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  • J. J. Hanna

What is a Literary Agent?

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

Hi everyone!

If you've been following me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, you're already aware of some big news that happened in my life this week.

But if you're not already following me, I want you to be in the loop as well!

So. What's the big news, J.J.?

I have a literary agent! I'm officially an agented author. Yay! Cheers all around! High fives, happy dances, all that good stuff.

For those authors out there who already know what I'm talking about, you could probably disregard the rest of this post. But for those of you who have no idea what I mean when I say literary agent, this post is for you. For those authors trying to decide whether or not you want a literary agent, or even need one, this post is for you.

I am an author/editor/agent/reviewer combo pack. This puts me on every side of the publishing industry. I'm a freelance editor, a free-time author, a Jr. Agent under Cyle Young, and a book reviewer with whatever time I have left.

Essentially, this means I know a lot. I'm "on the inside" if you will.

But, I was once clueless. Back before I knew the difference between a developmental editor and a copy editor, the difference between line editing and proofreading, before I knew the most common misspellings of words because of the overlap between British and American English, before I had any idea what a literary agent did or why I needed one, I was an author, and a vastly unprepared author at that.

I want to help you not be as unprepared as I was. So here's your tool belt. You're going to need it.

A Literary Agent, defined:

A representative on behalf of the author who leverages relationships with editors to open doors and get the author's work in front of publishers that would have previously been closed off to the author and then negotiate contracts for the author in order to protect the author going forward, for a small fee of 15% of any profits from the books the author creates that the agent had anything to do with getting published.

In a nutshell, that's an agent's job: to represent the author and protect them.

What Does an Agent Not Do?

An agent will not edit your novel for you. Nor will they write your book proposal for you. Nor are they required to assist in marketing or promotion of your published novel. An agent is not a publicist. An agent is not a cover designer. An agent will not necessarily tell you "this book should be written go write it."

An agent will occasionally (depending on the agent) provide feedback on how you could possibly better your novel, but that is likely only after they've signed you. An agent may give you tips for marketing, but they will not implement them for you. An agent may suggest editors to you, but they will not hire the editor for you.

What Does an Agent Do?

An agent will submit your novel to publishers on your behalf. An agent may help you navigate the publishing industry by giving you tips and insights. They may provide resources to you to help you become the best writer you can be. (Why? They succeed only if you also succeed. Therefore it's in both of your best interest for you to succeed.)

An agent will try to get you the best contract and deal they can. They will negotiate the contract with the publishing house in order to protect you and the rights you own of the book and the other creative licenses needed. If you want specific rights, however, you must tell your agent. They can't read your mind to know that you want to keep international rights or merchandising rights. You must tell them what you want and they will do their best to get it for you.

Why Do I Need an Agent?

As I've said previously, part of the agent's job to keep you safe in contracts you sign. They know what to look for. Publishing is a business, and they speak the language. As an artist, it can be difficult to understand what the publishing business jargon means. The agent can translate it for you. Even more, the agent has rapport with the publishers. If you as an author have a problem with the editor, go to your agent. Explain the situation. This can keep you from damaging relationships with editors and can give you an extra help in getting the cover design you hoped for or the royalties you expected.

Editors work with many authors. No matter how good your writing is, unfortunately, you can be replaced. Having an agent to keep relations with editors civil when you're ready to fight over your book baby can save relationships and your career.

But I Want All the Money from My Book!

I understand that. We all want the best success from this industry we can get. And the appeal of only paying the wholesale cost in self publishing is extremely attractive. After all, why would I only want 85% of my royalties when I could get 100%?

Look at it this way: You self publish a book. You sell it for $15 a copy using a print on demand printer. It costs $3 in printing costs for each book, so you still get $12 per book. Nice! All of that goes to you.

But, you don't have support in marketing, you don't have a whole lot of help in cover design, and your book only sells 50 copies.

If you only wanted to sell 50 copies, congratulations! But if not, if you were hoping to make at least $1000 on this book (equal to a low advance with a traditional publisher), you only made $600, and you had no cushion to help in your promoting of your book from the start. If you hired an editor (which you should) and a designer (which you should) you may have just been able to pay only for the editor of your book, and nothing more. And now you're out money because your book can't reach readers.

Were you to get that $1000 advance from a publisher, you start with $850 (after paying your agent $150) in order to feed you in the mean time and give you cushion for promotional materials. Because publishing houses already have pretty good distribution, you're more likely to sell those first books to pay off the advance, and you're already making more money because the publishing house has talked about your book in their newsletters and has your book in major bookstores.

In the long run, that $150 was money well-spent. And yes, the royalties aren't 100% yours but are also going to pay the publishing house's designers, editors, and marketing team, but the 20% you get will pay you more in the end than the 100% you get by going about this whole thing alone.

Let's say your book sells for a wholesale of $15 again. 80% of that ($12) goes to the publisher. 20% ($3) goes to you. 15% of your cut goes to your agent ($0.45 per book sold).

The bottom line is that unless you have an incredible platform already and will have no problem selling thousands of self published books in order to make the cost of publishing your book on your own worth it, that 15% paid to the agent who helped you get your book in front of publishers who would help you, by their nature, get your book in front of thousands of readers is worth it.

Plus, that's assuming you get an advance. Some publishers no longer offer advances. That's okay. Those publishers probably offer a higher royalty rate, which means that while you don't get the money up front, you will get more money going forward.

As hard as the traditional publishing route is, it saves you money in the long run. Plus, even if you don't pay off your advance by selling enough copies, your agent likely negotiated into the contract that you still get to keep that advance and you don't have to pay it back to the publisher.

Now you're up whatever that advance was even if you don't pay it off.

In Case You Don't Know:

Advance = The money the publisher gives you up front to hold you over until royalties come in.

Royalties = The money the publisher sends you from book sales after you've paid off your advance.

Paying off your advance = A set sum (let's say $1000) you must make in royalties before you get paid anything more. After that is paid off (think of it like a loan without interest) you get paid in royalties.

How You Can Help Your Agent

  1. Follow submission guidelines. Agents tell you what they're looking for. If you don't give them what they want, they may just delete your submission rather than try to coax what they need from you. It tells them you're not going to be a client they want to work with since you haven't taken the time to give them what they asked for.

  2. Make your platform obvious in your submission. Give them numbers. Give them links. As much as we as artists hate the numbers game, it helps an agent know if they should take you on if you can give them the numbers and they can easily fact check you. Remember, this is a business. The more you can sell, the more willing they're going to be to take on your book even if editing is needed.

  3. Respect the agents that reject you. Even if they give you a form rejection. They are people who read and receive hundreds of emails a day. They've given you the gift of closure by sending you a rejection, letting you know clearly that you can move on to another agent. They don't have to do this. They could let your submission time out of the submissions email and let you assume after ninety days (or whatever their time period is) that it's a rejection.

  4. Respond in a timely manner. If they request a proposal in a certain format or ask for a full of your manuscript, don't ghost them. If you've moved on with a different agent, tell them (assuming you've been in communication with them previously).

  5. Be respectful of their time. They don't get paid until you get paid. You put in hours of work on your novel to make it the best you could. They're putting in hours of volunteer work to represent you. Given the example above, getting paid $150 for (possibly) years of work helping you get published is a piddly amount. If agent's charged by the hour they should be paid more than your advance. If you understand that most of what they do is volunteer work, they'll appreciate you that much more.

  6. Trust your agent to update you. Agents receive hundreds of emails a day from publishers and other clients. Emailing regularly for updates (regularly as in daily or weekly) gets annoying very quickly. If there is news for you outside of a monthly update, trust that the agent will tell you.

  7. Understand that publishing moves slowly. The likelihood of receiving an answer from a publisher within a few weeks is zero to none. You may not hear back from a submission for up to six months, at which point the agent will likely follow up with the editor to try to speed the process along. In the same way, contract negotiations can take two weeks or four months. Be patient. Publishing is an all or nothing business. It either all happens at once or you hear nothing for months or even years. The more you can understand that, the better. Agents know you're excited. They're excited, too! But publishing by its nature moves slowly. That's a fact of the business.

If you're still confused about what a literary agent does, I encourage you to think of it this way:

Literary Agents are talent seekers for the publishing industry. Once an Agent finds talent, they help them succeed by opening doors previously shut. Once a door has been opened, the Agent will then make sure the talent can safely walk through it. Once the talent is paid, the agent also gets paid.

That is the simplest way I can describe what a Literary Agent does.

Still have questions? Ask me on social media or in the comments below!


J. J. Hanna graduated from Taylor University with a degree in Professional Writing. She's currently working with literary agent Cyle Young, learning to be a literary agent, and working as a freelance writer and editor. To hire her for editing, writing, speaking, or consulting, see the services tab. In her free time, she can be found cuddling with a cat, reading the latest suspense novel, or filming YouTube videos about the publishing industry.

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