What Is a Literary Agent?

Definition & Examples of a Literary Agent

An author is discussing their work with an agent.
kate_sept2004 / Getty Images

Literary agents represent writers, assisting them in obtaining publishing contracts and negotiating the best terms for them.

Learn more about literary agents and what they do.

What Is a Literary Agent?

Literary agents read manuscripts and then sign authors who they believe will sell books. Agents get a percentage of the money made in the sale of a book.

While they may have some input on the creative side, like suggesting book edits that will make the book more marketable, agents primarily focus on the business side of book sales. This includes securing publishing contracts for their authors and negotiating those contracts so they have favorable, appropriate terms.

  • Alternate name: Book agent

How Do Literary Agents Work?

Agents first find writers to represent. They may discover authors through manuscript submissions or by networking at literary events.

Once they select writers and sign a contract with them for representation, agents help writers polish their manuscripts and develop submission materials like query letters. The agent sends the submission materials to publishing houses that seem like a good fit.

Most agents specialize in a few genres. For example, they may focus on memoirs and biographies, young adult (YA) fantasy or science fiction.

Agents have a solid understanding of the publishing business; they've established relationships with publishers and know which imprint might serve an author's needs the best. Works that attract multiple editors may be sold at auctions, which allow many editors to bid. Auctions often result in higher advances.

Regardless of how a book is sold, literary agents then negotiate a contract on behalf of the author. Contracts are complex and cover how much the author is being paid, when the author will be paid, and what rights the publisher has to the work. The agent may sell some rights, like foreign rights, separately.

Agents are paid a percentage (often 10% or more) of what an author is paid. This gives them an incentive to find the best deals possible for their writers.

Requirements for a Literary Agent

To become a literary agent, you need to develop expertise and contacts in the publishing world. One route for gaining this experience is by working as an intern or assistant at an established agency. This allows you to learn the ins and outs of the industry and how to develop contacts.

Some literary agents start on the publishing side, working as editorial assistants or editors before leaving to join an agency or establish one.

Many agents work for agencies, but some also strike out on their own and establish their own agencies. Regardless of where they work, networking is critical. It takes time to cultivate a network authentically, and it involves more than just sending a request on LinkedIn. Find ways to support the people in your network, whether it's donating to a charity that's important to them or sending an author that isn't a good fit for you in their direction.

Literary agents also need to spend time reading. In addition to keeping up with new releases in their genre, they keep up with best-selling books in other genres to see what's trending. They may also read self-published books, short stories, and articles to spot new, upcoming talent.

Benefits of a Literary Agent

For writers, a literary agent can get their manuscripts read. While it's possible to get published without an agent, it's difficult unless writers go the self-publishing route. Agents help get their work out of the slush pile and in front of editors.

Agents also guide them through the business side of publishing. Writers may not know whether to get an advance, and for how much. An agent can help authors make informed decisions about how and when to be paid. Agents are also an invaluable resource when it comes to contracts.

Publishing contracts are complex and lengthy. Many publishers start with a boilerplate contract that may not meet individual needs. Agent help their writers understand the terms being offered and push back on needed changes. Writers deserve to be fairly compensated for their work, and agents help make that happen.

Key Takeaways

  • Literary agents represent writers, assisting them in obtaining publishing contracts, and negotiating the best terms for those contracts.
  • They focus on the business side of publishing, but they offer their writers creative guidance as well. 
  • Agents find writers to represent, then sell finished manuscripts to publishers. 
  • To become an agent, you typically need agency or publishing experience. You also need to be well-connected and well-read. 
  • Literary agents benefit writers by getting their work in front of editors and negotiating better contract terms.