the Bad & the Ugly
the Bad & the Ugly
If you want to sell your book to a major commercial publisher, then you’ll need the representation of a literary agent. Otherwise you won’t even get your foot in the door.
But a good literary agent can do a lot more for your writing career than simply convincing a publisher to sign you up. Below, you’ll see what you should and should not expect from your agent.
What Makes the Right Literary Agent?
Your literary agent will:
- Get your manuscript into the hands of the right publisher. Your agent will know what’s happening in the publishing business and which publishers are looking for the kind of book you’ve written. He or she will probably be on a first-name basis with most senior editors at publishing firms and will often lunch with them to keep in touch.
- Negotiate the best book deal for you. Your agent will make sure you receive an adequate royalty advance from the publisher, and he or she will make sure you don’t give away movie rights, foreign rights, and other rights that you should retain.
- Help you make the right choices for your writing career. Your agent will make sure you know what’s selling and what isn’t, and whether or not you should consider switching to another genre.
- Keep you informed about submissions of your manuscript and responses from publishers. Solid communication between agent and writer is crucial.
- Will probably be a member of AAR – the Association of Authors’ Representatives. This isn’t an absolute requirement. Some reputable agents choose not to join AAR, but being a member of AAR means the agent is a legitimate agent rather than someone making false claims.
Your literary agent will not:
- Be your writing coach. Literary agents don’t have the time to teach you how to write. They’re too busy reading manuscripts and negotiating publishing contracts for their clients who already know how to write.
- Edit or rewrite your manuscript. That isn’t the agent’s job, and no legitimate literary agent will offer to do this. Again, they’re too busy negotiating contracts for existing clients.
- Promote your published book. There are people who do this, but not literary agents.
Don’t Charge Up Front
Do not charge up-front fees. They will get no money from you until they sell your book to a publisher. They receive a commission – usually 15 percent – of your advance and royalties.
Can Provide Examples
Can give you the titles of several books they have sold in the past few months and who published them. These sales will be to commercial book publishers, not subsidy or print-on-demand publishers who require that authors pay the publishing costs.
Good Agents are experienced professionals. They know what’s happening in the publishing business and which publishers are looking for the kind of book you’ve written. They’re on a first-name basis with most senior editors and often lunch with them to keep in touch.
Get Your Foot in the Door
Can get your foot in the door. Most major commercial publishers no longer accept unagented submissions.
Negotiates the Best Deals
Can negotiate the best book deal for you. They will make sure you receive an adequate advance from the publisher, and they’ll make sure you don’t give away movie rights, foreign rights, etc.
Guides Your Writing Career
Will help you make the right choices for your writing career. They’ll make sure you know what’s selling and what isn’t, and whether or not you should consider changing to another genre.
Will keep you informed about submissions of your manuscript and responses from publishers. Solid communication between agent and writer is crucial.
Won’t Edit or Rewrite
Will not offer to edit or rewrite your manuscript. And they will not refer you to a book doctor. That’s a conflict of interest, and good literary agents are too busy selling books and negotiating publishing contracts for their clients.
Is a member of AAR – the Association of Authors’ Representatives. This isn’t an absolute requirement. Some reputable agents choose not to join AAR. But non-membership in AAR is cause for concern.
Doesn’t Troll for Business
Don’t troll for new business. Most of the top agents are always on the lookout for new talent, but they don’t spend their time figuring out ways to lure in new writers. Most of them already have as many clients as they can handle. Before committing any of their precious time to reading your manuscript, they’ll have to be convinced that you have real potential.
Are well-meaning amateurs. Many became literary agents after failed attempts at writing. They have little or no experience in book publishing, and they have no idea what publishers are buying. They wouldn’t recognize a senior editor at Random House if the editor sat next to them on a park bench.
Aren’t selling enough books to survive. To hide this failure, they’ll tell you that their client lists are confidential and they can’t point to any books currently on the market that they have sold for their clients.
Charge Up Front
Charge up-front fees. Since they aren’t selling enough books to generate a living wage in commissions, they have to charge fees to stay afloat. No matter what these fees are called – handling fees, reading fees, marketing fees, or whatever – don’t fall for it. Agents who are successful at selling books for their clients don’t have to charge fees.
Don’t have the experience or expertise to recognize a manuscript’s potential. If your novel has bestseller potential, it needs to be published by a major publisher. If your agent sells it to a marginal publisher instead, then it will have marginal sales.
Are not merely incompetent, but also dishonest. They have no interest in selling your book. Their only interest is in getting their hands on your money, either by offering their own editing and rewrite services or by referring you to a book doctor who (they claim) will turn your book into a bestseller. Often they operate under different names as both literary agent and book doctor. Some have been convicted of fraud only to set up business under yet another name in a different state.
Steal story ideas. Yes, some of them even stoop this low. Copyright laws don’t apply to story ideas. These so-called “agents” have no reputation to protect, so if they see a compelling story concept – yours, for example – they’ll give it to another writer who can turn it into a novel and split the profits with the agent.
Doesn’t Follow Through After Being Paid
Don’t bother to submit your manuscript to publishers after cashing your check. They’ll tell you they submitted your manuscript to ten publishers, but they have no documentation to prove it – not even rejection slips. Many of these agents simply take your money, hold your manuscript for six months, then return it and tell you they had no responses from publishers.
Misrepresent their knowledge, experience, and contacts. They lie about how long they’ve been in business and about book deals they have made in recent months.
Troll for Business
Spend much of their time drumming up business. They place ads in writing magazines and design impressive-looking websites to lure in unsuspecting writers. They buy lists of names and addresses from writing magazines and organizations for writers. Many of them run writing contests to suck in new writers.
Are not respected by publishers. If your manuscript is submitted by an agent that publishers don’t respect, it will be returned unread.
Works with Subsidy or POD
Work with subsidy or print-on-demand publishers. These agents will tell you they’ve found a publisher for your book and have negotiated a terrific contract. The only catch is that you’ll have to pay the publishing costs. Reputable agents and publishers don’t work that way. Legitimate commercial publishers pay all the costs of publishing, including royalties to the author. They would never ask an author to pay some of the costs.
A note of caution.
Anyone can claim to be a literary agent. Unlike other professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, there is no licensing agency or competency requirements to become a literary agent. If an agent offers to represent your manuscript, it will be up to you to make sure he or she is competent and ethical.
Here are some red flags to watch out for. Cross the agent off your list and move on if he or she:
- Asks for an up-front fee. Legitimate agents receive a commission – usually 15 percent – of your advance and royalties. No agent should ask you for a handling fee, reading fee, marketing fee, or any other kind of fee.
- Can’t give you the titles of several books that he or she has sold to traditional commercial publishers in the past few months.
- Can’t tell you what publishers he or she has in mind for your manuscript, and won’t promise to forward feedback from publishers who have reviewed your manuscript.
- Trolls for business by placing ads in writing magazines or online writing forums.