Publishing Insights

» Literary Agents

Literary Agents, what they do and the benefits of having one:

  • Literary agents serve as representation for the writer and their works.
  • They assist in negotiating sales and contracts with publishing houses and submit your work for you to the publishers.
  • Some major publishing houses will not accept unrepresented manuscript submissions, therefore a writer looking at publishing on an international level or through a major publishing house may benefit from having a literary agent represent them.
  • Literary agents handle the business end of writing. They negotiate contracts and handle the publicity and promotional aspects of the literary business.
  • Literary agents are knowledgeable about the literary market and can guide writers in navigating the twists and turns of the literary market.

Do you need an agent?

  • In Canada it is not always necessary for a writer to have an agent in order to be published. However, if you are interested in working with an international publishing house or one of the more prominent publishers, an agent may be of some benefit as many of these publishing firms do not accept unrepresented manuscripts.
  • Having a personal business plan that outlines your expectations for your work may help you to decide whether you will need an agent’s representation or not.
  • Most literary agents do not represent writers of short stories. In this case the writer will have to approach publishers themselves.

General Steps and Tips on Finding a Literary Agent

  • Begin with research. For a writer looking for representation, it is important to do some research prior to contacting an agent/agency.
  • Know what the genre is that an agent prefers to represent. Many agents have specific areas of expertise and it is up to you to note what genres they deal with and whether your work may fit with the agency.
  • Talk to other authors and writers. Networking with other writers can help you to decide which agents may be right for you and your work. Authors with representation can also give you some insight into which agencies are reputable and which ones are not. Experience can be everything and learning from others is important.
  • Go to your local bookstore or library. Most often reading other works in the same genre or on similar areas of interest can help to point you towards an agent that will best suit your needs. The name of the agent can be found by reading dedications and acknowledgement pages, or by contacting the publisher.
  • Surf the web and read industry magazines. There are numerous online forums, blogs and articles that can help you navigate and locate prospective agents. Often these sources provide insights into the process of finding an agent, or provide listings of possible agents.

Remember, some agencies/agents have better reputations than others, knowing ahead of time which agencies have reputable business practices will save you a lot of trouble later. The more you know about potential agents the better informed your decisions will be.

Resources for Authors Looking for Representation
A writer beginning to research agents can consult the following sources:

Approaching a Literary Agent

  • Once you have established a list of possible literary agents it is time to approach them. There are a variety of ways in which a writer can contact a prospective agent.
  • Talk to other writers/authors who already have representation. Agents are busy people and often use their clients as a means of networking. Ask the writer whether they could recommend you to their agent and give them a sample of your writing.
  • Attend professional workshops and conferences. Many of the large scale conferences and workshops have agents attend. Make an effort to interact with agents and discuss possible representation. It is considered bad form to take an entire manuscript to events; however, bringing one or two sample chapters to present to prospective agents for review is accepted. Remember, if an agent is attending planned industry events then they are most likely in the market for new clients.
  • By mail. Most often you will be making your first contact with agents through the mail. This method entails sending a query letter, that outlines your experience and asks if they are accepting new clientele. Remember, that mail takes time and the agent’s first priority is their existing clients, so do not expect an immediate response. (On average expect to wait up to a month for a reply to a query letter).
  • If you receive a positive response to your query letter, then you may be required to send in your completed manuscript. (For more information see “Formatting a Manuscript” and “General Steps to Manuscript Submission”)
  • If they like your work, you will receive an offer to be your representation.
  • Remember when entering into a professional relationship with an agent a written agreement should be drawn up, outlining the terms of the relationship and what is to be expected out of each party. A contract will protect both the writer and the agent.
  • An agent should earn commission only and be reimburse for agreed upon genuine business expenses, including manuscript retyping, photocopies, copies of books for use in the sale of other rights, long distant phone calls, or other special fees. Beware of agents that charge fees for reading and evaluating manuscripts.

Writing Query Letters
Query letters are formal letters that are sent to magazine editors and literary agents. These letters are used to inquire about possible representation and to propose writing ideas. A query letter is used to introduce the writer, their work and style. Generally, these letters should be about a page long and contain three paragraphs. Query letters are important as they give a literary agent a sense of who the writer is and what kind of work they produce, therefore these letters should be professional and written with care.

Each query letter should follow this general formatting:

  1. The first paragraph should contain a catchy one to two sentence long “hook” for the work you are seeking representation for. This should be a brief and direct statement about your work that attracts the attention of the agent/editor.
  2. Paragraph two: This should be a mini-synopsis of the work. The paragraph should be well written, concise and should entice the agent to read more of your work. For inspiration consult the backs of other books.
  3. Paragraph three: The third paragraph is the biographical section of the letter. This paragraph should contain general information about you, outlining any works you have written, academic achievements, and any writing awards you have received. Keep the paragraph focused only on relevant information, the focus should remain on the writing aspects of your biography.
  4. The closing of your letter should thank your contact for their time. If your work is non-fiction then let the reader know that you have enclosed an outline, table of contents and sample chapters for their review. And if your work is fiction, let the agent know that a full manuscript is available for their review.

Important Questions to Ask a Prospective Agent:

Does the agent use a written author-agent agreement?
Under the new Arts Professions Act, a contract is required in any business agreement.

What are the terms of the representation being offered?
You should know whether there is a time limit and to what extent they will be representing you, is your deal only for one book/work or for multiple works.

What can you expect from the agent?
Asking what process they will take in representing you, and what is expected of you as the client is important, and should be established using a contract.

Ask about the agent.
Find out as much as you can about the person or agency that will be representing you. How long they have been in business, who their clients are, what books they recently sold, does the agent belong to any professional organization, etc…

Ask about how you will be notified for any inquiries concerning your work and how much the agent will consult with you during the negotiation process.

Ask about money.
Early on establish what percentage the agent will take and how the payments will be delivered.

Ask about film and other media.
Does the agent handle these issues or is there someone else in the agency that takes care of media, film and radio appearance and royalties?

Ask to what extent the agent will be involved in career development and the development of your project.
Agents are representing you and your work, so do they already have a plan for which publishers may be interested in your book, do they think you need to refine your work prior to submission, and how involved will your agent be in developing the work and your career?

Note that whenever entering into agreements with an agent be sure that you have a written contract outlining all terms and agreements. If you have concerns over the contract or are confused about specific clauses, you may want to consult a legal professional who can help you to navigate any areas of concern. Never sign a contract before you are happy with what it outlines, remember contracts are negotiable, everyone involved should be satisfied with the agreement.


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