For writers who dream of traditionally publishing, signing with a literary agent is an important milestone. The right literary agent will look out for your best interests as an author. Like any industry, there can be some rotten apples in the bunch.
By doing your research and understanding some important red flags, you can save yourself a lot of headaches, and find the perfect agent.
So, now that you’ve completed and perfected your manuscript, here are some key things to know before signing with a literary agent.
What Does a Literary Agent Do?
A literary agent acts as an intermediary between an author and the publisher. It's the literary agent’s job to find the right publishers for your book and negotiate the best deal for you.
Some agents (called editorial agents) will also work with you to improve your book before submitting to publishers by providing editorial feedback. If this is something that appeals to you, make sure you ask a prospective agent if they provide this service (see questions to ask below).
How Do Literary Agents Get Paid?
Literary agents are paid through commissions. This means if you are offered a book contract with an advance of $5,000, your agent will get a portion. A commission of 15% is standard. On a $5,000 advance this is $750.
An advantage of this is your agent will fight to get as much as they can for your book. It’s also a great incentive to make sure your book is as polished as possible before submitting to agents.
An agent will never ask for money up front to represent you. If an agent asks for money before selling your book to a publisher, this is a red flag.
Do Your Research
You can increase your chances of getting an agent by understanding who might be a suitable fit for you and your work. This will also save you time in the long run. Rather than submitting to any agent you find, take the time to learn about the agent. Some things to consider are:
- Which authors do they represent?
- Do you write the same genre as other authors they represent?
- Do the books they’ve sold have a similar market to your book?
Be sure to read the agent’s submission guidelines carefully. Agents get so many submissions they will not bother with an author who can’t follow instructions. It’s an easy way for them to whittle down their slush pile—oops, this author didn’t bother with my instructions, so I guess I won’t bother with their manuscript.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
If writing is a long-term career goal for you, there's an excellent chance you'll want to find an agent you can build a relationship with. It's important you know as much as possible about the way the agent conducts business so you can get a feel for what your relationship with them might look like.
It's normal to feel nervous asking questions, but it’s the only way to get to know the agent. If they seem annoyed with your questions, maybe they aren’t the right agent for you.
Take some time to think about what your ideal agent-author working relationship looks like. From here, you can make a note of the questions you want to ask.
For example, if you know you’d like an agent that provides editorial feedback, then make sure you ask them if that is part of their services. Some additional questions can include:
- How long have you been an agent?
- How did you get started?
- What do you think the outlook for my genre/novel is?
- How often will you provide updates regarding who you’ve pitched my novel to?
- Will you pitch to the Big 5 publishing houses?
- What books do you read for fun?
- What’s your favorite genre?
YouTuber iWriterly, a former literary agent, shares more questions in her video “Questions to Ask Literary Agents on ‘The Call’.” She also notes that you should be prepared to answer questions from the literary agent as well. A good relationship is a two-way street.
Read the Contract
After you’ve pitched your work to an agent, they’ve shown interest, and you’ve had a successful interview, the next step is the offer of representation. You’ve probably been told in the past never to sign anything without reading it. The same goes here. Make sure you’ve read and understood the contract or offer of representation.
This is another great time to ask questions, especially if there’s anything in the contract you don’t understand.
Kathryn Goldman, intellectual property attorney representing writers, artists, photographers, and businesses says, until you sign the contract, “An agent is not looking out for your best interest. She’s looking out for her own best interest.”
If there were any specific things you discussed in your interview that should be in the contract, check that they are there. You’ll also want to check the terms of your representation. Sometimes, the contract may state the agent-author relationship lasts for the life of the copyrighted work—that’s a long time. What happens if you decide you don’t enjoy working with this agent? Does the contract provide a means for ending the relationship?
Consider having an intellectual property lawyer read your contract. They’re trained in this area of law and will probably point out things you never thought of. Kathryn Goldman provides additional tips specifically regarding contract provisions in her article “Signing with a Literary Agent? Here’s What Should Be In Your Contract.”
Remember, once you sign a contract, it’s legally binding. It’s better to go over it with a fine-toothed comb before signing than notice something out of place once it’s too late.
While signing a contract can be scary, it doesn’t have to be. As long as you’ve done your research, asked the right questions along the way, and read all the details, you can relax and celebrate this important step in your author career. Here’s to a long and fulfilling relationship with your literary agent!