What are literary agents?

Literary agents are people or agencies that handle the business side of publishing. They liaison with publishers on your behalf. Literary agents charge a commission most likely to be in a percentage.

In a phrase, literary agents negotiate the financials between you, the author, and the publishing company. As their commissions are in percentages (generally around 15%), you can rely on them for the negotiations. The higher they negotiate, the higher their cut will be in the end.

Don’t hire literary agents that charge a flat fee. They might underquote your book or novel just to get it approved for publication.

What does a literary agent do exactly?

The responsibilities of a literary agent can be broadly summed up as:

  1. Representing the writer and the book or novel.
  2. Acting as an intermediary for financial communication between the publisher and the author.
  3. Sending your book to the right (or the most) publishing houses for approval.

Literary agents also represent screenwriters and novelists while also dealing with film and theater producers and studios apart from book publishers.

Benefits of hiring a literary agent

Hiring a literary agent to vouch for your manuscript makes it much more likely that an editor will take a look at it. Publishing houses have too many requests. They like to thin the herd, so to speak, by prioritizing those who have talked with a literary agent first, because:

  • It means said authors are more serious about their work, as they have already agreed to pay an intermediary, and
  • It also means that someone professional has already taken a look at the manuscript and hopefully fixed the rough edges that would just waste the precious time of the publishing house’s editors.

By no means does hiring a literary agent make an author actually more serious than one who’s self-publishing or approaching a publishing house on their own. It’s simply the way the world works. Publishing houses need to cut down on the noise. As they can’t read all manuscripts first to decide which ones are better, they have to rely on such half-baked measures which can be punishing to those who don’t wish to hire literary agents.

Literary agents mostly only work well in traditional publishing. Ebooks don’t need the names of big publishing houses on them to compete with others. The marketing channels for ebooks are also quite different.

No pay upfront

One of the best things about hiring literary agents is that they cost nothing upfront. You only pay them a commission out of the deal they negotiate for you.

If an agent’s cut is 15% and they negotiate $1000 in advance for you, then you only need to pay them $150 if and when they close the deal. If a literary agent fails, you don’t have to pay them anything, and you can safely move on to the next most suitable agent or agency.

This is a really great feature, especially for new or independent authors.

Asserting your creative freedom

Publication houses are very stringent in their requirements from a manuscript. For example, if you’re writing about a life you have not really lived then they can shoot the project down.

The job of a literary agent is to negotiate the perfect compromise between your literary creative freedom and the publication company’s requirements.

It’s important to assert your literary freedom to the literary agent first. Tell them what you cannot compromise on so the communication between the agent and the publication is as smooth as possible.


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