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Do You Need A Literary Agent – FAQ

Freelance writer finds a literary agentIf you’re writing books you may decide you want an agent. Here is some information that may help you understand exactly what a literary agent can, and cannot do for you:

What can a literary agent do for you?

In the best of all worlds a literary agent is a professional sales person who represents the author of a book to publishers. In other words, the main job of a literary agent is to find writers a publisher. Agents also negotiate rights, including film and TV, on behalf of the author they represent.

Part of what an agent can bring is in-depth knowledge of editors and publishers, knowing what they really want.

How will your agent get paid?

The reputable agents get paid only when they make a sale. They take a percentage of all monies generated by the book or other project they are representing.

Usually they take 15 percent of the project. That may seem like a lot, but good agents earn their money.

How do contracts with Literary Agents work?

The agent will ask you to sign what’s known as a personal service contract. It will spell out what you and the agent will do, what fees are to be paid, when and any other details, including how the contract can be canceled by either party.

Consider the following about the contract you’re offered, and know that everything is negotiable:

  • There should be a time-limit on the contract.  Thirty to 90 days is the range that makes the most sense. You want the agent to have enough time to do a good job, but you don’t want to get locked in for long if the agent is unsuccessful or isn’t working for you.
  • The rights the agent will market for you should be spelled out in the contract. For example, some agents only work with book publishers, others work with film and TV and some do both.
  • An agent may ask for first rights or first right of refusal. First rights means they have the exclusive right to market whatever is spelled out in your contract. Some will ask for first rights to everything you ever produce. While an agent is entitled to have exclusivity to the project they are marketing at the moment, it should be for a specified period of time. If you give them any rights to future work, keep the period short, like 10 days or two weeks, at least until they’ve proven they can work effectively for you.
  • The contract should spell out what sort of reporting the agent will make to you. These can be formal reports or  a phone call every so often. But you do have the right to know what the agent is doing on your behalf.
  • The contract should also spell out exactly how the agreement can be ended by either you or the agent. Both of you needs a clean way to get out if things go wrong.

What is a ‘work for hire’ contract?

A work for hire contract means you’re selling your work for a one-time payment only. There are no royalties and your ability to resell your work is limited. no opportunity for you to sell your work again. Literary agents, good ones any way, rarely if ever deal with work for hire contracts.  T

Do I have to pay agent fees up front?

Legitimate agents do not charge any upfront fees. If someone says they are an agent and asks for a reading or other fee, run.

When should I look for an agent?

If you’re writing a novel, you’ll need to finish it before an agent takes you on as a client, unless, of course, you’ve already sold several in that genre. It’s just to iffy to take on a novel that’s uncompleted.

If, however,  you’re writing non-fiction you can often find a literary agent on the basis of a book proposal, although if you’re an unpublished writer, the complete book may be required. (I do offer an ebook on book proposals you may find helpful.)

How to I find a literary agent?

As with so many things, the best way to get an agent is often through personal recommendation. If you know a successful writer who writes in your genre, ask them to make a suggestion. If you belong to any writing groups, either off line or on, you may be able to get recommendations there.

Strange as it seems, if you’re dealing with your first book, an excellent way to get an agent is to market your book yourself to publishers. When a publisher makes you an offer, ask them to recommend an agent. Publishers like working with agents because they know the ropes and even though the agent may be able to negotiate a better advance and/or royalties, they know they are working through a professional.

Since it often takes as much work to find an agent as it does a publisher, this is often a good approach for those offering their first book.

There are directories of literary agents – your library may have one.


Another way to locate agents is to Google them. Just enter literary agents and you’ll get a ton of links. And, of course, there are books that list agents. You can get closer to what you want  by adding the genre to the search.  You cam also find listings of agents in writing magazines. Don’t overlook your local yellow pages as another possible source – you may find your agent in your own town.

Do I need an New York literary?

No, a New York agent is not necessary in these days of communication via cyber space.  Although New York agents have a better chance of lunching with publishers that are in New York, the truth is a good agent can market you successfully from almost anywhere. Besides, not all good publishers are in New York – not by a long shot.

What else would you like to ask?

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • loupaun

    Self-publishing is often a good choice. For my kind of books, however, the big publishing houses offer three advantages: excellent distribution systems, automatic publicity, and exposure to secondary markets. I could manage to get some of each of those on my own, but it would require a lot of hard work in areas where my skills are weak.

    I love being able to ignore distribution — and I wouldn’t have the cash reserves to offer booksellers the return privileges that big publishers do, and my books don’t really lend themselves to electronic text. I could get some reviews on my own, but I love the way the important reviewers – the ones libraries rely on in making their purchasing choices – routinely review everything from my publisher. I like the way my books are routinely considered by all the major book clubs without any action on my part.

    Publishing houses do take a large amount of the profit — too large, in my opinion. I like them anyway. They give me the freedom to concentrate on what I do best.

    • Anne

      Good for you Lou… and yes, traditional publishing certainly has advantages.

  • loupaun

    Why do I need a literary agent? Because many, many, many things can go wrong between contract and publication. The publishing house can change direction. The editor — or worse yet, editorial director — can leave the house. The art department or printers can change estimates, making for cost overruns. And on and on and on . . .

    A good agent can work through these problems with a publishing house when the house won’t even return an author’s emails or phone calls.

    A good agent is solid gold.

    • Anne

      Agreed, a good agent is solid gold… not easy to find and self-publishing can make sense in many situations.

  • Thanks, Anne!
    .-= Benjamin Hunting´s last blog ..The Mazda Miata Hard Top Question =-.

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