What Are Literary Agents?

Aspiring authors have more options than ever before in today’s world. Working with a small and independent publishing house can help you achieve your goals of getting your book out there, as can self-publishing your manuscript as a hardback, paperback, or ebook. Those who dream of being traditionally published with a large and well-known publishing house will, however, almost never be able to make that happen on their own. They will need to partner with a literary agent. 

Are you working on a manuscript? Are you committed to publishing your book? Whether your work is fiction or non-fiction, and regardless of genre, anyone who knows anything about publishing will quickly tell you to start thinking about querying literary agents — because your agent is going to be a crucial part of your success. 

If you are a new author, you will, however, wonder what exactly literary agents are, and what they do. 

The “too long; didn’t read” version is simple. Literary agents represent authors and work tirelessly to place their manuscripts with the best publishing house, while securing the best possible contractual terms on their behalf. The reality is more complex. Your literary agent may:

  • Be willing to carry out broad developmental edits to your manuscript that will increase the sales potential of your book. These editorial agents will not, however, engage in line editing or proofreading, nor are they critique partners. If you want an agent to agree to represent you, you need to make sure your manuscript is already in top condition.
  • Assist you, as the author, in deciding on the final title of your book. Literary agents may also play a role in the process of designing a book cover. 
  • Approach publishers on your behalf with the intention of, ultimately, landing a book deal and getting your book into book stores. To achieve this, literary agents need deep industry connections and always remain up to date on industry trends to know what books can sell in the current market, and where best to place them.
  • Once a publishing house is interested in a manuscript, literary agents again play an essential role as they negotiate a book deal on the author’s behalf, including finalizing the contract. The book agent’s skill and experience will help determine the royalties you get, as well as the size of your advance. The amount of communication an author has with their literary agent during this stage depends on the individual agent’s style, but know that your agent is working very hard behind the scenes.

As you can see, literary agents are far more than glorified sales gurus for books. Because most publishing houses will only work with book agents rather than with authors themselves, and as a result of these professionals’ deep knowledge of the publishing industry and its current trends, they are a key part of authors’ success.

Literary agents only get paid when authors do, typically taking a (well-earned!) commission of 15 percent. This explains why signing with a literary agent is so nerve-wrecking for aspiring authors, and why it is so important for authors to get the process of querying literary agents right. That includes researching what literary agents are the best fit for your manuscript and following the querying instructions carefully rather than simply cold-pitching a wide variety of agents by sending in an entire manuscript. 

A literary agent is, after all, only going to agree to represent you if they believe in your book as much as you do. Once you do sign with a literary agent, you are well on your way toward getting a book deal!