While I know I’ve written about query letters and submissions before, I don’t think I’ve ever gone through the full process – including what happens after you sign with an agent. So in this series, I’m going to take you through the whole process in the hopes that it empowers you to go out and find that perfect agent for you!
But before we get into that, I think it’d be helpful to talk about what an agent actually does.
Having a literary agent is more than just being able to get your manuscript in the hands of editors at closed houses (HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, etc.) And while those of you that have been around for a while know that most of an agent’s reading time tends to be done on nights and weekends, I think what tends to be a little less clear is what we’re doing with our office hours.
A literary agent’s job is to shepherd their clients’ careers and to advocate on their behalves. This could mean:
- Finding the best editor for their book(s); be it through networking with editors, doing market research, talking to colleagues, and making/rechecking their submission list
- Negotiating better contract terms when an offer comes in.
- Talking to the editor, marketing, etc. if their client is unhappy with some part of the process.
- Working with their client should they have – say – a couple of ideas for the next book and are trying to find the one that makes sense for their long term career.
You may have also heard agents talk about how they spend the bulk of their day handling email. This is what we and/or an assistant are usually emailing about:
- Talking to our clients about their next projects or answering any questions they might have about an offer, contract, editor, publishing house, conference, next steps, etc.
- Following up on advance payments and royalties
- Asking for more information about a book’s marketing and publicity plan
- Following up on editorial letters
- Following up with editors on submissions
- Following up on the end life of a book – requesting reversions, making sure an author can get remainders, etc.
- Sending material to sub-agents so that our clients’ subrights are shopped in a timely manner
- Sending out new submissions
- Brainstorming titles with an author and/or their editor
- Getting more information about a sublicense and/or thinking and talking about the longer term ramifications of accepting said sublicense
In short, an agent’s job is to handle a lot of the business end of publishing, so the author or illustrator can focus on the creating. Now, this is not to say that an author or illustrator can just throw their hands up – you should always know what is going on with your career. But it does mean that – in the unfortunate event that something does head south – you have someone in your corner to fight for your best interests.
Can an agent really get better terms than an unagented author or illustrator? (A.k.a, am I likely to still make more money even if I’m paying 15% to my agent?)
Yes. A former boss once said to me, “An agent only has to do 16% better than an author can do themselves, and the author has already made their money back.” (Paraphrased.)
I’ve been working with this small press and I would feel bad if an agent came in and started asking for stuff. What do you think?
I think that any reputable publisher understands that an agent’s job is to do the best they can for their client. If a publisher balks at you for signing with an agent, that is a red flag.
Okay, but why would an editor be happy to work with someone’s agent if they’re just going to be asking for a bunch of stuff?
Yes, we ask for things on behalf of our client. But an agent also knows what is an appropriate ask – and what is unreasonable. And we’re also a third member of this team – author, publisher, agent – that’s invested in both the book and the author. If a publisher is investing in an author, they want to know that there is somebody there to help them navigate a long-term career.
You’re an agent with an agent – why don’t you just do it all yourself?
I genuinely believe in the benefits of an agent and know the hard work I put in for my clients. It’d be silly not to find the same for my own writing career!
Posts in this series:
Working with An Agent: What does an agent do?
Working with An Agent: Step 1 - Writing your query letter
Working with An Agent: Step 2 - Researching agents and submitting
Working with An Agent: Step 3 - Getting the call
Working with An Agent: Step 4 - Responding to an offer
Working with An Agent: Step 5 - Your author-agency agreement
Working with An Agent: Step 6 - After your sign
Working with An Agent: Step 7 - If you decide it's time to part ways...