What is a literary agent?Harry Bingham
A literary agent is the person responsible for selling an author’s work to publishers. Since virtually all big publishers refuse to accept submissions except via literary agents, nearly all writers wishing to be conventionally published will need the services of an agent.
Who does an agent sell to?
A UK-based agent will, almost always, sell a manuscript, in the first instance, to a UK-based publisher. In most cases, that deal will however encompass a number of foreign territories – usually, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all English-language sales within the European Union.
But an agent’s role as salesman doesn’t end there. There are, additionally, three further opportunities that an agent will explore. Those are:
- North American rights. Plenty of novels sold in the UK will never be published in the US, and vice versa. Including American settings in your novel will, most likely, not increase your chances of selling a novel there. (Because there are plenty of American writers who can deliver US-set stories perfectly well, thank you. There aren’t many who could set a story well in, let’s say, Chipping Sodbury.)
- Translation rights. If your book sells well in the UK, your agent will certainly be using the big international rights fairs (in London and Frankfurt) to sell your book. Your agent may sell direct to overseas publishers or, very often, may use a local literary agent (a ‘sub-agent’ in the jargon) to handle these sales.
- Film & TV rights. Mostly, an agent won’t sell direct to production companies: they’ll wait to see if there is any interest in your material from production company scouts. If, on the other hand, there is a clear TV opportunity, your agent may proactively solicit bids. The very largest UK literary agencies have their own film & TV arms which will handle this side of things direct. The large majority of UK agencies will simply team up with specialist film agents. Either way, the experience from an author’s point of view is fairly similar.
What is involved in making the sale?
An agent needs to know which publishers (or rather: which imprints of which publishers) are suitable for your work. He or she should also know the editorial staff of those firms well enough to guess who will be most enthusiastic about your work.
Typically (but not always) an agent will simply send your material to perhaps 8-10 editors all at the same time and try to get an auction going – encouraging competitive bids for your work. If this happens – lucky you: the bidding can go quite high, quite fast. But you can still make a good, strong sale to a good publisher without competition, so don’t fret if there aren’t people fighting over your work.
Once an agent has elicited an offer that you and she are both happy with, an agent will negotiate a contract that sets out the full detail of your arrangements. That contract will include a host of detail on things like audio rights, large print rights, reversion arrangements and much else. Unless you are well-versed in these kind of contracts, you do not want to try negotiating it for yourself. The same goes, only more so, for the ancillary rights (US, foreign language, film & TV) mentioned above.
Will an agent edit my work?
Yes, kind of, but not really. An agent is, first and foremost, a salesman or saleswoman. They are not there to edit your work in detail: that’s either your job (in terms of producing an excellent and saleable draft), or it’s the job of your editor (your primary contact at your publisher) who will help prepare the book for publication.
That said, most agents will offer some guidance in shaping the work ready for auction and that guidance – because it’s informed by a strong sense of what sells – is extremely valuable. But do not make the mistake of thinking that you can afford to be careless in editing your manuscript before going out to agents, because the agent will help you get it into shape. Agents only take about 1 manuscript in every 1000 that come their way, so your work has to be very, very good before it makes sense to start trying to get an agent.
What else will an agent do for me?
An agent is there to guide and manage your career. If you have various ideas for a possible new book, talk to your agent and get his or her advice on which idea works best.
If you have problems with your publisher (and you will!), then your agent will be a very wise and experienced confidant and ally.
And what things will an agent not do for me?
An agent will not:
- Promote your work. That’s your publisher’s job, and it’s your job. It’s not an agent’s job and it’s not their skillset.
- Sell your self-published work to bookshops. That’s the job of a publisher. National bookstores will not stock self-pub work except, sometimes, at a very local level.
What is an agent’s background?
Some agents come straight into agenting from university (typically with a degree in English.) Those agents who take this route will have worked their way up before anyone will entrust them with clients of their own. A relatively inexperienced agent at a good firm will have been given the position because their bosses have seen them operate and consider them trustworthy. They will also, of course, be given more supervision and guidance than more experienced heads.
More often, though, you’ll find that agents have a background in publishing before making the switch – typically, after working as a commissioning editor at a major publishing house. That experience gives an agent an excellent insight into what publishers are looking for – plus a great network of contacts in the industry.