Publishing Myths: Agents in Ivory Towers

In this second installment of our series on busting publishing myths, we look at the misconception of “agents in ivory towers”.  To demystify the role of the agent in traditional publishing, we’ll answer the question: Who are literary agents, and what do they actually do? 

The central role of the literary agent is to actively explore opportunities in exploiting all rights associated with the intellectual properties of the creators they represent to various trade professionals, from publishers to packagers and producers, and beyond. For their investment, agents take an industry standard commission on client earnings, ranging from 10-30% (depending on the context). To put it more simply, agents try to sell your work into as many formats, audiences, territories, and languages as possible, reaching the largest potential audience for your writing—from which they take their cut. But what do they actually do for you? And why not keep the commission and do it yourself?

First of all, just like any other professional, agents have studied their trade and have invaluable experience and expertise in their field. Unless you feel confident that you can manage every aspect of your writing career independently—from sales to marketing and production and back—you’ll likely prefer to work with an agent. I mean, would you want to do your own plumbing? Or be your own doctor? Some people are jacks-of-all-trades and have the DIY capacity to be many things, but for the rest of us, hiring a professional makes the most sense. The internet is full of great resources, but you’ll never be able to catch up to being your own agent at the industry level.

So what do agents actually do? I like to break it down into five sub-roles:

  1. ACCESS: When an agent submits a project to a publisher, it is considered a “solicited” submission—the opposite of when a creator submits directly, which is considered “unsolicited” and part of the slush pile. By submitting through an agent, your work will be seen and considered. In some cases, publishers do not accept unsolicited submissions, and require an agent (for example, any of the Big 5 publishers in the US). Even if the publisher does read unsolicited queries, an agented submission should get priority positioning in the queue.

Agents have connections. They spend a substantial amount of time getting to know their editors whom they submit to—their individual interests and lists—so that they can send only those projects that will be a potential match. Agents are not gatekeepers, but more like curators—or cupids 🙂

  1. NEGOTIATION: Plenty of creators don’t like talking about money. This is where an agent comes in. Not only do they negotiate your advance and royalty rates, but many other salient details of the paperwork involved in publication and production. The particulars of offers and agreements are specific to publishing and associated industries, such as film and TV adaptation. An agent will not only be familiar with the contract language, but know what to fight for on your behalf.

It should also be noted that agents are your liaison with the publisher and every department you interact with from your editor to the cover designer. Agents are there to ensure the publishing process runs smoothly, and guarantee the best book possible makes it to the shelves.

  1. EDUCATION: One of the primary responsibilities of an agent is to educate their clients about the business of publishing so that they can make the most informed decisions possible for their books and their career. This means explaining the steps to publication—the function of pub boards, PNLs, and publicity—contract language, timelines, and the various relationships you will engage in throughout.

  1. EDITORIAL: Most agents do some level of editorial work with their clients, but it ranges from agency to agency, and agent to agent. At 5 Otter Literary, we work closely with our clients to ensure the most polished product possible before submitting to editors.

  1. CAREER DEVELOPMENT: An agent generally isn’t interested in working with you on just one book—they want to publish many books with you over the course of your career, and help you build your brand as an author. Agents like to grow creators into superstars—the more financial reward for you, the more financial reward for the agent!

The thing most creators don’t realize going into the business is that agents only make money when their clients make money—until they’ve done a deal, all of their editorial and support is pro bono. Consequently, an agent doesn’t sign a client unless they deeply and fully believe that the client’s work has value that will be recognized by the publishing industry. And ultimately, this is personal to the agent.

When you consider that there are millions of writers and only hundreds of agents, it may seem that it is difficult to get access to an agent or get your work recognized. But agents are out there attending conferences, leading workshops, and haunting festivals—they are searching for you. Agents are down in the trenches with authors, not elevated in ivory towers where only a privileged few get access.

The most important thing to remember about agents is that we are only human! We do get a large volume of queries, and there are only so many hours in the day. Plus we have families, friends, and occasionally, lives. We get sick, we take vacation (or at least try)—we have good days and bad days, just like everyone else. And we wish we could get back to each and every query, but it’s just not humanly possible.

The creators who put in the work—draft a dynamite query letter, do their research on agents, and spend the time necessary to make a connection—always end up right where they should be, on shelves.

If you are looking for strategies for submitting and/or query letter tips, we provide consultation services tailored to your needs. Ask us anything!

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