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What Literary Agents Do (And Don’t Do) For Writers

Querying a good literary agent is the first step in getting your novel or book project into the hands of a publisher. What is a literary agent? A literary agent is the middleman between you and potential publishers—they are your best hope for getting your book published. But what does a literary agent actually do for a writer? And what don’t they do?

Writer’s Relief has been helping writers get literary agents since 1994. We research the best literary agents for our clients’ individual projects, then prepare submissions (including query letter writing, proofreading, formatting, addressing letters, etc.). We also track all submissions to literary agencies so our clients don’t have to. Many writers have successfully connected with literary agents using our services! However, writers are invited to join our client list by invitation only. Please visit our Review Board to send your writing for consideration.

What literary agents do:

1. A literary agent’s top job is to find an editor who likes your book enough to buy it. Reputable literary agents have a wide network of contacts and relationships with acquisition editors at publishing houses. They know what the editors are looking for, and they’re experts at sending your submissions to the right people. Because editors know that submissions by literary agents have already made it through a stringent screening process, agented submissions usually go to the top of the pile.

Literary agents will NOT purchase the rights to your book and then turn around and try to sell your book to publishers. Nor can they promise to sell your book.

2. Literary agents pitch your book project to publishers and try to get you the best deal. It is in their best interest to negotiate lucrative contracts with publishers, as literary agents work on commission (usually 15 percent). They also manage your business affairs with the publisher once the deal goes through—contract disputes, royalty statements, collecting money—leaving you on good terms with the editor and freeing up your time to write.

Literary agents are NOT always attorneys, but they do specialize in book contracts and are well-versed in authors’ rights.

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3. A good literary agent will often edit or critique a manuscript and offer valuable suggestions to increase its marketability. BUT you should never query an agent unless you have a completed, professionally formatted, and carefully proofread novel or memoir in hand. (Only how-to and self-help books can be pitched without having been finished first.)

Literary agents do NOT offer line-by-line edits or make rewrites. It’s up to the writer to incorporate the agent’s suggested changes. Agents are not interested in helping you master the art of writing. Their focus is on the business of writing, as in “How can this book sell the most copies?” Read more about how to hire the right editor for your writing.

4. Literary agents are authors’ advocates. They don’t make money unless you make money, so their goal is to get you the best deal. Most reputable agents will make a commission of 15 percent for domestic sales. They offer encouragement and support and help keep you on track with deadlines and rewrites. They can also help shape your career by suggesting new ideas, finding wider audiences, and keeping you abreast of changes and trends in the publishing industry.

Literary agents are NOT tax consultants, publicists, personal bankers, or writing coaches. They often offer moral support, but they are not interested in being your therapist. They will not handle your advertising and marketing. And they’re certainly not interested in being your personal answering service.

It’s up to the writer to take advantage of all the services a good literary agent can offer. As an author’s ally, a good literary agent can make a writer’s life more successful and rewarding.

The submission strategists at Writer’s Relief are also in the writer’s corner, and we offer a variety of services, from full submission services to our free newsletter. Feel free to check out other articles you might find useful when looking for a literary agent for your novel or book project: How To Land A Literary Agent, Nine Questions To Ask A Literary Agent, Do You Need An Agent For Your Book Project?

8 Responses to What Literary Agents Do (And Don’t Do) For Writers

  1. I am a military veteran writer. My manuscript is complete in draft and about 50% complete in professional editing. The manuscript is a collection of short stories of veterans in near death survival experiences. I write from a perspective of faith, about half of the stories faith is mentioned subtly and the balance a more active faith component. The book has some similarities to Hacksaw Ridge. I need to find an agent who handles faith based works but will not be turned off by some of the accounts, while true, are a bit graphic. All stories are uplifting. Help!

  2. Hi Ann,

    Every literary agent is different, so we can’t speak for whether or not they’d be interested in negotiating fees.

  3. Hello! Is the commission fee of a literary agent negotiable? I am new writer, and a major publishing house will be offering me a contract shortly. It is my understanding that the primary aspect of the literary agent’s job is to sell the book to a publisher…. but since I’ve already taken care of that aspect, and am simply needing someone to negotiate the terms of my contract, then is it an acceptable practice to ask for a reduction in commission? Many thanks!

  4. Thank you for this helpful information! I am in the beginning stages of a self-help book and plan to have it written relatively soon and ready for edits!

  5. Hi Nita,

    You can choose to have the literary agent edit your book, but you might prefer to shop around for a better price. There are lots of competent editing services available.

  6. Is it alright to take paid editing services from a literary agent after they have said they cannot represent you? Their price is a little high, so I thought I would ask.

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