Everything You Need to Know about Literary Agents (and what I’m looking for)

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I often get emails from people new to the traditional publishing process asking what in the world literary agents do and why are they necessary.

First, there are several ways to see your words in print.

  • You can hire a vanity publisher (many, many are scams, unfortunately) and they’ll publish once you pay–typically a lot.
  • You can independently publish by uploading your cover and interior file on Amazon. This is done POD (print on demand).
  • You can do a print run of books with a professional printer, warehouse those books, and sell them in book outlets. (This involves significant up front costs).
  • You can opt for a hybrid model, which is where you outsource different parts of the process (editing, interior file, cover, marketing, PR, etc.) that you’re not comfortable with.
  • Or, you can traditionally publish, where a longstanding publishing house pays you an advance, takes care of all the publishing process, and partners with you in getting the book into the hands of others.

There are advantages and disadvantages to every aspect of publishing, but for the sake of today’s post, I’m going to talk about the last option: traditional publishing.

In order to be traditionally published by a medium-to-large publishing house, you typically cannot approach them independently. Just as a real estate agent has key-access to houses to show you, a literary agent has access to publishing houses to shop your book. You cannot query them directly. At some writers conferences, you can meet with acquisitions editors there, but other than that, you must have an agent to interact with those houses.

So, a literary agent is pretty much the only avenue to traditional publishing.

What do typical literary agents do?

  • They shop your book proposal or novel to publishing houses, particularly ones who are looking for your specific content.
  • Because they have significant publishing relationships and are constantly learning about the ever-moving clientele of publishing houses, they know best where to pitch.
  • They coach authors in proposal creation so that proposal has its best chance at succeeding.
  • They communicate with the author about where their book is shopped and what the response is.
  • If the book is chosen to be published by a house’s publication board, the agent negotiates the contract in the best interest of the client.
  • All literary agents make a standard 15% of advances and royalties. If you find an agent charging more, beware.
  • Agents shepherd the author through the editorial process (typically a year from turned-in-book to publication) including macro, line, and galley edits, marketing copy, PR, book cover, interior file, and launch.
  • Agents handle any disputes between author and publisher. In other words, the agent can become “the bad guy” on your behalf, representing your needs to the publisher if something goes awry.
  • They help authors understand nuances of contracts, legal language, and rights.
  • Act with integrity in all interactions, fiscal matters, and legal issues.
  • Other than shopping your work (and making their standard percentage when a book sells), they do not charge for services.

Of course this doesn’t include all the behind the scenes unpaid work a literary agent does, nor does it represent the mentoring or coaching aspects (and counseling!) of agenting.

As an agent, I occasionally get emails from authors unsatisfied with an agent. Part of that dissatisfaction can be unrealistic expectations (we are not magicians!), but part of unease can also come from an overworked agent or one who may not be as attentive as an author feels necessary. In light of this, here are the traits of a best-practices literary agent.

Best Practices Literary Agents . . .

  • Communicate with you in a timely manner in the way that fits them best. (Some are amazing at email. Others at calling. Some by text). This is the primary complaint I hear from authors dissatisfied with their agents–that they don’t get communicated with.
  • Help shape your career by coaching you on each subsequent project.
  • Brainstorm book ideas.
  • Connect you to other professionals and authors to build community and collaboration.
  • Cheer for your wins.
  • Lament your losses.
  • Offer constructive critique of subsequent projects, proposals, and book ideas.
  • Coach authors on platform development and growth.
  • Form a strong relationship with you.

So what happens if you would like a literary agent? Let’s look at what you need to have in place to approach one as well as the best way to approach one.

What do you need in place before you pitch?

  • If you are writing fiction, you need a strong presence on social media, an author website, an email distribution list, a synopsis, and a compelling and edited 80,000-word manuscript. What also helps: a fiction proposal.
  • If you are writing nonfiction, you need a reader-centric website, a platform of at least 50,000 followers across all social media channels (FB, Insta, Twitter, etc.), a strong email distribution list (5000+), and a comprehensive nonfiction book proposal. Your book should fit a niche, must be unique, and it must hit a strong reader felt need. Typical NF books are 50,000 words.
  • I would add that you should have heard from someone in publishing that your work has merit.
  • In NF, if you are lacking a platform, it’s time to build one. I’ve written about it here, here, and here.

So how do you pitch an agent?

  • The best way to pitch an agent is in person at a writers conference. This is about building a relationship, and the best way to do so is to actually meet with that person face to face.
  • If this is not possible, then cold querying the agent is standard practice. A query is a business letter that details the USP (unique selling potential) of a book, the hook (in the case of fiction), and your ability to sell that book (platform). Some agencies will request a proposal right away with the query; others will only ask for a query first. It’s important you follow each agency’s specific guidelines.
  • Once you’ve emailed the agent, then the waiting begins (which is great training for the publishing process which is slow, slow, slow). If you haven’t heard back in three months, you can either email again (checking in on the agent’s progress on it) or let it go and query another agent. It’s certainly fine (and acceptable practice) to do multiple query submissions to several agents.
  • If the agent asks for your proposal (NF) or your full (Fiction), send it to them in a timely manner. Be sure it’s edited well before you send it. You only get that one chance to make a good first impression.
  • Once you’ve sent that, wait up to three months, then send a follow up email or let it go and move on to the next agency.

What happens when you’re agented?

  • You will sign an agency agreement that details your responsibility, the agency’s responsibility, and how to terminate the relationship. If there is no agreement in writing, you are NOT truly represented.
  • The agent will begin shopping your book or proposal to publishing houses.
  • If a publication board approves your book, they will offer you a contract based on how many sales they think they can make.
  • The agent negotiates the contract on your behalf.
  • You receive an advance on royalties upon signing, then receive the second and/or third parts of the advance upon delivery of an acceptable manuscript, and the date of publication. If you out-sell your advance (meaning you sold more than what they gave you), you will receive royalties about twice a year.
  • You deliver the manuscript to the publishing house in a timely fashion (by the due date specified in the contract).
  • You walk through the macro (content) edit, line edit, and galley edit (how it looks as a book, typeset). You work with the publisher re: book cover, interior file, marketing copy, and a marketing and PR plan.
  • You launch the book and celebrate.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat for each subsequent book.

What I’m looking for in a client

  • A Christ follower.
  • Someone unafraid to do the hard work of building a platform.
  • A self-starter who approaches their writing career with vigor, an open mind, and a go-getter attitude.
  • An excellent writer who uses strong verbs.
  • Someone who is not offended by being edited.
  • Adherent to historic Christian faith theology.
  • Someone averse to Christianese, cliche and platitudes.

What I’m NOT looking for

  • Children’s books.
  • YA.
  • Fiction (sadly!).
  • Insecure writers who need a lot of reassurance.
  • Me monsters.
  • One hit wonders who only have one book in them.
  • Someone who says, “I only want to write books; I don’t want to promote them.”

Whew! This post is longer than I intended, but I hope it helped you. If you feel we would be a good fit, you can email me your query to representation@booksandsuch.com with my name in the subject line.

No matter how you choose to publish (there are so many options), I wish you success and joy in the process. It’s certainly a pathway I’ve walked for 17 years now, which empowers me to be an empathetic, knowledgeable literary agent. That’s my hope, at least!

Comments

  1. Brenda Croston September 27, 2021 #

    Mary, I would like to share this information at a retreat conference I am hosting. It is very informative. Is that okay? Is there a fee for sharing the info?

    • Mary DeMuth September 28, 2021 #

      Yes, no fee. Just credit me or give a link back to this post. 🙂 Or you can share my etsy shop: etsy.com/shop/writerhelp

  2. Shelby M September 23, 2021 #

    Mary,

    I understand the need to build a platform and am trying to do so in order to get started on the writing process for a nonfiction book. The biggest problem I have having with building the platform is that everything you do you have to pay for, and I am working on top of trying to build a ministry. Do you have any suggestions for how to balance everything when you have two jobs, writing, and a family?

    Thanks!

    • Mary September 24, 2021 #

      The best way is to create a freebie and build your email list. Other than paying for the list, it is free and once it’s set up, relatively hands off.

  3. Mary Kay Moody September 23, 2021 #

    Thanks for (most of!) this, Mary. Clear, to the point, and helpful like everything from you. I’m only sad that you aren’t handling fiction as well as NF. Best to you and your new clients.

    • Mary September 23, 2021 #

      I wish I did too. It’s not an easy thing to place these days.

  4. Kelly Brinkmann September 22, 2021 #

    Mary, you offer insightful, solid advice woven with grace and warmth that is fueled by your own experience.
    You shine by yourself, but your gift for teaching and serving others well makes them sparkle, too.

    • Mary September 22, 2021 #

      Oh that’s so sweet to say, Kelly. Thank you.

  5. Charlotte Guest August 31, 2021 #

    Thank you for your wise words, advice and guidance. I’ll be at WriterCon2021 and hope to meet you in person.
    I admire your strong faith and share your feelings about Christianese, cliche and platitudes. Here’s to freedom & authenticity.

    Charlotte

  6. Mary DeMuth August 9, 2021 #

    Glad it was helpful, Marsha!

  7. Marsha E Young August 9, 2021 #

    Mary,
    Thank you for this pithy no-nonsense guideline. I appreciate the information and you will be hearing from me. ~ Marsha Y.

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