing, which includes a wide range of models.

Finding a Literary Agent

Before even looking for an agent, make sure your manuscript is in decent shape. Make sure it’s finished, edit it yourself, and then hire an editor. Get some feedback from readers, even if only friends and family. When books are rejected, it’s most often because of a poorly written manuscript. You don’t want an agent to have to strive to see the potential in a manuscript, you want it to be obvious.

When searching for an agent, you don’t just want to find “the best agent,” you want to find the best one for your book in particular. This means keeping in mind genre, content, and target audience. You want an agent who will offer expertise on how to sell your particular type of book.

PublishersMarketplace.com is the most comprehensive internet resource for finding agents, and it allows searching by genre and keyword. AgentQuery.com is another place to get started, as is QueryTracker.net. But you can also look through the acknowledgements section of books similar to yours, where authors will often thank their agents. Finally, a simple Google search will often tell you what agent a given author uses.

Keep in mind their experience in their genre, their sales track record, the publishers they’ve sold to, whether they’re currently open to queries, and most importantly, whether they’re legitimate. The basic rule of thumb here is that agents won’t ask for an upfront fee. The nature of the relationship is that agents will take on books that they believe have a good chance of getting a deal, and then will earn a percentage of the advance and royalties (usually to the tune of 15 percent.)

Submitting Your Work to an Agent

Make sure you take the time to understand what agents expect in a submission. Above all else, make sure you pay close attention to an individual agent’s submission guidelines. But generally speaking, expect to submit sample chapters, a query letter with a brief description of your book, and a one to two-page synopsis that reveals the ending of a novel. For non-fiction, you’ll usually submit a twenty to thirty page book proposal, which is basically a business plan arguing why your book can find an audience and succeed. Often, your ability to make this argument will matter more than your writing itself.

The Role of an Agent

Remember, while interest from an agent is a vote of confidence, it doesn’t guarantee success, or an appealing deal from a publisher. They can’t make up for problems with your manuscript. They may offer feedback and even a critique, but won’t serve as an editor. An agent is there to translate what you’ve written into a something that will catch the interest of editors at the major publishing houses, using their networks, relationships, and experience.