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About Literary Agents


What exactly is a literary agent?

A literary agent is exactly that—an agent for literary works. Literary agents represent books. They do not represent stage plays, screenplays, or television scripts. You find those agents in Hollywood, and that’s a whole ’nother website. Yes, it’s true that books become movies (usually bad, bad, very bad movies), but that’s because your literary agent, who sold the publishing rights to a major publishers, also successfully sold the movies rights to a major Hollywood studio. Again, whole ’nother website.

What’s important to know is that literary agents function as the middleman between you—unknown unpublished writer of a brilliant first book—and the Major New York Publishers. Literary agents have the contacts in the New York publishing world (and beyond) to get your book sold. Literary agents negotiate publishing contracts, sell subrights like foreign rights and media and electronic rights, and just plain manage your financial and business affairs so you can focus on your literary business of writing.

Do I need a literary agent to get published?

You don’t need a literary agent to get published in literary magazines or small independent presses. And you don't need a literary agent if you're interested in e-publishing your book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. But it helps to have a literary agent if you want your book published by the New York Big Boys. Sure, with networking connections or nepotism, you may not need a literary agent. You may be able to weasel your manuscript onto the desk of a high-level editor, spark her interest, and garner a two-book sale. It’s been done before. We’re sure it’ll be done again.

For everybody else, we recommend getting an agent. We wouldn’t have bothered slaving away on Agent Query if we didn’t think it was imperative. Literary agents have connections you don’t. Good literary agents are one-degree-of-separation away from the editors who decide “to buy or not to buy.” Good literary agents are tuned into the literary trends. They know which publishing imprints publish which kinds of books. They hobnob with those editors over lunch. They’re like mini-gods running the literary universe. For better or for worse, they serve as the first gatekeepers in the screening process. Okay, it’s true. The literary agent “hierarchy” adds to the bottleneck. Too many writers competing for the attention of a small pool of movers and shakers. But write a fabulous timely book, and you’ll shoot right through.



Some Big NY Publishers like TOR and Harlequin accept unsolicited submissions from writers. Why should I bother trying to get a literary agent?

A picture shows a thousand words....right? So here's a few candid, eye-opening photographs of the rarely before seen TOR slushpile—in other words, submissions from writers without agents. That's right. Portraits of Slush.

Now, while it's entirely true that some editors at major New York publishing houses accept unsolicited submissions, do you really want to take your chances in the slushpile? Got agent?

Do I have to be previously published to get a literary agent?

No, no, no. Here, we’ll say it again in case we weren’t clear the first time: NO. For the love of god—no. Write a fantastic heart stopping novel and write it brilliantly. Then, you too my friend, will get a literary agent. Write a viable nonfiction book in a genre that you hold some verifiable credentials, and literary agents will say, “Yes, I can sell this.” Don't believe us? That's not what your author neighbor friend told you, eh? Well, egt thee to our AQ Success Stories and tell your neighbor: it's the age of the internet.

On the other hand, write a children’s picture book and… well, okay, it might help to be previously published if you’re trying to publish a children’s picture book. But still, it's not impossible, although agents aren't always the best resource for aspiring writers wanting to write children's picture books. Instead, your better off checking out one of the best resources in country, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, becoming a member of your local chapter, or attending the SCBWI annual natioanl writers' conference.

Do I pay a fee to be represented by a literary agent?

Yes—but never an upfront fee. Literary agents earn their living by selling a book’s publishing rights to various domestic and foreign publishers. Then they charge a commission on the sale. Here’s a more familiar example. Ever work with a real estate agent? They charge you a commission when they sell your house to someone else, right? Literary agents work the same way. Literary agents charge a commission whenever they sell the publishing rights (and various subrights) of a book. Standard commissions range from 10-15% for the sale of domestic rights and 15-20% for foreign rights. Major Publishers pay authors an advance against royalties. A literary agent negotiates the terms of the sale, then collects a commission for her hard work. So let’s put this in perspective… (with a little fantasy thrown in for good measure).

You write a fabulous first novel. Everyone loves it. Ten agents want to represent you. You pick tough-talking, fast-selling Ms. Agent, and she sells your debut novel to a Major Domestic Publishers for a low-six figure advance against royalties. That means you get $100,000 up front—guaranteed cold hard cash—whether or not your book is a run-away bestseller. Of course, it is. This is fantasy, right? You sell 50,000 copies in its first week’s release. It’s a smash. You’re a star. And the money keeps rolling in. Royalties and all. Every book sold, you get a cut. And your literary agent keeps track of it all, taking her commission in the process. Don’t worry, she’s worth it. She’ll organize your 15 city author’s book tour, your bookings with Charlie Rose, and your interview with the New York Times Book Review. And that’s just the beginning. Ms. Agent will be worth a 1000% commission, and you'll only have to pay her 15-20%. Pretty sweet deal.

I like this idea of getting an agent. How do I find one?

Agent Query offers the largest searchable database of literary agents on the web. Unlike bible-sized print guides that require you to comb through page after endless page, cross-referencing agents and their interests, our database allows writers to refine their search by pinpointing dozens of literary agents who represent books just like yours. Each agent has a detailed profile to help you match your book with the right literary agent. And our agents’ profiles are the most accurate on the web. In fact, their AQ profiles are the most accurate around anywhere, especially considering all those “notable” print guides are only updated once a year. Our AQ database is updated everyday. And the best part—it’s 100% free.

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