The place of the literary agent in the pantheon of the publishing industry’s crucial players has grown in significance in the last decade or two. A good agent acts as the intermediary between the author and publisher, helping to fine-tune an offering, leading on negotiations, and protecting their client’s interests.
A good and lasting (hopefully) agent-author relationship should be mutually beneficial and collaborative. The literary agent is the expert in the room. It makes a big difference to an author’s success and longevity if they have a champion fighting their corner in an industry that can be cut-throat and competitive.
What does a literary agent do for their author-clients?
Are literary agents worth the percentage they take? What do they do for their money? Is it worth having one?
The answers are “Yes”, “Lots” and “Yes”.
Firstly, an agent circulates an author’s manuscript to publishers to ascertain who would like to place a bid.
Second, they’re effective because they have a keen, up-to-date and commercial knowledge of which editors and which publishers would be interested in their clients’ work.
Last, but not least, agents know what trends and niche markets publishers are specialising in, or moving into, whose “lists” are full, and who might be looking for a specific genre of writing, for example BAME, working class writers, female writers, crime writers, non-fiction writers, and literary fiction.
Once an agent has made the best publisher match for an author’s work, they then negotiate to secure the optimum contract, which generally entails territorial rights, electronic rights. discounts, level of publicity support, royalties and advances. A practical example is trading-in a big upfront “advance” payment for greater publicity commitment.
Choose with care and nous.
If an author’s work does attract the interest of a literary agent it’s key that best judgement is used when decision time comes, especially if there are two or more agents competing for the business. At this stage the power rests mostly with the author. The questions to ask for example are: “Will they push your best interests? and “Will they push those interests harder, better and with more acumen than your competition?” It’s vital to test their answers and stay aware of their “vibe”. In other words use the same array of senses that help establish any healthy relationship. The give and take, the transactional. Choosing the right agent is the most important decision that any author makes in their writing career.
The nuts and bolts
Should an author be accepted by a literary agent it’s time for the details and small print. In other words the “nuts and bolts” of the partnership. Here are some to consider before signing up:
Time-scale. In other words how long do they think it will be before they secure responses from publishers? Where do they envisage your work selling? How often will contact and meetings be about the project? Do both parties have corresponding expectations? Be sure about what the parties will be doing at varioius points in the agreement.
That all-important agent commission. Author-clients will be charged commission by their agent. The current industry standard is 15%. They will likely charge more for deals relating foreign markets and rights.
Editing. If an author’s work needs editing before submission to a publisher it’s very important to do the work necessary to ensure it’s copy and content sound. Agents can advise on this.