Traditional Publishing

Seven essential points on literary agents

By Jill Nagle
Founder and Principal: GetPublished, guerilla guidance for your writing adventure – Saturday November 27, 2004

An excerpt from How to Find A Literary Agent Who Can Sell Your Book for Top Dollar

As an aspiring author, you may have heard, "if your work is really good, you can get an agent. Getting the work into shape is the hard part. If you get the work into shape, the right agent will follow". Is it really that simple? Well, yes and no.

The seven essential points below prepare you for what to expect when seeking an agent, or literary representative.

Point 1: fiction or nonfiction? Differences in approach
As a novelist, or fiction writer, you need to complete your whole book, format it properly, and find an agent who specializes in selling novels. If you write nonfiction (self-help, how-to, memoir), forget about writing the whole book, unless you want to self-publish. Instead, write your book proposal.

A book proposal is like a business plan for your book. Its job is to convince the publisher to part with money so you can get paid to write your book.

In either case, to minimise your chances of rejection, you'll need to have your proposal or manuscript polished before approaching an agent.

Point 2: That someone calls themself an agent says nothing about what they can do for you
Some things haven't changed in the century since the first literary agent was born. Today, anyone can still hang out a shingle and say they're an agent – many people do. Not all agents are effective, ethical, or even sell any books.

Jill's Guerilla Caveat
Don't settle for just any agent. Agents vary tremendously in their effectiveness and in what they sell well. Get your proposal (for nonfiction writers) or manuscript (for novelists) into tip-top shape, then go for the agent who has a proven track record selling work similar to your own.

Point 3: Membership in the Association of Author's Representatives (United States) indicates that the agent has agreed to abide by the AAR's code of ethics
This professional guild for agents requires, among other things, that an agent:

  • has sold at least ten literary properties (i.e. books) in the eighteen months prior to application for membership; and
  • does not charge any fees for reading or evaluating authors' work.

However, not every legitimate US agent belongs to the AAR. Many extremely successful agents opt out of AAR membership. A comparable agency called the Association of Author's Agents operates in Britain.

Point 4: Legitimate agents earn their living by selling to legitimate publishers the rights to publish authors' books
In return for writing your book and granting a legitimate publisher the rights to print it, the publisher gives you, the author, a percentage of whatever the book makes, otherwise known as a "royalty". In return for brokering the deal and acting as your advocate, you in turn give your agent a percentage (usually 15 per cent) of this royalty.

This is how legitimate agents make their money. They pick good literary prospects for the publishers to consider, who rely on them to reduce the time and energy it would otherwise take to wade through the enormous amount of submissions the publishers receive.

Publishers know the legitimate agent's living depends on being able to separate the wheat from the chaff, so they tend to look more seriously at submissions from reputable agents.

To reiterate, legitimate agents get paid through commissions on book rights only, period. If an agent charges you any money, except a small fee for expenses (and many people believe agents shouldn't charge authors even for those; they should simply be considered the cost of doing business), they have little incentive to sell books.

Successful agents use a well-established network of relationships with editors in legitimate publishing houses. They know the right editors to call for the particular projects that come their way. They don't have time to do anything but sell book rights, because selling book rights is how they make their money.

Aside from selling the rights to publish your book in your own country, many other possibilities exist for making money from your book both within your own country and abroad. These include translating the book and selling it overseas, making an audio recording of the book, or having the book used as the basis for a movie. The legal permission to do these things are called foreign rights, subsidiary rights and options, respectively.

To help you make the most money possible from your book, your agent should be able to negotiate for the subsidiary and foreign rights to remain with you, and then work either on their own or with someone else, to help you sell and make yet more money on sales from those rights.

Jill's Guerilla Caveat
Apart from those agents who are simply mediocre, watch out for scammers – there are plenty! Apart from trusting your gut, and not paying an agent, avoid any agent who:

  • insists you hire a particular editorial or consulting service (this is different from making a referral, or even better, two or three referrals and letting you interview them and make up your own mind);
  • refers you to a publisher who wants to charge you money;
  • suggests representing multiple works of yours simultaneously (unless they have a really good reason for thinking this is a good idea – see Q&A below).

Agents who profit from upfront fees for reading or handling manuscripts, who affiliate themselves financially with editorial, coaching or publishing services, or who claim to need your money for any other purpose probably aren't selling the rights to your book for a living.

Why should they, when aspiring writers who don't know any better are kind enough to bankroll their other enterprises?

Point 5: At their best, agents advocate for author interests, and earn their commissions by:

  • using their inside information, reputations and well-oiled relationships with editors to approach just the right publishers for your book – especially the increasing number of those publishers who won't take unagented submissions;
  • applying their contractual and negotiating expertise to garnering higher advances, more rights and a lot of other stuff you might not be aware of;
  • helping you refine both the form and content of your book so that it appeals to the publishers they plan to approach;
  • intervening on your behalf if you get into a disagreement with the publisher;
  • assisting you with making long-term decisions about sequels, options, subsidiary rights, next steps and other aspects of your career.

Point 6: Agents reject 99 per cent of all material that comes their way
The best and most reliable way to up your odds of getting published is to a) research your market, b) know and communicate to the agent via a perfect query letter how your work fits in with and stands out from others in its class, c) deliver an original, well-written, impeccably formatted manuscript or proposal, then d) choose an agent who is obviously interested in and has a record of selling work like yours. Read that again.

Point 7: Don't initiate contact with a phone call really. Approach an agent with a query letter instead
Unless you are famous (and even then), approach an agent with a query letter. A query letter introduces you and your book idea, and invites the agent to see your book proposal or manuscript. We'll give you a sample query letter below.

Don't email unless the agent specifically states somewhere in print or on the internet that they welcome email queries. Also, don't call with general questions about their qualifications.

Agents who haven't expressed interest in representing your work generally will not consent to have you interview them unless you're a journalist calling to give them publicity.

Once an agent has expressed interest in your work, you can and should ask questions of them, which we'll cover below, then take up to a week (or longer, by mutual agreement) to decide whether to accept their offer of representation.

If you've read this far, congratulations – you now have a solid introduction to agents, a crucial piece of the mainstream publishing world. However, as you might guess, finding exactly the right agent for your work, so you can beat those 99 per cent rejection odds, takes a bit more effort.

To learn more about how to up your odds of getting published by joining forces with exactly the right agent, get a copy of How to Find A Literary Agent Who Can Sell Your Book for Top Dollar

About the Author

Jill Nagle is a published author and principal of GetPublished, which provides ghostwriting, coaching, consulting, teleclasses and more to aspiring and ascending authors. She has been helping other writers get published for the last decade.