Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Literary Agents: All You Need to Know (well almost)

Part One

Every day for the next two weeks there will be an installment. Questions about agents are encouraged in the comment section. If I don't know the answer I'll try to find out.

The Probability of Publishing

Traditional publishing houses include major players such as Warner Books, small publishers such as Algonquin Books, niche publishers, and regional publishers. Traditional publishers pay the author, usually an advance and royalties based on the actual sales of the book. There is a range between small and large publishing houses as to these payments. But the key is the author gets paid. The author has no upfront fees to pay the publisher and isn’t under any obligation to purchase any books.

Traditional houses are very selective when acquiring books. While 172,000 new books were published in 2005, estimates have been made that only 1 out of 1000 books written gets published. Writers Digest has said that there are 24 million people in the US who describe themselves as creative writers. Less than 5% of these writers have actually, ever, been published.

Publisher or Literary Agent?

Literary agents represent the author’s work to publishers for a percentage of the author’s earnings, both the advance and royalties. An agent is up to date on which editor at what house is interested in what subjects, or in the case of fiction, which genre. Agents act as a screening device for editors at the publishing houses, filtering out the uninteresting, badly written or boring manuscripts and only presenting the professionally polished saleable works to the appropriate editor. Or that’s how it works in theory. A (good) agent can quickly get the attention of book publishers. They spend time and energy developing relationships with publishers.

The agent negotiates the contract between the publisher and the author. There's more to it than just the size of the advance and royalty percentage. There are foreign rights, television and movie rights, audio rights, syndication rights and more. The payment for those rights are split between the publisher and the author. The payment to the author can go against the advance or can be in addition to the advance. In other words, if an advance of $25,000 was paid for the title, the author would have to wait until the sales of the book earn the amount of the advance before any additional monies are paid. Or the payment for the sold rights can be paid immediately. The agent can negotiate which.

The agent receives the entire advance from the publisher and deposits it into an escrow account set up for the author at the agency. The agent then subtracts their commission, usually 15% and writes a check from the escrow account to the author. any additional royalty checks over and above the advance are treated the same way.

Do You Need An Agent?


All three of our nonfiction books were placed by us directly contacting the publisher.

Small publishing houses and niche publishers are more open to being contacted by an author.

An entertainment or literary attorney can negotiate the contract for you, or review it for far less than the 15% agent’s fee.

Editors at major houses attend writers’ conferences and will consider pitches by authors at those conferences.

Romance publishers will often accept queries from authors directly.


An agent can guide you in putting together a book proposal.

An agent is a buffer between the editor and the author during negotiations and throughout the publication process.

An agent knows what is reasonable in a contract and what isn’t.

An agent knows which editor has changed houses or is looking to broaden a list or add a new category to their list.

When there is a disagreement between the editor and the author, the agent can step in and resolve the differences.

Concerning fiction, nearly every major publishing house says they work only through agents. Unsolicited manuscripts are often returned unread.

Even bestselling authors still require an agent.

Come back tomorrow and we'll cover Finding An Agent.

Dee Power is the co-author, with Brian Hill of Inside Secrets To Venture Capital, Attracting Capital from Angels, and the novel Over Time. Her latest book, The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories from Authors and the Editors, Agents and Booksellers Behind Them, includes extensive research on the publishing industry and interviews with bestselling authors, editors, agents and experts.

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