What is the point of having a Literary Agent?

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Some general rules and requirements.

Answers from Elena Ornig

It is true; to get a good literary agent requires the same effort as getting published. Some writers do not see the point of chasing a literary agent. However, there is a difference between trying to be published without the help of a literary agent, and seeking to be published with the assistance of a good literary agent or agency, that has accumulated knowledge of the publishers’ requirements of a submission and more. The established agents have a special and professional relationship with the editors and the publishers. They are connected on a more personal level and they often know what the editors (from publishing companies) are looking for today and anticipating tomorrow. Statistically, submissions via an individual agent or agency are of a higher quality than those by unassisted writers. Interestingly, writers often underestimate the agent’s or agencies’ professionally respectful cooperation with the editors and the publishers.

Some publishers will never accept your full manuscript in a first submission; commonly, they only accept submission of the first three chapters (50-60 pages). But if an agent or an agency approaches the same publisher, they can usually get your full-length manuscript accepted and read, thereby giving your work more chance to be sold. As a rule, – never try to find agent without having finished your manuscript. Frankly, if you book is good, an agent or agency will sell it much faster than you can.  If your book is bad, the best agent or agency will not be able to sell it for you. Some time, if you don’t yet have an agent, but get acceptance from a publisher, consider finding one at this stage. I would call it “a peace of mind decision” because if an agent or agency negotiates a contract for you, it will mean one important thing – you will get paid considerably earlier, because the agent or agency will make sure they get paid as fast as possible; after all, this is their prime income and they will ‘fight’ for it.

Literary AgentsThe main effort of a literary agent/agency is to work for a writer in order to give professional editorial guidance, to negotiate a contract with a publisher (they are experts in the negotiable points of a contract: the royalties rates and the process of its accounting), to guard the publishing process and to trace the sale of subsidiary rights (secondary or ancillary rights), foreign rights (foreign language license), reprint rights (different version of printing), electronic rights (digital version), merchandise rights (products based on character/s or story), audiobook rights (exact audio version) and performance rights (movie, play, Television production or Radio production). Therefore, if you don’t have considerable knowledge or do not understand many different rights (“bundle”) that are involved in publishing business then you need a good agent who does. Just some advice from a writer’s point of view, “Always try to hold merchandising and performance rights yourself. These rights you can always negotiate and sell later; separately or under one contract”.

The agents work on a commission percentage (rated) from the future income (earnings from a sale). When a writer is taken on, he or she will be asked to sign an agreement or formal contract with an agent or agency. Usually, the agent’s rates start from 10% as a minimum and range up to 20% as a maximum. This percentage will depend on the publishing contract (local publishing contract for one country or international contract for a few or many countries). The agents or agencies are paid by deducting the earlier negotiated rate, and only when the publisher pays, including advance payments or royalties.  Once the agent or agencies have retained their percentage payment, they will send the remaining money to the writer.

There are some extra fees that a writer can be required to pay, but never up – front. The only extra fees that a writer could be charged for are: Special Courier fee, photocopying fee, or if sale of sub-rights (subsidiary rights) already in interest and extra copies of a book are requested. Usually, but not necessarily, a writer will be asked to cover these specific extra costs. However, these extra fees are normally embedded into a formal contract or an agreement with an agent or agency and deducted from the writer’s sum when the publisher pays. A decent or legitimate agent or agency will never ask a writer to pay a retainer (up-front) fee or an extra fee for a so called presentation to a publisher or editor; or for distributing (placing) your manuscript with publishers. Needless to say, any entertaining fees, local postage or phone calls fees; or agency joining fees; or reading your manuscript fee are not legitimate extras. These types of extra fees will never be mentioned by a genuine agent or an agency; therefore, if you are asked to pay such fees up-front– you better walk away. Unquestionably, the agents or the agencies do not get paid until they sell your book to a publisher. Any other proposal from an agent or agency is most likely a scam or a fraud.

Writers expect some editorial guidelines from an agent or agency, and rightly so; but the actual extent of editorial guidelines are variable from agency to agency, or from agent to agent. However, remember this- if your agent or agency is advising you to use some good editorial service – walk away, without second question asked. A legitimate agent or an agency will never offer you any editorial service – only guidelines. As a rule, when you go to an agent or agency, your manuscript must already be at the best state of fully edited quality. If an agent or agency, after reading your manuscript, concludes that it is ready for submission, and if they believe it has potential to be sold, they will offer you an agreement or a formal contract. If they like it and want to take it on, but have some editorial guidelines for you (to rewrite something or fix something), it means they feel it is not ready to be submitted. Let me repeat it again for you.  Under any circumstances, a legitimate agent or agency will not offer you advised editorial services unless they get paid by those services (kickbacks), period.

Take note,- if you are not a published and successful writer that every agent or agency is chasing to sign up for the next possible book, then do not fall for some who are offering you their service out of nowhere. I guarantee you that 99% of these are a scam or a fraud, and the remaining one percent sound like a desperate, inexperienced or unsuccessful agent or agency. Legitimate, established, successful or good agents or agencies are always in demand and do not have time to pursue the unpublished writers. As a rule, never ever agree to work with an agent or agency without a written and fully signed (by both sides) agreement or formal contract.  Any legitimate agreement or formal contract with an agent or agency must be open ended and not limited by time. If an agreement or a contract limited by time is offered to you – walk away. Never ever work with an agent or agency which is offering you to be self-published.  As a rule, an established and legitimate agent or an agency will happily tell you the names of the authors and the titles of the books that they are successfully sold to the publishers; if you hear from an agent or agency that this sort of information is confidential, run away, immediately.

If you follow the rules that I have manifested for you above, you will remove any possibility of being dragged into a scam or being ripped off by a dodgy agent or agency.  Unfortunately, they do exist and are becoming more common, particularly on the Internet.

With all this in mind, the next question is where to find a good agent or agency. Relax, there are heaps of information that can be obtain from the Internet (literary organisations, associations, societies, clubs, groups and so on), Literary magazines, separately published guides (Writer’s Market by Writer’s Digest Books for example); guides of agencies and consultancies included inside some books on writing such as The Novel-Writer’s TOOLKIT , for example. The local libraries or the book shops can be handy to visit and find out legitimate information; as can Published writer’s workshops and professional conventions; or writer’s conferences where the publishers, published writers, literary agents and agencies’ representatives are often present as the speakers or the guests. Be proactive, search, ask questions, read published authors’ testimonials or the references in legitimate publications, and when you have collected enough information – check and recheck. Next choose a dozen or more agents or agencies that are suitable for you from your first search. Compare their rates, check their legitimacy and confirm the appropriate genre, – only then make you first move.

What is your first move? Well, the agents and the agencies have some variation in their submission process which is very similar to a submission process to a publisher. It is essential to read their individual submission rules carefully, and follow them without any improvisation. Remember, that for them it is a business, and for you, selling your book must also become a business. I will outline some general rules and requirements for you to keep in mind:

  • Never hide information if your book is already published (digitally published, self-published, or published in a different country and so on).
  • Never hide information if your book was submitted before to a publisher and rejected or if at the present moment you book is submitted to another agent, agency or publisher, or If your book is in a process of being published. It is true that in many cases, if you have submitted to one agency – another agency will not process your submission. However, never hide requested information and always state the true facts.
  • Never submit what is not allowed to be submitted – it is a waste of time and money. Never submit an original manuscript – only a copy. If your submission (cover letter, synopsis and first few chapters, but not full manuscript) is successful – an agent or agency will ask you to send a full manuscript which is a good sign.  A legitimate agent or agency will always remind you to send only a copy of your manuscript, and never the original.
  • Always, when you send your submission, include a paid or stamped self addressed envelope (strong ) for the purpose of receiving back your submission, or part of your submission, unless the entire submission process can be completed electronically on-line, which is very rare.

Getting it out of the way, I will repeat again – always state the true facts in any submission to an agent, an agency or a publisher.

Guide For WritersBefore submitting to an agent or an agency it is wise to call and simply ask if they will be interested in your submission, or read carefully their submission requirements and follow their rules. The same as the publishers, initially the agents or the agencies are only interested in a synopsis of your book and a copy of the first two or three chapters. The copies of the first few chapters of the manuscript have to be formatted according to the rules of submission. Commonly, and for the good reason of providing space for making editorial remarks and ease of reading, ample margins of 5 spaces (over 2 cm) on both sides is a good guide-line. Also, make sure that lines are double spaced lines and text is written in an easy to read font like Times New Roman (font size 11).   If specific requirements for the format and font are indicated by an agent or agency – follow their guide-lines. Simple, easy to read text and numbered (top right corner of each page) unbound pages with printed title of your book on every A4 (one side only) page in a separate folder is best, if such requirements are not specified. The agents or the agencies are interested in the quality of your written content, not your fancy designer skills. The same goes for the direct submissions to publishers. Just make sure that you have labelled correctly every separate part of the sent document. Do not try to call to confirm your submission, instead simply add a stamped self addressed envelope with the standard phrase ‘acknowledgment of receipt’ written on the back of the envelope.  It will be send to you as soon as your submission is received for processing.  After sending your first submission you must learn to be patient because sometimes it can take up to a few months before your cover letter, synopsis and the first chapters will be read and analysed.

A cover letter is a very important document as part of your submission. Remember, as a writer you have to show your ability to master words and sentences, as well as grammar. The cover letter enables you to sell yourself as a writer. Please, understand that this is your best opportunity to introduce yourself and your book as a first step to making an agent, agency or publisher interested in you as a writer, particularly if you are unknown and, as yet, unpublished. You can rightly call it a first impression and therefore approach it as one. The covering letter must be short, well – formed and structured for easy reading; half an A4 page is the usual standard. The idea of the covering letter is simple – it must be catchy, inviting, exciting and show off the unique selling points of your book. Sounds easy to understand what is required, but how would you present all these points, including a biographical note of yourself, in the space of half a page? Well, that is a challenge, but if you call yourself a writer then you should be able to do it. So, if you misspell words; allow repetition of words or phrases; use jargon or cliché; or simply construct your covering letter poorly – it is your own fault, period.

The sort of information that is vital to include in a cover letter is your name, address, telephone or fax number, and copyright note if you wish. However, it is better to avoid inclusion of copyright statements, symbols or notes anywhere else in your submission. The reason is simple – the agencies, agents or publishers are very aware of copyright law and don’t have to be patronized by the authors. Initially the agents/ agencies or publishers want to know: who you are, how competent you are as a writer (biographical outline), what your book is about (a broad or specific purpose, main theme and unique quality) and what type of a market your book is aimed for (intended readers).

The cover letter is for selling yourself as a writer, but a synopsis (sales pitch) is for selling your actual manuscript to the publisher, regardless if it’s via an agent or not. Read your manuscript again, chapter by chapter, and after every chapter write one paragraph on what, where and with which character/s did something happen right there. Now condense that paragraph to just one line to summaries that paragraph, and hence, chapter. Condense it by leaving only the most important points of a plot and major characters that are involved in the main theme of your story with only relative and necessary information. It has to hook anyone who reads your synopsis; they need to feel an urgency to know of HOW it happened. Write your synopsis as a marketer and not as a writer. There is a question of a perfect length of a synopsis that is quite important to know. Some agents or publishers have specific requirements like 500 words only or one – two pages, only. Some allow five pages and others up to ten pages in a submission. Check it, confirm and follow their guidelines. Don’t forget, if a specific illustration is important you must include summary notes into your synopsis.

In conclusion, I would like to confirm to the writers that it is true that some publishers only accept solicited submissions (via agents or agencies) and if this is the case then it is up to the writer to make his/her choice and proceed accordingly.

My warmest regards,
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Comments from my email address:


Funny—I just purchased the Literary Agents Guide from Writer’s
Digest. I’m completing a project right now that I would like to find
agent representation on. The agent book is very helpful!

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Written by Elena Ornig

Managing Director of Publishing Company "Julia Sophistique Pty Ltd". Committee member of Australian Computer Association GC Chapter. Member of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Member of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry Queensland. Member of the IT Forum Gold Coast. Sponsor of the Helensvale Writers' Group, Gold Coast. Committee member of the Gold Coast Writers Association Honored VIP Member of STANFORD WHO'S WHO in America. Publisher, writer and blogger.

Website: http://www.elenaornig.com/