You will, at some point between starting your book and deciding that you would like a serious shot at having it traditionally published, begin informing yourself about the essential role literary agents play in selling your manuscript. When you do, you’re bound to hear some variation of the trope that literary agents are everything to authors, from advocates and expert negotiators to financial managers, emotional support people, marketers, and editors.
While there is no question that excellent literary agents can dazzle you with their versatility, new and unpublished authors can easily form the wrong impression about what literary agents do, what they don’t, and what it’s truly like to work with one.
What role do literary agents play?
When a literary agent takes you on as a client, they become nearly as invested in the success of your book as you are — their paycheck depends, after all, on matching you with the perfect publishing house. A literary agent is, as such, not a personal assistant or a cheerleader who will worship your every word, but an essential collaborator. A literary agent will do their very best to get your book published, to secure favorable terms, and to bring your shared vision to fruition. Before you get to that stage, editorial agents will absolutely want to be involved in the developmental editing that is going to make your book better, and therefore more marketable.
Because literary agents live and breathe manuscripts professionally, and have to stay current on the ever-fluctuating market trends, new authors should see their literary agents as guides, and take their advice extremely seriously.
What don’t literary agents do?
Even so-called editorial agents aren’t going to do any line editing or proofreading for you — they’ll only assist you with the broad strokes that they believe will make your already excellent book successful. Literary agents expect you to send them finished manuscripts that have passed through tireless rounds of self-editing as well as a professional edit. If your manuscript is a “diamond in the rough” filled with immediately-apparent typos and grammatical faux pas, a literary agent isn’t the right person to fix that for you. By the same token, literary agents aren’t beta readers, critique partners, or ego boosters. As business partners, literary agents work with you because they genuinely believe that your book will sell.
How often do authors talk to their literary agents?
A literary agent’s job is all about communicating — but since they are ultimately trying to sell your book to a publishing house, you are far from the only cog in the wheel! How often an author is in touch with their literary agent, and how, ultimately depends on what you agree. You might ask your literary agent to tell you every time a publisher passes on your book, you could decide to opt for periodic updates, or you could choose to only be informed if your book has gotten an offer, and your agent, too, will have their own working style. Making these sorts of agreements in advance will prevent authors from pestering their literary agents and adding unnecessary stress to the relationship.
Because you will be in close contact with your literary agent, particularly once your book is on submission or you have reached the negotiating stage, however, it’s important that author and agent don’t just respect each other, but also find a good flow together.
What’s it really like to work with a literary agent? The relationship between author and agent should be one of mutual respect for each other’s professionalism, skill, and time. When you get that all-important email to set up a call, and you’re pretty sure you will get an offer, you know that you could be a whole lot closer to seeing your book in stores. This is your chance to ask them essential questions that address how they see your book, where they think they might be able to place it, and how far away it is from the submission stage.
In the process, you’ll get to know the literary agent’s professional vision for your manuscript, but also begin to get a vibe for their personality, communication style, and approach to their work. That means you should have a good idea of what it will be like to work with the literary agent in the exciting case that you end up accepting their offer of representation!