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Literary agents | Factsheets


Literary agents

WritersServices Factsheet 3 by Michael Legat

Literary Agents

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Literary agents do not normally deal with short stories or articles for newspapers and magazines, unless the author is very well known and therefore able to command large fees for such work. 

More and more publishers are refusing to consider books unless they are submitted by an agent, so it will be of great help to your writing career if you can get yourself on to an agent’s list of clients.

Publishers prefer to consider books which come to them through an agent because the mere fact that the book is submitted in that way is a guarantee that it has been through the agent’s net – the net which is designed to strain out publishable works, leaving behind the slush. Moreover, agents are more aware of which publishers might be interested in the book than the author might be, and  the publisher knows that the agent’s awareness means that the book submitted is one which would fit the firm’s list.

If an agent agrees to handle your work that is not necessarily a guarantee that a publisher will be found for it. Many agents will submit a book to a limited number of publishers only before abandoning it – but remember that in such cases the book has probably been sent to the only publishers likely to be interested in it.

Some agents may ask for a fee for reading a typescript, but apart from that, agents do not generally make any charge until the author’s work begins to earn. The agent’s percentage varies according to the nature of the book’s earnings: for example, it will be higher in the case of foreign publication of the book than on sales made by the British publisher, on which the normal levy is 10%-15%.

Many writers who have tried to find an agent who would be willing to add a new author to his/her list of clients can tell you that it is a very difficult goal  to achieve, and you may do better by sending your typescript to those publishers who are willing to consider direct submissions. 

How do you find an agent? By writing to one or many of the firms listed in the Writers' and Artists’ Yearbook or The Writer’s Handbook. Read the entries carefully; some agents handle only certain kinds of book – for example, children’s books – and these details are indicated. A useful tip is that the newer, smaller agents (the dates of their founding are usually shown) may be more interested in new writers than those which are long-established and big.

It is difficult to advise on whether it is better to be a small fish in a large agency-pond, or a big fish in a little one.

If you become a client of one of the larger agencies, the firm will have a number of departments, and so will be able to handle various subsidiary rights, such as television and film rights. A smaller agency may mean that you will need a specialist to look after those rights which demand a high level of expertise from the agent.

An agent is not only concerned with the sale of books by the authors on his/her list, but is an adviser and friend. An agent is on your side in the harsh, commercial world of  publishing and the various subsidiary rights which derive from the book and are there to be exploited.

For more on this, see my book Literary Agents

© Michael Legat 2001