After a manuscript is finished, one of the first steps towards a successful publication is deciding on a literary agent.
A literary agent is a person that represents an author, pitching the author’s books to booksellers, manages the buying and selling of an author’s work, and overall functions as the management of an author’s book. An agent is typically paid on commission and therefore tends to work diligently to assist an author in their book sales. While there are a plethora of agents and agencies to choose from, how does one go about choosing the right agent? What are the warning signs? What are the expected fees, and what are the avoidable pitfalls?
Once you’ve decided to work with an agent, the first step is simply to find an agent or an agency—there are, of course, agencies that are readily available on the first page of a Google search, but there are more credible ways to find both a reputable and reliable agent. Conducting research on your own subject, or area of writing, is a great place to start; find a small collection of books that match closest to your own manuscript, including finding authors with a similar writing style—this may help later on when finding an agent that works well with you.
Once you’ve collected your books, the acknowledgments section of each book includes a list of people that the author would like to thank for helping with the book. Going into the acknowledgments of books closest to your own in subject matter will often provide the names of literary agents that are familiar with your subject, as well as successful in their career as an agent—after all, they have not only produced a salable book but have also been recognized for their efforts by the author.
While there are a few arguments about whether or not a reputable literary agent ought to charge upfront or ‘query’ fees, the majority of authors and literary agents agree that query fees are unnecessary. One literary agent, Rachelle Gardner, wrote an article about some of the red flags for finding the right agent. “The agent shouldn’t charge you fees,” Gardner said. “Agents typically make a 15% commission on sales of your book (this means 15% of your advances, royalties, sub-rights sales, etc.); they shouldn’t be trying to make extra money by charging office fees, submission fees, or anything like that. “However, it’s legitimate for the agent to reserve the right to pass along some costs which might be considered extraordinary,” Gardner added. “For example, if your manuscript required $100 worth of color-copying and/or postage, or the agent needed to send 30-page faxes to Tokyo.” According to Gardner, there are also other expenses to watch out for, which may be more questionable than necessary, such as traveling expenses, fees for editing (which the literary agent should not be involved in), etc. Along with finding the right agent or agency, there is also another regard to working with an agent thought should be carefully noted: personality. Like any other business partnership, there is a relationship dynamic that ought to be accounted for, especially in a literary agent, as they will be representing you in promoting, selling, and managing your book.
The personality of an agent can factor into whether working with them would produce the best outcome: a smooth-sailing ride from manuscript to bookshelf. Publishing Talk Magazine published an article by Kirsty McLachlan, writing on just this topic. “Getting an agent is like playing the dating game: you need to work out exactly who would be right for you and your writing,” McLachlan said. “Draw up a wish list. What do you want your agent to do for you? Do you want lots of editorial input, or do you want someone who will really make the high-level deals? […] Be focused with your submissions, and they might just hit the right Spot.” McLachlan identifies seven archetypes of literary agents, from the Young and Hungry Agent to the Deal-
Maker Agent, and weighs the pros and cons of each. Overall, it is most important to conduct as
much preliminary research as possible into your genre, subject matter, etc., and decide from there what kind of an agent works best for you. While there may be some fees to be expected, keep an eye out for any red flags for excessive fees, and make sure that you and the agent can build a working relationship. For more information about literary agents, warning signs, and costs to be expected, be sure to read ‘Warning Signs’ on The Knight Agency’s website, or
‘Selecting a Literary Agent,’ an excellent article by TetheredByLetters.com.