Literary agents play a key role in the international publishing industry. Yet not many new writers are aware of what a literary agency can and cannot do. In simple terms, a literary agent represents authors, pitches their manuscripts to publishers, negotiates deals and manages the commercial aspects of the deal. In return the literary agent charges a percentage (usually 15%) of the royalty for the author’s books.
You’ve done all the hard work in writing the book. Why should you pay your hard-earned royalty to a literary agency? Well, for starters, the publishing cycle goes well beyond the writing part. Most authors are good writers, but they aren’t good businessmen. And selling your book to a buyer requires more than just a grasp of plots, characters and vocabulary.
For starters, top publishers get so many manuscripts for review through the slush pile (that’s the term used to describe unsolicited manuscripts that are sent by authors to the publishing house) that they don’t have the bandwidth to filter through each. And your chances of being the gem that they pick up from the slush pile are pretty slim. So many publishers delegate the filtering work to literary agents. Good agents have contacts with multiple publishing companies and they are tuned into the market – from the potential evergreen classics to the flavours of the season.
There are various categories of literary agencies. There are specialist literary agencies that deal only with certain genres of books. And then there are those who welcome all genres. There are those who insist on working only with established authors and those who actively seek out new and first time authors. There are small literary agencies (often with a single literary agent) and there are the bigger ones with a large number of agents. And you thought choosing the right publisher was tough, huh?
Another key area where a literary agent can make a significant impact is in the area of advances. You could go to a big publishing house as a new author and try to negotiate the deal on your own. But the right agent can ensure that you get the best possible price for your book. The legal part of the contract can appear pretty intimidating and confusing for a newbie writer. A literary agent who has seen many such contracts can quickly review and pinpoint clauses that may not be in your best interest.
Getting a literary agent to represent you will not guarantee a publishing contract, but having the right team on your side can improve the odds and to some extent, accelerate your journey of getting the published author label on your resume.
We’ll cover more about how to find the right literary agent in one of the subsequent posts.