What is a Literary Agent?
Literary agents partner with authors to help arrange book deals with publishers. They will initiate contact with the editors at publishing houses, submit manuscripts, negotiate contracts, and in many cases, help authors fine-tune and edit their manuscripts to get them ready for submission.
Literary agents NEVER charge authors for their services. Instead, they are paid a percentage (usually 15%) of the earnings they helped procure.
Warning: There are a lot of scammers pretending to be agents online. Here are some things to watch out for.
The process begins with authors using QT to help identify which agents they want to approach, then sending that agent a query letter. (What is a query letter?)
When an agent reads your query letter, and it sounds like something they might be interested in representing, they'll usually write you back and request you send them your book. Some may only request part of your book, such as the first several chapters. But others may request the entire manuscript. This is why it is important that your book be completed before you start querying. This only applies to fiction. If your book is non-fiction, your book does not need to be finished before querying, but you will need a finished book proposal. Here's an article about writing non-fiction book proposals: janefriedman.com/start-here-how-to-write-a-book-proposal. For querying purposes, memoirs are treated as fiction, which means memoirs need to be completed as well.
Keep in mind that agents may have dozens of books to read through, along with their other daily work, so it can take several months for them to read yours and get back to you.
After the agent reads your book, if they find it isn't something they think they can sell, they'll be forced to decline. Many authors make the mistake here of taking the rejection personally. A rejection from an agent does not necessarily mean there is something wrong with your book. There is much more for the agent to consider than just quality. For instance, they will need to have the proper contacts in the industry to sell that specific type of book, and perhaps they just don't know the right publisher or editor for it. Or perhaps they already have an author who writes in a similar vein as you, and they don't want competing clients.
But if the agent determines your book is something they can sell, they'll arrange to speak with you further to discuss the details. This is also where you as the author can ask questions and determine if this is the right agent for you and your book.
Why do you need an agent?
You may not. It depends on where you want to publish. The major publishing houses typically will not deal with authors directly. They tend to be too busy to sift through the thousands of query letters they would receive. Instead, they let the agents handle the initial querying phase. This is where a good relationship between publisher and agent is important. The publisher must trust the agent's judgement when it comes to finding talent. This is also why agents can only sell certain genres, because they don't have the publishing contacts for everything.
If you plan to self-publish, or publish with a small publishing house, an agent isn't required, but they can still be helpful when it comes to submissions and contract negotiations.
Proper research will ensure you find the right agent to represent your book. You can't just arbitrarily pick an agent. It takes research to find the right ones to query.
You need to ensure the literary agents you query are a good match for you and your book. If you write romance, you don't want a literary agent who only represents true crime novels and How-To books (hopefully these do not describe the same book). You want to find a literary agent who has shown interest in the type of books you write.
Querying agents for the wrong genre is a top reason queries get rejected. Here's a tutorial about using QueryTracker to find agents seeking certain genres.
All agents have different query requirements. Some will want a query sent through email, others may use a form on their website which you need to fill out. Agents can also require that different information accompany your query letter, such as a synopsis or sample pages of your book, and even the required length of the synopsis and samples can vary. They may even have specific requirements for what goes into the subject line for an email query.
Ensuring your query package contains the right components is crucial.
When querying literary agents, it is a good idea to mention previous clients or books that the agent has represented in the past, and explain why your work is similar to theirs. This tells the literary agent that your book is something they will like since they liked the same thing in the past. So, while researching a literary agent, you should be on the lookout for this sort of thing. QT's Who Reps Whom tool can be helful with this. It lists the agents for over 20,000 authors.
And finally, another vital reason for researching agents is to make sure the literary agent is legitimate and not one of the many fraudulent, so-called literary agents out there just trying to steal your hard-earned money. (How to avoid scams.)