Musings of A Writer, View from the inside of a Literary Agents office

A Writer’s Life- Do you need a literary agent?

Do you need an agent?

Most publishing professionals have been asked a slew of questions about the process, one of the most common questions we get is about whether or not you need a literary agent to get published.  So, as an agent, I thought I would address the definition of a literary agent and what we can and cannot do for writers.

What is a literary agent?

A literary agent is a person who represents the business interests of writers and their written works. We work with both new and established writers. Agents work with the Big Four Publishers, (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, and Macmillan) Simon and Schuster were a part of the Big Five. It’s been acquired by Bertelsmann, which also owns Random House and Penguin. In addition to staying abreast of all the changes within the industry, we’ve cultivated relationships with independent publishers, boutique presses, and small presses. Agents negotiate with publishers for the rights to publish their written works. This also includes subsidiary rights such as options from film producers, and theatrical or film producers for the rights to bring a writer’s written works to the big or small screen, as well as the stage.  The fee agents charge generally ranges between 15 to 20%.

What can a literary agent do for your career?

What a literary agent can do for writers

  1. In addition to negotiating publishing contracts on a writer’s behalf, we also keep track of any monies and payments coming to the writer whether it’s on a quarterly, semi-annual, or annual basis.
  2. Agents are avid readers, and they both read and review manuscripts for both fiction and nonfiction works. A good literary agent will give you feedback and insights from their side of the desk. They’ll do their best to make sure your work shines.
  3. Agents spend their time pitching their client’s projects. They work to tailor each pitch to bring out the maximum interest of the acquisitions editor, editorial director, and editorial staff that reviews them. Agents rely on their authors to help them create the pitch, no one knows their work better. Additionally, literary agents will provide an assist for marketing plans, which are very important to secure an offer of publication for both fiction and nonfiction works.
  4. Agents also keep track of all submissions and they make sure to follow each publisher’s guidelines to the letter.

What an agent doesn’t do

  1. Agents aren’t copy and line editors. While they are happy to provide feedback, the work of getting the manuscript into fighting shape is up to the writer. We suggest hiring a reputable editor to do the work.
  2. A good agent doesn’t charge a reading fee. Reading is a part of the job description. A lot of agents know good copy and line editors and proofreaders. They may have a few names for you, but there are no finders fees paid to the agent for every writer a freelance editor works with.
  3. Literary agents can’t make or guarantee that a publisher will offer you a contract. Agents will do their best to get you published. Remember, an agent doesn’t make a dime until the writer does.
  4. Agents have a lot of connections, but they aren’t publicists, editors, or advertising and marketing professionals.  Think of it this way, you might have a great cardiologist, but if you need heart surgery, you need a cardiothoracic surgeon. Even though your cardiologist specializes in heart health, you need an experienced surgeon. If a writer hires a publicist, the agent can work with them in terms of logistics and be a liaison between the publishing company and the PR firm.
  5. Agents cannot advise writers about tax or legal issues. See number 4.

What’s the benefit of having a literary agent represent you

A literary agent allows writers to concentrate on writing. The agent will focus on procuring the best and most lucrative offers they can on behalf of their clients. There are great benefits to having an agent land a deal with a traditional publisher, be it the Big Four or an independent press. First and foremost, nearly all the high-profile publishing companies don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, whether it’s the next Harry Potter or War and Peace. Agents are the gatekeepers of sorts. They have vetted the authors they represent and editors know they can trust the agent’s client list. This is the difference between getting a read or sitting in an enormous slush pile.

How can you find a literary agent

You can use a guidebook to help you find a literary agent. One of the top resources you can use is The Writer’s Market Guide to Literary Agents 2020: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (2020). The Writer’s Market has been around for a long time and is pretty accurate. The listings are exhaustive and contain each agent’s specific specialties. Moreover, it lets you know if they are taking on new clients and what their submissions requirements are to be considered. It’s important to pay attention to those details and follow them to the letter.

You may also be able to get more information online through Reedsy, a website for writers and writing professionals. There is also literaryagencies.com which has a list of agents from around the country.

Hurry up and wait. What happens after you decide to seek a literary agent out for representation

Once you’ve completed your research, make sure your manuscript is in the best shape it can be when you query and submit it to an agent. With the exception of large firms, most agencies aren’t that large and it may take some time for them to get back to anyone who queries them. Try to query during their submissions period. Even then, it may take time before you hear back. Most agencies’ email servers will send an email to let you know your query was received. However, if you haven’t heard anything back in two weeks, send a follow-up email to see if your query was received. Most agents are happy to check their queue.

On average it may take anywhere from six to ten weeks for most agents to get back to you. Don’t take it personally. Agents have clients they are already actively representing, which is a good thing.

It’s important to remember that getting a book published is an exercise in patience, and with an agent, it will take more time. From your submission for representation to signing with an agent, to the agent actively pitching your book to publishers.  It’s a lot to consider. Writers must weigh the pros and cons of working with an agent and make the best decision for yourself and your writing career.

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