Literary agents have long been described as “gatekeepers.”
Like they’re the stalwart guardsmen of the publishing world, bravely keeping out those they deem unfit to enter The Realm of Published Books.
While a bit true in some aspects (i.e. literary agents aren’t likely to take on that Sherlock fanfiction you wrote in high school), the term “gatekeeper” itself can be quite problematic. It makes it sound like they’re working against writers, actively preventing them from reaching their goals.
But literary or book agents are not writers’ enemies. They’re not keeping people out.
They’re bringing people IN.
Or to be more specific, they’re bringing in authors whose books they think will SELL WELL.
They bring in people whose work they believe in and help them attain the praise and recognition that they deserve.
They can be the bridge that connects you to some of the world’s biggest publishers. During the course of your writing career, they can become your greatest ally, upholding your interests and striving to find the best publishing deals possible for your book.
Because the success of the writer is also their success. When you win, they win too, both in terms of financial rewards and their reputation as agents.
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Do I need a literary agent – the short answer
The answer here is: probably. It depends mainly on your own skills, ambitions, personality, and the genre of book that you’re writing.
No, you don’t exactly need a literary agent if…
…you’re already an established author.
If you have a successfully published book or two under your belt, then you’re in luck. Literary agents will most often try to contact you themselves instead of it being the other way around.
…you decided to go the DIY route and self-publish.
Going the self-publishing route means that you won’t have to share your royalties with a publisher. It also allows you to have full creative and marketing control over your book.
The drawback here is that you have to take care of EVERYTHING- editing, publishing, marketing, and distribution. Those tasks that a traditional publisher usually does for their writers you would have to do on your own- this can be very overwhelming.
…you’re a regular participant in writing conferences and workshops.
In these kinds of events, organizers are sometimes partnered with editors and publishers who are open to receiving submissions from workshop or conference participants. You forego the services of a literary agent this way.
…you want a smaller press to handle your work.
There are small publishers out there who are open to accepting unsolicited manuscripts from writers without a literary agent. Think of them as the publishing world’s version of microbreweries. They typically produce smaller quantities of high-quality books, and have a less rigid approach to publishing. Compared to larger publishers, they are more willing to take risks and bring in new authors and new kinds of writing.
Smaller publishers accept manuscripts that larger publishing houses often ignore like:
- Books of poetry
- Culinary books and cookbooks
- Educational books and academic work
- Picture books
The only major drawback with small presses is that they have lower marketing resources, and thus, a smaller distribution network. If you’re looking to sell your book on a large scale, then you might want to consider a larger publishing house.
Yes, you do need a literary agent if…
…you aim to publish traditionally.
Traditional book publishing is when an author hands over the publishing rights of their book to an established publishing house. In exchange, the publisher will print, publish, and sell the book through their network of booksellers and distributors. Authors will then receive royalties from book sales, with the publisher taking around a 25% to 35% cut from the retail price of the book.
Most literary agents have already established relationships with publishing houses and their editors. For those who have no experience or no professional links with anyone in publishing, having a literary agent with connections is practically a must. They can help ensure that your manuscript gets read by someone sitting at an editor’s or a publisher’s desk.
…you want your work to be noticed by a major publisher.
In the USA and the UK, the whole book industry is dominated by what people call the “Big Five” publishers. These publishing houses are Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Hachette, and Penguin Random House.
Something you have to learn about the Big Five is that they don’t accept submissions directly from authors- you have to be signed on with a literary agent and have your work vetted by them before anyone from these publishing houses takes a look at your work.
…you don’t want to deal with all of the legalese and paperwork.
A literary agent will know all of the laws and legal speak that come with publishing. Afraid of being locked into a highly unfavorable contract with a publisher? Good agents can spot questionable contracts from a mile away. They will actively try to negotiate with publishers for a more lucrative deal for their clients. They can also allow you to keep certain rights that you might not be familiar with such as audio, film, foreign publishing rights, etc.
…you want a career counselor and business manager.
Literary agents have launched whole writing careers. They know all of the ups and downs of the publishing world. When things go south with a publisher or if you’re having problems with an editor, then your literary agent can be there to hold your hand and guide you on what to do. They can help you look at the bigger picture when it comes to your career.
Deciding to get the services of a literary agent is a huge step for any writer who is looking to get their work out there. We have delved into this topic in our extensive “How To Get A Literary Agent For Your New Book” blog post, which is a great read if you want to acquire the services of an agent and have no idea where or how to start.
What kinds of books do literary agents like to represent?
Literary agents tend to go for manuscripts that have the potential to produce books that sell.
With that said, below is a list of the kind of work that book agents usually AVOID. These are typically harder to market, especially if coming from someone who hasn’t published books before.
Books that literary agents tend to avoid
- Poetry collections
- Short stories
- Writing that is centered around a very specific niche
How do you know if your writing is too niche? Simple: just head on over to a bookstore near you and see if there are other books that are similar (or tackle the same topics) as yours.
Here’s an example: We’re pretty sure that there are lots of boatmen who are really into nautical safety and would like to avoid ramming into big ships when they’re out at sea. This is probably the reason why this title by John W. Trimmer called “How to Avoid Huge Ships, Or: I Never Met a Ship I Liked ” exists. But you have to admit that it’s an oddly specific niche though!
Most of the time, big publishers are looking into selling something they can sell thousands of copies of. Below is a list of some of the usual genres that literary agents tend to favor:
- Commercial or mainstream fiction (e.g. Dan Brown’s thrillers, Tom Clancy’s crime fiction)
- Young adult and/or children’s books (e.g John Green’s YA novels, books by Judy Blume)
- Nonfiction books about popular topics (e.g. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, Atomic Habits by James Clear)
Remember, these large publishing houses receive tons of submissions on any given day. In an environment where you have all of these competitors vying for a limited amount of traditional publishing contracts, your literary agent will be your number one ally. They will help you stand out from the throng.
What do literary agents look for in an author?
In our “How to Get a Literary Agent” blog post, we talked about some of the desirable qualities that you should look for in a literary agent.
To add to that discussion- it’s important to remember that a literary agent-author relationship is a two-way street. Book agents also look for certain characteristics in authors that would make them very desirable as clients.
A few examples of these advantageous traits include:
Uniqueness and creativity
You know how there are practically thousands of songs written about love that are released each year? Just take a look at a recent Spotify Top Hits list- almost all songs that you’ll find on there are about romantic love one way or another. But people never tire of them because they all have different takes and spins on the same subject matter (e.g. a singer can write a soulful ballad about heartbreak, while another musician may rap about the very same topic).
The same goes true for books. There’s no subject under the sun that hasn’t been written about before, but a good author can find ways to approach a topic in various different, creative ways. You don’t need to make up original ideas all the time, you can just take an already-existing idea, and talk about it in a fresh new way.
When you want to survive in publishing, you have to build relationships with your agents, editors, publishers, marketers, etc.
Lots of us writers are introverted solitary souls (which is one of the main reasons why we got into writing in the first place). But if you want to get your name out there and make decent money off your books, you have to learn how to work and communicate with other people.
An amiable and engaging personality goes a long way, especially in publishing. This industry is all about relationships. Literary agents will be drawn to people that they can trust; they are also more likely to take on a project from a writer with whom they have an excellent rapport.
Has a reading audience or network and/or a platform
Do you have a social media presence or an email list? Are there people who are actively looking to see more of your work?
Like any other business publishing is ultimately about making a profit. When literary agents and publishers see that you already have an established audience, it makes your manuscript more appealing to them. It shows that you have an active following that is interested in what you have to say. It makes it easier for publishers to market your work.
How do you prepare your manuscript for literary agents?
You’ve spent lots of sleepless nights writing your manuscript and now you’ve finally finished it. But your work doesn’t end there!
There are still some necessary steps that you need to do before your work can get “agent-ready.”
Here is a brief step-by-step guide on how you can prepare your manuscript for literary agents.
Step #1: Give your manuscript a good edit.
Unpolished manuscripts hurt your chances of being picked up by an agent. Typos, terrible prose, awkward narrative flow- these are the things that need to be edited out of your manuscript before anyone can even lay eyes on it.
Give it another good read and edit your book to the very best of your ability. Fine-tune even the smallest of details. If you’re unsure of your editing skills, you can procure the services of a for-hire editor to go over your work.
Step #2: Prepare your submission package.
Most literary agents ask that you put a query letter, a synopsis, and some sample chapters from your manuscript in your submission packages.
A few tips for query letters (Note: a query letter is a type of cover letter that is specifically geared towards literary agents):
- Keep it short and simple. A query letter doesn’t need to be longer than a page or two.
- There’s no need to be fancy with the opening paragraph. Just a few sentences that tell what the title of your book is, a brief characterization of it, its approximate genre, and a word count.
- The next paragraphs should be a teaser of what your book is. It needs to make the agent want to turn to page 1 immediately.
- Do not put a summary of the whole plot in your query letter. This is what the synopsis is for.
For the synopsis:
- Keep your synopsis tight. Around 1000 words is fine. That’s enough words to get all the major plot points across, but short enough not to drag on.
- Your tone should be neutral. A synopsis is an objective elaboration of your book’s narrative.
- All names of key characters should be in bold (optionally: bold and in all caps) on the first mention. For example, “MR. DURSLEY was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills.”
For the sample chapters:
- Agents usually provide guidelines on what sample chapters to include. Most prefer the first three chapters.
- If there are no guidelines, then send in around 10,000 words. Just make sure that it ends in a natural break in your text.
Step #3: Make sure that everything is properly formatted.
Unlike in screenwriting, there are no hard rules when it comes to formatting. However, just make sure that the text is double-spaced, with margins, and with indents properly placed. Each new chapter should begin on a fresh page.
Step #4: Top everything off with a nice title page.
A title page should only contain your title (in large font), your name, your contact information, and a word count. There’s no need for dedications, acknowledgments, and cover art. You don’t even have to put in a copyright notice. All you need is those four things.
So now you’re signed on with a literary agent. What happens next?
While agents accept you as a client because they believe that your book can be profitable, publishers might think differently.
After negotiating their rates, your literary agent will send your manuscript to editors and their contacts in publishing houses. Then it’s practically a waiting game past this point.
Because when an editor decides to look at a manuscript they need to spend some time reading it first. They might also decide to show it to their colleagues for their feedback. After they give it the green light, then it needs to go through an acquisitions meeting, and so on.
What are the chances of a publisher agreeing to publish your book?
There are so many variables at work here that you can’t really say. While the quality and content of your book will be the main determining factor, the skill and experience of the book agent will help get your foot through the door. There are also other factors to consider like market trends, current events, the strength of other authors’ submissions, as well as the publisher’s own preferences.
If you do receive a rejection, don’t beat yourself too much over it. The first rejection always stings a lot. But remember… you WILL face a lot of rejections in this industry. It’s very rare for first-time authors to have their work accepted for publishing on their first try.
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was rejected 26 times by publishers. John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, 28 times. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a whopping 121 rejections.
Chances are, all of your favorite books from your favorite authors have also received their fair share of rejections. But guess what- their literary agents never gave up. They kept on pushing behind the scenes. They’re the reason why you got to read these books in the first place.
Final words – what are my options aside from working with a literary agent?
There are some valid reasons why an author might not want to use the services of a book agent. For one, they can get expensive. They will take a significant chunk of your book’s royalties (usually around 15%). There’s also the fact that literary agents can’t really guarantee that your book will be published.
If you don’t want to go the DIY self-publishing route and don’t want to work with an agent, then a publisher like Leaders Press might be the right choice for realizing the vision that you want for your book.
With Leaders Press, you don’t need to go through all of the trouble of finding and working with a literary agent. You’ll be speaking with a publishing director right from the start. He or she will help you further explore and refine your book idea, then build a personalized publishing and marketing strategy from there.
From writing and editing, to packaging and marketing, Leaders Press will be with you every step of the way until your book is launched and hits the Amazon shelves.