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What You Need to Know About Literary Agents

I just came back from the Columbia Publishing Course, a six week intensive program meant to prepare students for both book and magazine/digital publishing. I got a great overview of the entire industry from a publisher’s perspective, but good for me and you, this information is awesome for writers, too!

One player in publishing you may be less familiar with is the literary agent. I heard from several during my time at Columbia, as well as from editors who work closely with them. While they may work behind the scenes, it’s important for writers to understand the literary agent’s role in publishing to better understand it overall. Keep reading to find out what I’ve learned!

What agents do

An agent’s primary job is to represent authors and their work. They send their clients’ manuscripts to publishing companies and entice editors to publish them. The best agents will have strong, personal connections with publishers and know the best hands your work belongs in. Agents may also provide broad, structural editorial suggestions to get your work in top shape before sending it out. Once a manuscript is acquired by a publisher, it is the agent’s job to negotiate the author’s contract, and they often deal with rights licensing for things like audiobook and foreign rights deals as well.

Agents work on commission, meaning they don’t get paid until you do. It’s their job to get you the best book deal they can, benefitting both you and them.

How to find agents

A great way to find agents (and vet them) is by seeing who your favorite authors are represented by. This information can be found online or often in a book’s acknowledgements section. Be sure to look at authors who write in the same genre or style as you. Agents are individuals: they have unique tastes and skill sets which are better suited to certain writers over others. They’ll often describe the type of work they’re looking for on their website, but make sure you research the authors they represent so you’ll know if it’ll be a good match. Client reviews, if available, are another great way to see if an agent is the right fit for you.

Agents and the Big Five

If you want to get your book published by one of the big houses like Penguin Random House or Simon and Schuster, you need an agent. Editors at these companies do not read submissions from unrepresented writers. The professionals I heard from at Columbia stated this over and over again. They rely on pre-existing relationships with agents for their manuscripts.

The good news is that while a majority of books are published by these big houses, there are a plethora of small and indie presses looking for emerging and unrepresented writers. They’re often more willing to dig through the slush pile and pull out a hidden gem: your manuscript!

Agent red flags

A good agent is one that prioritizes you and your work’s success. If they aren’t doing that, they’re not worth it. Here are a few red flags to keep in mind while querying agents:

  • If an agent asks you to make significant changes to your work because it “won’t sell otherwise.” An author that spoke during the course told us that her previous agent wanted her to rewrite her adult manuscript into a children’s book. No, thank you! An agent should take you on as a client because they see potential in your manuscript as is. Don’t give in to drastic changes because the agent says it’ll make more money.

  • If an agent asks for money in exchange for any services, including editing or marketing. Remember: all agents work on commission. A writer should not have to pay for anything after becoming an agent’s client. You’ve already put in all the work on your manuscript: that’s your money-maker!

  • Similarly, if an agent tries to point you towards a “vanity press,” or a publishing company where the writer must pay to have their book published, often requiring the writer to purchase copies of their own book in order to sell them. This is not the way real publishing business is done. If vanity publishing is offered to you, turn it down!

Always do your research when looking for an agent. There are a lot of scams and shady agents floating around, and it’s your job to make sure you’re not caught by one. Luckily, there are several resources online to help writers avoid scams. A.C. Crispin and Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware have a great blog with updates on the latest publisher and agency scams. Check out their “Thumbs Down” Agency list as well.

This info isn’t meant to scare you. It's meant to make you more aware of potential dangers and give you an idea of what to look out for. Doing better-informed research on where you’re sending your manuscript will protect you from scams and threats, and lead you to a better match for your work. There are a ton of incredible (and credible) agents out there who care deeply for their clients and want to get them the best deals possible, who are willing and excited to read and represent your work. And if big house publishing isn’t meant for you, it’s entirely possible to be published by a small press without an agent. If you need convincing, check out S. E. Reed’s blog post about her success with finding her own publisher here!


About the author: Lindsey has a BA in English and Creative Writing from Brandeis University and recently completed the Columbia Publishing Course, nicknamed the "West Point of publishing." She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. For three years she was an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.


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