A literary agent plays a very important role within the publishing industry. Personally I would describe this role as the author’s silent business partner. Though they are not in the limelight, behind the scenes they work just as extensively as the author.
When I tell people that I am a literary agent, I often get asked: What does my job entail? Does a writer need a literary agent? Are literary agents still needed, especially with the rise of self-publishing?
While Christian-based literary agents are very common in countries like America, they are not that common here in the UK. In this article, I will address the role of a literary agent, using the most frequently asked questions that I receive.
Role of the literary agent: A literary agent represents an author throughout their career. Though many think our job is just to sell manuscripts to the publisher, this is not the case. A good literary agent will help build an author’s career; for example, give ideas or refer them to a publicist to help with marketing.
Agents help the author to improve their manuscripts to the highest standard, ready for the publisher; they get involved with the book process and give general guidance and support.
Do I need an agent? Your need of an agent depends on factors like the publishing methods you choose. If you want to self publish, then you don’t need an agent. However, if you want to go traditional, especially to the larger publishing houses, then you do, as the larger publishing houses prefer agented submissions.
If you go to the smaller to medium-sized traditional houses, then you don’t need an agent, as they accept un-agented submissions. However, there are some authors who are published by smaller to medium-sized publishing houses but also prefer to have agents.
Is it easy to get an agent? The truth is, getting an agent can be just as difficult as getting a publisher. Why? Because the agent’s income is commission-based; they take a percentage of the author’s royalties. If the authors don’t sell any books, then the agent doesn’t get paid.
For this reason, just as with some publishers, there are agents who won’t take on new authors, because the commission from a new untested author will rarely be as considerable as what can be earned when they represent an established client.
There are some agents who take new as well as established clients. However, just like myself, they are looking for serious, dedicated and committed authors, who will produce book after book after book – authors who are passionate about writing, and are willing to work hard to market their product, as well as build their credibility and reputation.
Agents are not looking for time-wasters.
If you want to get an agent you have to be persistent, and be prepared for rejections. It will take someone who believes in you and your work to represent you.
As a Christian literary agent, I like to keep God in the centre, and pray as to whether I should represent a particular client. I thank God that I have been blessed with professional, dedicated, hardworking authors, who are as serious about their career as much as I am. Because of their commitment, they have become bestsellers, and their fan base is rapidly growing on a daily basis. Keep on pursuing, and eventually God will connect you with the right agent for you.
Do I need to pay for a literary agent? No, as mentioned before, the agent’s income is based on commission. There has been a stigma about agents who charge a fee to join their agency – they are seen as unprofessional – but this is not necessarily true. I know this stigma has made it very difficult for agents to take on new authors. As I mentioned earlier, the agent has to really believe in you and your work.
Unfortunately, people sometimes fail to understand that this work is an agent’s livelihood; it is their business.
We are not going to make the kind of money we would like immediately and, if an agent has an office and staff, expenses need to be paid, which means the agent has to look for other ways to make money while they are waiting for the royalty cheque – especially if they don’t have investors.
If the agent has a good reputation, and they charge expenses (eg. for photocopying) or an agency fee, this doesn’t mean they’re ‘bad’ or unprofessional; they are simply running a business. However, do make sure that you do your own research before you enter into any contractual agreement.
Are literary agents still needed? Yes. Being an author can be a very lonely career path. There are some writing issues an author may be dealing with, which family members won’t always understand (unless they are in the business), and which they may not want to discuss with other authors.
Authors are human beings, and there are times when personal issues can affect their performance. They may feel uncomfortable informing the publisher because – bottom line – the publisher wants the sales to make a return on their investment.
Once an author has an agent, especially if they have a good relationship with one, they will be able to confide in them with both writing and personal issues. Working together, and with prayer, they will be able to resolve these issues, so the author can get back on track.
Authors need guidance and support, especially in this competitive industry, and I believe the agent is the best person to provide that, as well as to help build an author’s career.
So, there you have it: the role of a literary agent. In my next article, I will be talking about the role of authors – the major players in the publishing industry.