Before we look at the pros and cons of literary agents we should start with what they are and what they can do for new and established authors.
Literary agents represent authors to publishers, they provide advice and guidance, and they help negotiate book deals and contracts. They are not essential for first time authors but they can simplify the publishing process, especially in this day and age when many big publishing houses won’t look at books that haven’t come from literary agents that they know.
This underlines how important it is to choose your literary agent very carefully.
How to find a literary agent
For starters, don’t look for paid advertisements. There are plenty of articles written by professional writers, publishers, editors and agents that stress this point. Reputable literary agents are so swamped with unsolicited query letters that they don’t need to advertise. Agents that resort to advertising are considered either bad (talent-wise) or disreputable (ethics-wise).
This doesn’t help you in your literary agent search, however.
The real search begins with research. Find as many literary agencies as you can (online and in literary magazines) and compile a list of agents you think will best serve your book. For example, which literary agents seem to have more success with fantasy books than with thrillers?
Your research won’t just give you a list of agents to contact; it will also yield submission guidelines. It’s essential to comply with submission guidelines, which vary from agency to agency, so that your query letter doesn’t end up in the recycling bin. Submission guidelines include information regarding the length of the query letter, whether a synopsis is necessary, and whether you can submit your query letter by email. Many agents prefer hardcopy submissions, but an increasing number allow e-queries. If you need to send a hardcopy, always include a stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE).
A great way to find out about literary agents is to join writers’ groups and attend literary conferences. There’s nothing quite like word-of-mouth recommendations and referrals from fellow writers.
Spend a lot time working on your query letter so that it is perfect and then send it to several different agencies.
Literary agent pros
- Literary agents have excellent industry contacts and usually have good working relationships with several editors and publishers who trust their judgement. If you can get in with a good agent, your chances of being published improve dramatically. Note: they improve, but publication is not guaranteed.
- They submit books to editors and publishers on your behalf.
- Some publishing houses won’t look at books unless they come from top literary agents.
- Their experience in the industry enables them to negotiate favourable contracts and deals that won’t cheat you out of your royalties.
- They act as mediators between authors and publishing houses, softening constructive criticism and explaining plot ideas.
- They ensure that you aren’t robbed of your rights, e.g., regarding international publication and film rights.
- They’re advisors with a wealth of knowledge that you would do well to heed.
Literary agent cons
- Your literary agent will take between 10-15% of your royalties, depending on where in the world you are. If you go it alone, all the royalties will be yours.
- You’ll have to wait twice as long before your book is published, this is because you first have to find a literary agent, who will make you jump through some hoops before sending your book to a publishing house, which will make you jump through some more hoops.
- Not all genres or formats require literary agents, like ebooks, poetry and non-fiction.
- There are plenty of dodgy literary agents out there who charge you for everything and don’t do anything.
Disreputable vs. reputable literary agents
Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America has some great articles on finding literary agents and discerning between reputable and disreputable agencies. Signs of dishonest agencies include:
- Charging a plethora of fees before any work has even begun, like a reading fee and a marketing fee. Reputable agents only take commission on completed deals and don’t charge miscellaneous fees. This system provides a great deal of incentive for agents to work hard on your behalf.
- Including provisos in contracts, like in-house copyediting and assessments. They might also require clients to buy things like website design packages and book cover designs. Reputable agencies don’t pile on the provisos; you are free to choose other service providers – although, they will make recommendations.
- Conflict of interest referrals, such as agency-owned or affiliate editing companies. Reputable agents are upfront and honest about all their industry relationships.
- Disreputable agencies are reluctant to provide you with any details of their past sales or successes. Reputable agents may not disclose exact details but they will let you know about some of their publishing history, especially their recent history.
- A good indicator, but not a fool-proof one, is whether literary agents belong to any professional organisations. Literary agents aren’t required to belong to any organisations or associations, but membership speaks strongly of credibility. However, some good literary agents opt out of membership and some dodgy ones sneak in. This is one of the reasons research is so important.
- While it can be a good idea to approach literary agents that specialise in a particular niche (children’s books or non-fiction), watch out for agents that claim to specialise in new writers or poetry. New writers are easy to take advantage of and poetry is enormously difficult to sell, which is why it’s never an exclusive focus.
There are many advantages to having a literary agent. Some would argue that the advantages don’t outweigh the disadvantages, but the choice is yours, in the end. Whatever you do, ensure that you have all the information you need to make an informed decision.