What exactly does a literary agent do?

If you’ve read this post or have clicked on that Hire Me link up at the top of the page, you know that my publishing career began at a literary agency where I was the senior assistant to the vice president. I’m prefacing this post with that information so you can get an idea for why I think I’m qualified to write about agenting and the publishing process.

One of the questions I get asked most often by aspiring authors is, “What does an agent do?” So I’m going to attempt to answer that question here and then you can decide if querying agents is the next step for you or not.

An agent offers editorial guidance

It’s an agent’s job to know the marketplace. They know what’s selling, what’s on trend and what’s up and coming. A good agent will also be someone who listens, who will bounce ideas around, who will alert you to loopholes in your plot, character inconsistencies, and weak moments in dialogue or scenes. They will cheer you on when you think you can’t possibly face another revision or rejection.

An agent submits material to editors

Aside from the fact that many editors don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, agents have working relationships with a slew of editors in their field of expertise. They know which editors like fantasy or science fiction or humor or reality or non-fiction or memoir. They know if an editor is drawn to funny or funky or sweet or quiet. They know who’s looking for what and if they’ve just published (or signed) something similar to your manuscript (in which case the editor probably won’t even try to acquire your manuscript, no matter if they love it). Basically, they do the research for you.

An agent negotiates contracts

Agents sell the rights to your work and then they negotiate the terms and fees. Most agents work from boilerplate contracts that have been negotiated with the publisher, and most reserve rights for which an unagented author might unknowingly sign over (film rights, foreign language rights, audio rights, etc.). But just because they work off of boilerplate contracts doesn’t mean there won’t be certain language or terms that can’t be negotiated further.

An agent acts as your accountant

Have you looked at a royalty statement lately? Some of them are like complex coded messages, and it takes a skilled professional to crack the code. Agents can deconstruct these statements and determine if there are any mistakes. If so, they know exactly who to contact and will probably be more successful at getting those missing funds than a single author or illustrator.

An agent acts as your business manager

An agent handles the business side of publishing so that the author can focus on writing and the illustrator on illustrating. They’re also troubleshooters. They’re seasoned professionals at handling problems that can arise during the publishing process.

*Even if they’re not “seasoned professionals”, most junior agents work under an agent or group of agents who offer a system of support, so don’t be scared off by a newbie agent. As long as they’re with a reputable agency, they’re privy to a wealth of knowledge, experience, support and resources.

So what’s in it for them?

The standard commission for an agency is 15% on actual earnings (advances, royalties, permission fees, etc.) for the life of the book. If an agency doesn’t have an in-house foreign rights department or film department, and these rights need to be negotiated, a co-agent who specializes in those areas will be recruited, in which case the fee will be higher than 15%.

How does the payment process work?

A publisher will send a check to the agency who will take their 15% and then, in turn, cut a check to you for the remaining balance. At the end of the year you will get one 1099 (even if you work with more than one publisher) that will state all earnings, commissions, expenses*, etc.

*Expenses are usually very minimal charges for things like copies.

What doesn’t an agent do?

An agent doesn’t work for you, as in they are not your employee. I can’t tell you how many calls I received where the caller on the other end of the line said something to the effect of: “I’m looking for an agent and I want to know what you’ll do for me.” Or “You tell me: Why do I need you?” Or “I’m interviewing agents. Go to my website and fill out the form.” (I kid you not.) An agent wants to cultivate a professional relationship that will hopefully last for many (successful) years. They have to feel that you two are a right fit for each other. The respect has to be mutual.

Also, a legitimate agent will never charge a “reading fee”.

**********

So there you have it. Hope this sheds some light on the elusive job description of the literary agent. I’ll be posting soon on how you go about finding agents who might be a good fit for you and your work.

Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments or email me at

joylovelyjoyblog (at) gmail (dot) com.

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17 thoughts on “What exactly does a literary agent do?

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  3. Julia says:

    I have total respect for agents, and would love to work with one, someday! I had no idea you worked in publishing. I am green with envy!!
    When I was sending out queries for my novel (about two years ago), it was a lot of work writing up the various summaries and outlines, researching the agents, etc., but I think that whole process must help to weed out the “serious” writers. I was thrilled to get manuscript requests from Caryn Karmatz Rudy (I contacted her because I enjoy Joshilyn Jackson’s books) and Geri Thoma (she was/is? Ann Packer’s agent, and The Dive From Clausen’s Pier is one my favorite books). They had encouraging feedback, but it didn’t pan out. Someday I hope to get back on the querying horse, or start a new project…
    By the way, I thought I was following you this whole time, but apparently I wasn’t – that has been rectified!

    • Lara says:

      Doing your research and taking the publishing industry seriously will indeed show to agents and editors, so good for you. You will get back there someday. I was sending out manuscripts to editors as well but put it aside once the boys were born. Ahh…parenthood. I’ll get back there too someday. I’ll be posting more on the publishing process soon (this month has been crazy).

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