The L&L Blog  /  Scrivener

Publishing 101: What Does a Literary Agent Do?

Since getting a literary agent is essential to getting books published by major publishers, it’s a good idea to understand what literary agents do.

Literary agents are part of the overall publishing ecosystem and are gatekeepers between authors and publishers. If you want to have your book published by a traditional publisher, it’s nearly impossible to do so without having an agent. Most large publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from authors; they generally rely on literary agents who screen and recommend manuscripts.

But agents do a lot more than just choose which manuscripts to submit to publishers. Here’s an overview of what literary agents do.

How much does a literary agent cost?

Literary agents don't work for free: in exchange for an agent’s work, authors will give up, on average, 15% of their income. You should never pay a literary agent before you’ve earned anything; any literary agent who asks for money upfront is dishonest.

Because literary agents work on commission, and only make money when they've sold your book or other rights, they're not going to just sit on your manuscript. But this is also why literary agents are very picky about which authors and manuscripts they take on. Literary agents look for manuscripts and authors that they think they can sell. Just because one agent doesn’t want to take you on doesn’t mean that there aren’t others who might be interested. Agents tend to specialize in certain types of books and don’t represent authors who don’t fit their specialties.

What does a literary agent do?

The main role of a literary agent is to act as a middleman between an author and publishers. This simple definition masks a large number of activities.

To begin with, literary agents look at manuscripts to determine whether they think they can sell them. There needs to be a fit between the author, the style of book they've written, and an agent’s areas of expertise. Some agents specialize in romance novels, others in nonfiction. Some focus on mysteries and thrillers, and others mostly deal with authors of literary fiction.

Once an agent has accepted an author’s manuscript, they will work with the author to improve and refine the book. It's not in an agent's interest to send an unpolished manuscript to publishers. Since agents only make money when they sell books, they want to give your manuscript the best possible chance. A good agent will act as an editor, advising you on elements of your book, and you may go through several rounds of revisions before an agent thinks it’s ready to send out. This doesn't mean that if your manuscript is sold you won't also work with a publisher’s editor and make more changes, but an agent wants to give your book the best chance to be bought.

Once a manuscript is ready to send out, an agent will identify the type of publisher who would best suit that specific book. They rely on their experience and their knowledge of individual editors in publishing houses to know who to contact. They may submit manuscripts to one publisher at a time or to multiple publishers, depending on how they think specific editors will react. These editors trust agents they know to not submit books that don’t fit with their type of book. There is a mutual understanding between agents and editors that both sides are working together to try to get the best books published.

Once a manuscript has been sold, then the agent starts doing one of their most important jobs: negotiating contracts. New authors rarely know how complicated publishing contracts can be, and agents are familiar with the types of clauses that publishers may wish to impose, and which may not be beneficial for the author. An agent may also be involved in attempting to sell film and TV rights, foreign rights, and subsidiary rights.

The agent will then collaborate with the author throughout the publishing process, from submission to post-publication marketing. Using their experience, they can advise authors on how to handle the time it takes for a book to be published, and how to manage the multiple payments of an advance, as well as make suggestions about how to promote their books. Agents also ensure that advances and royalties are paid on time and in full.

When a first book has been sold, an agent will then work with an author to manage their future career. They will help the author refine ideas for subsequent books, act as a sounding board when authors have questions about the publishing process, and help plan a career path. This includes staying up to date on current trends in publishing, to help authors choose how to evolve as successful writers.

What sort of publishers can authors approach without a literary agent?

While most large publishers require that manuscripts be submitted by agents, it is possible to send your manuscript to some other publishers. Some smaller presses and independent publishers may be open to working directly with authors without an agent. However, getting published by smaller publishers, who have limited resources for marketing and distribution, may not lead to many sales.

You can also choose to self-publish your book; in this case, you are in charge of everything. This has its pros and cons, and requires much more work than being published traditionally. Some authors prefer being in control of everything and may earn more money by self-publishing. But this is much more work than writing, which is already quite a task.

While you may not like giving up 15% of your writing income to an agent, a good agent is worth the money. From acting as a gatekeeper to traditional publishers and helping authors navigate contracts, agents are essential partners for authors wanting to make a career out of their writing.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

Keep up to date