Because rights revenues can make a big contribution to a publisher’s profitability but rights deals can be time-consuming and complex, many publishers hire literary agents to represent them, just as authors frequently do.
There are good agents and bad agents, of course, and a bad agent is worse than none at all. So if having a literary agent seems like a good idea in terms of the kinds of books you publish and your distribution setup, you can use the information that follows to decide whether to hunt for one and to figure out which one is best suited to you and your work.
Pros & Cons
There are clear advantages and disadvantages to having a literary agent.
Agents may be more able to get you an offer from a major publisher than you can yourself. After all, that’s their specialty. Experienced agents know which publishers buy the kind of book you’re offering. They may already have a relationship with particularly suitable rights buyers because they’ve placed other books with them. And they may also get you a larger advance and bigger royalties than you could negotiate for yourself, as well as a more advantageous contract all around because rights deals are their area of expertise.
One obvious disadvantage is that you’ll probably be required to give the agent 15% of your advance and royalties. Checks for both advances and royalties will be mailed to your agent, who will deduct the commission and send you a check for the remaining amount.
Another disadvantage is that once you have signed with an agent, you may not be able to deal with rights buyers on your own. So, even though you may have contacts at a company that might buy rights, you might have to get your agent’s approval–and pay your agent’s commission–to do deals with them.
Also, it’s important to realize that some literary agents specialize in selling books to publishers and may not have any connections with other media, including television and film, and some have good contacts in the U.S. but not abroad, or vice versa.
Starting the Search
Agents accept new clients who approach them in several ways, primarily:
- Through referrals from existing clients, editors, other agents, publishers, published authors, or experts in a particular field
- Through their speaking engagements at writers’ conferences and seminars
- Through written queries.
If you have made personal contact with an agent through a seminar or a mutual acquaintance or in any other way, you can call to gauge the agent’s interest in a project before sending a query. If the agent isn’t too busy, you may even have the opportunity to pitch your book property over the phone.
To identify agents who might be right for you, check Literary Market Place,published by Information Today; Guide to Literary Agents, published by Writer’s Digest Books; or The Insider’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers & Literary Agents, by Jeff Herman, published by Prima Communications. (Writer’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Books, and The Writer’s Handbook, published by The Writer Inc., now list agents but the listings are not extensive.)
Get the latest issue of each guide because agents move, go out of business, or become otherwise unavailable from year to year. Some of the above publications have websites and you may be able to do much of your research over the Internet.
Checking on Quality
Don’t assume that an agent is qualified just because of a listing in a guide. Some people may be “agents” simply by virtue of business cards that say they are. Unlike attorneys or building contractors, literary agents don’t have to pass exams, adhere to any rules, or prove their level of competence. They don’t need a license from any regulatory agency.
And be aware that some agents charge reading fees of several hundred dollars. Since those fees–rather than a percentage of your advance and royalties–may be a major source of income for them, they may not operate in your best interests.
Still a listing is a good starting point in your search if it tells you what kinds of books an agent works with. Like publishers, many agents specialize in particular subjects or in genres, such as how-to, spirituality, health, or mystery. The closer the match between the agent’s list and the type of book you’re doing, the better chance that the agent will be interested in you as a client, and also the better the chance that the agent will succeed in selling rights for you.
Because nonfiction books are easier to sell than novels, most agents represent them. Getting an agent to represent fiction is relatively tough. Before you contact any agents, notice whether they want to be queried first or will accept a synopsis or a book proposal along with your query or cover letter. Very few will want to look at a complete manuscript on first contact.
Once you have a list of compatible agents, get recommendations from authors, fellow publishers, editors, or others who have dealt with each person on it. And check with the Association of Authors’ Representatives and the National Writers Union, both of which require literary agents to be qualified and to abide by a high standard of ethics to be listed with them. The Writers Guild of America, which represents screenwriters, also requires agents to prove their experience and qualifications in order to join their organization; those who are signatory to the Guild cannot charge more than a 10% commission and must abide by a standard code of behavior.
Other useful information is available from the Agent Research & Evaluation Company, which tracks agents in court records and the press. They’ve been around since 1980. You can get a summary of an agent’s activities from them and they sell reports from a database. And the American Society of Journalists and Authors reports problems with agents from time to time in its Contract Watch e-newsletter.
Making Your Move
After you have a list of agents who seem promising–and you may want to approach several–you can compose the letter you’ll use to query them, customizing it to fit each particular agent.
Don’t be afraid to ask any agent you’re considering for complete information about charges, method of working, and experience, as well as a list of recent sales. Remember, the agent is paid by you, not the other way around. You have a right to know everything that will help you in your selection.
And remember also that it’s important to choose an agent who is not only ethical and experienced but also someone you can develop a rapport with.
This article was adapted from “The Author’s Toolkit: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing and Publishing Your Book,” Revised Edition, by Mary Embree. “The Author’s Toolkit” is available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping and handling via Allworth Press, 10 East 23rd Street, New York, NY 10010, 800/491-2808, or