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Writing

What Is a Literary Agent? Pros and Cons of Hiring a Literary Agent

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 15, 2020 • 5 min read

What do you do when you have a finished novel and you want to get it published? This might be the moment to pursue a literary agent. Literary agents can help get your work in front of publishing houses, increase the size of your advance, and shape the overall course of your career.

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What Is a Literary Agent?

A literary agent is a person who represents the business interests of writers and their written works. Agents work with new writers and bestselling authors alike, acting as business-minded intermediaries between creatives and book publishing houses, film producers, and theatrical or film producers. Agents generally are paid a fee of between 10 and 20 percent of sales that they help negotiate on behalf of the writer they represent.

What Does a Literary Agent Do?

Good literary agents can be helpful on both the business and creative sides of the writing industry. Here are some typical responsibilities for a literary agent:

  1. A literary agent helps the client get work. One key aspect of an agent’s job is to know how to interface with book publishers as they negotiate publishing contracts. In addition to overseeing book contracts, agents help their client get speaking arrangements and organize licensing deals, all while keeping track of payments from these endeavors.
  2. A literary agent reviews manuscripts. A good agent will review their client’s full manuscript, collection of short stories, or nonfiction book, offering creative insights and edits along the way. Reputable agents want to make sure the manuscript is in the best possible shape before submitting it to the publishing world.
  3. A literary agent puts together query letters and pitch packages. Once it’s time to submit the book to the traditional publishing industry, agents will help the author put together query letters, book proposals, sample chapters and marketing plans as part of an overall pitch package for the literary work. Agents will keep track of various submission guidelines and formats, which may vary depending on whether or not you’re submitting commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction, or children’s books.
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3 Benefits of Hiring a Literary Agent

Working with the right agent or literary agency can make life easier for nonfiction and fiction writers alike. Benefits of having a literary agent include:

  1. An agent can help land lucrative book deals. Though it’s possible to make money by self-publishing as an indie writer, your best shot at getting a big advance upfront from a high-profile New York publisher is through a literary agent. Most of the Big Five publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts—especially if it’s the first book a new author—and are only looking for books with bestseller potential. Agents have the contact information for publishing executives, and traditional publishers have a familiarity with an agent’s client list. This relationship can increase your chances of signing a lucrative book deal and make it more likely that your manuscript will make it to the top of the vast slush pile of submissions.
  2. An agent enables you to focus solely on writing. The business side of the writing can be complex and mentally taxing, especially if you’re a first time writer who’s new to the industry. Agents can tackle the tricky stuff, like negotiating foreign rights, subsidiary rights, and keeping track of royalty statements. An agent can also deal with the logistics of planning a United States book tour and hiring a publicist for your completed work. Having a dedicated teammate to help with the business aspects of the industry can free you up to focus on what you do best: writing.
  3. An agent helps guide your career. Agents work on commission, so they should be actively invested in your success. In a perfect world, you and your agent are partners, working in tandem to promote your career. They can offer you constructive feedback and advice as to the current state of the writers’ markets. For example, if you’re considering writing something in genre of fiction that is new to you—a thriller, a science fiction epic, a young adult romance, or even a self-help book—a great agent will encourage you to follow your passion while also advising as to the market feasibility and editors’ appetites for certain genres. In a perfect world, your literary agent assists you during every step of your career, serving as a trusted adviser and honest confidant.

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3 Disadvantages of Hiring a Literary Agent

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Literary agents aren’t for everybody. Here are some potential disadvantages to consider before seeking out an agent:

  1. Trust. While the best agents can help shape your career, it’s important to do your research before signing with an agent. One way to confirm that your agent is reputable is if they’re a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), an organization with a searchable database whose signatories promise to observe an ethical code of conduct when representing clients. Some agents charge a high reading fee in order to consider taking you on as a client—these agents are usually not reputable. Though it’s not always possible to tell who is legit, you should stay away from agents who seem untrustworthy.
  2. Cost. Generally speaking, a literary agent will take around a 15% commission on your published work, which includes everything from audiobooks to film rights. This percentage is usually higher for things like translations and foreign rights sales. If you want to keep a greater share of the profits, you may want to consider self-publishing without an agent’s representation.
  3. Wait. Publishing a book takes a fair amount of time and patience under any circumstances. However, literary agents can increase the amount of time it takes between completed manuscript and your book actually hitting stores. Submitting your book to an agent takes time. Then, you have to wait for your agent to go through the querying, pitching, and negotiating processes necessary to get a deal from a traditional publishing house. Since you’re functionally submitting your book twice, you should expect to wait a while longer to see the finished product than you would if you went the agentless route.

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