If you have decided to pursue traditional publication, you must have a literary agent to represent you and your project.
So how do you do that?
In this blog post, I will tell you why you need one, how to get one, and what it looks like to work with one.
Why Do I Need a Literary Agent?
No matter what you think you already know about the culture and practices of the publishing industry, you don’t know enough.
Just accept it.
Like my time in Bangkok, you know enough to take your shoes off at the door, but you don’t know the rules once you are inside.
There are nuances to publishing that only those who have been in the industry for decades can navigate with ease.
Trust me, you need a guide.
Here are four reasons why.
1) A Literary Agent is the Only Way to Get to a Publisher
Many years ago, a new writer could actually send a manuscript directly to a publishing house.
In fact, they could send a hard copy. That is what I did with my first book.
These days, the standard practice is to approach the publishing house via a literary agent.
That literary agent will not be using a hard copy of your manuscript when they do it, either.
They will be relying upon your book proposal to communicate with acquisitions editors.
You might be saying, “But what if I know someone who works for a traditional publisher? Do I still have to go through a literary agent?”
Well, I suppose there are some instances where current day authors have not worked with a literary agent, but when it is such a rare occurrence, why would you even want to spend any time thinking about it?
The chances of this happening are slim to none.
Besides, if you were somehow able to get the attention of a publisher without the help of an agent, they would eventually send you to get an agent anyway.
2) A Literary Agent Has Connections
The publishing world looks enormous from the outside, but you would be surprised how small it is.
Everyone seems to know one another.
And if they haven’t formally worked together, yet, they know the friend of a friend who used to work with them, and it is only a matter of time until they meet.
Industry professionals switch publishing houses, as well as positions within those houses, and so you never know who someone knows.
You just have to assume that everyone knows everyone.
Your literary agent will know which publisher and acquisitions editor is likely to want your manuscript.
They will know that a certain editor prefers a certain style of writing or is looking for a certain type of book. Those connections work in your favor and make a publishing contract happen faster.
Trust has already been established between the agent and the editor, or they are willing to trust, based on mutual respect.
3) A Literary Agent Negotiates Better
Once, I heard of a publisher who offered a now well-known Christian author a book contract back when she was only a blogger.
The deal was for an advance of $5,000. Then she reached out to a literary agent and secured her representation.
A few conversations later, and the same publisher offered her an advance of $15,000.
An author’s advance is the amount of money that a traditional publishing house offers to the writer in exchange for the exclusive printing rights of the book.
But money is not the only point of negotiation in a contract.
You will want to come to favorable terms regarding everything about the book, from the audio recording to percentage of royalties to what happens if it doesn’t sell well.
These are tedious details that have long-term effects. You do not want to skim over them.
A literary agent has the expertise you need in order to feel secure and confident about the deal you are making.
4) A Literary Agent is Your Advocate
You cannot predict what may or may not happen during your publication journey.
During the tense months before your book’s release, as well as the years following, you want someone who will serve as a buffer between you and your publisher.
Your agent will fight for you and your book’s success, sometimes saying things that you cannot say and always drawing both parties back to the fine print of the contract.
How Do I Get a Literary Agent?
There is not a formula for you to follow when looking for a literary agent.
There are several ways to go about it.
You might meet your literary agent at a conference for writers.
Many of these types of conferences allow you to add-on a 15-minute appointment with a literary agent for an extra fee.
It’s typical that you won’t get to choose a particular agent; you will just be paired with one based upon when you enrolled and how many spots are available.
During your brief appointment, you will need to be prepared.
Bring your book proposal, in case the agent wants to take it immediately.
More than likely, they will ask you to email them a copy of the proposal if they are interested.
Also bring along a one-pager, similar to the author section in your book proposal, that has a clear list of your personal information and professional qualifications. Always include a photograph.
Before you go, practice pitching your book until it feels natural and simple to do so.
You might meet your literary agent through a referral, like I did.
A talent agent at the speaker’s bureau that represents me suggested that I work with a certain literary agent for my next book.
The talent agent made an email introduction, and we took it from there.
The literary agent was not interested in my initial book proposal, but he did believe I had potential as an author.
He and I worked together on a new book proposal for months, and he offered a contract to represent me, one year after our email introduction.
You might meet your literary agent through your own research.
If you can name a couple of authors with writing similar to yours, scour their acknowledgments page for their literary agent. Most authors mention this.
Then go to the literary agent’s website. They might work for a bigger agency with several agents, and they might have their own agency under their name.
Be diligent. You will find them.
Then study their submissions guidelines and follow them to the letter.
Every agent is different so do not assume that you can approach them all the same way.
In fact, some request that you not pitch them at the same time that you pitch another agent. Be respectful of this request.
If you want them to pay attention to details when they study your book contract, you must show them that you can pay attention to details when you study their submissions guidelines.
You might meet your literary agent when you look through a web site with a current list of literary agents.
When you find one that interests you, follow their submission guidelines, as stated above.
What Does It Look Like to Work with a Literary Agent?
When you have signed a contract to work with a literary agent, and they have agreed to pitch your proposal to publishers, then you just wait.
They will be in touch when there are updates.
In between nibbles and bites from publishers, there will be silence, kind of like when you go fishing on a pond. Everything is happening under the surface.
And then something finally comes up, and the agent will ask you if you are interested in the offer made by a particular publisher.
If you are, the agent will introduce you to the acquisitions editor, and the ball will start rolling.
From the contract to the bookshelf, throughout the entire process, your agent will be copied on emails and available for questions. And why are they so present and interested in the book?
Because your success is their success.
By engaging with a literary agent, you agree to give them a cut of the advance and royalties for the life of the book.
With every literary agent, the percentage will be different but for most, it is around 15%.
That may seem like a lot, but their knowledge and understanding of the publishing culture is well worth it.
They are fluent in a language you don’t speak.
As you can see, working with a literary agent is crucial to your success in the traditional publishing world.
Not only do they help you get your book published, they also guide you through the process, advocate for you, and negotiate for the best deal.
The pathways to secure a literary agent outlined in this post—from conferences and referrals to diligent research— share a common thread: preparation and professionalism.
As you embark on this journey, remember that the agent-author relationship is a partnership built on trust, mutual respect, and a shared commitment to the success of your literary endeavor.
By entrusting your manuscript to a literary agent, you gain not only a guide through the intricacies of publishing but also a dedicated ally invested in your success.
And that is absolutely priceless.
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