Kay Murray

Selected Works

The essential legal reference for professional and aspiring writers.

Quick Links

Find Authors

The Writer's Legal Guide: An Authors Guild Desk Reference

Chapter 15: Literary Agents and Agency Agreements

If you intend to sell even one book to a commercial publisher, you need a literary agent. You might be the next Stephen King, but you are unlikely to be read by the right editor for you, or by any editor, unless an agent submits your work. Even if you get extraordinarily lucky and interest a commercial publisher without an agent, you probably lack the experience, industry acumen, contacts, and ability to negotiate effectively for yourself. Established literary agents are in the business of placing clients’ works with the right publisher, negotiating the best possible contracts, and collecting and policing the fees, advances, and royalties due.

A good agent will know whether a manuscript or proposal can sell in its present form or needs work. Agents huddle with editors every day to keep abreast of the market and to talk up their clients’ work, and they know who to target within a given publisher or imprint when shopping particular books. In turn, editors rely on agents to screen writers and manuscripts. Virtually no editor in a trade house will read an unsolicited manuscript unless it came from an agent; the major houses license the overwhelming number of the titles they publish through agents. Publishers typically return unsolicited queries with a form letter explaining that they do not consider unsolicited submissions unless they come through agents. Smaller and genre publishers might assign a harried intern or assistant to read through the slush pile, but, like all editorial assistants, they will be looking for reasons to reject what is in front of them as quickly as they can. Often, even a powerful agent has to make twenty or thirty submissions before a project finds an appropriate publisher. How many writers acting for themselves would have persisted through the twenty-ninth rejection? In short, the odds against your getting published without an agent are overwhelming.

Moreover, placing your work is only one of the important functions of an agent. Once a publisher expresses interest, agents are far better situated than writers to negotiate good deals without jeopardizing the parties’ relationship. They can carry off auctions for rights that an author could not possibly set up alone. With their experience and clout, they are better able to negotiate the narrowest grant of rights, the most generous advance and royalties, and the most favorable delivery and “satisfactory manuscript” terms possible. Negotiating for herself, a writer would inevitably grant broader rights, accept lower pay, and keep less control over her work.

Most good agents would say that placing the works and negotiating the best deals are only two of the important services they give their clients. A third essential function is nurturing their clients’ careers, their development as a writer in the industry. Agents know the business, and the good ones also understand the art and craft of writing. They want – and need -- their clients to succeed and most of them believe that artistic success leads to commercial success. Your agent will read your work, tell you what she thinks of it and what it needs in order to sell, weigh in on your plans for future projects, help you devise your next move based on the performance of your last book, advocate for you with your publisher when things go wrong, and help you develop as a professional over the short and long term.

Finally, your agent is your representative to your publisher; she has a direct line to editors and others in the house and is your conduit to them. When you want to know what is happening with your manuscript or when you can expect editorial comments or payments, or to offer your opinion on the cover design, marketing plan, and so forth, your agent is the person to contact. The industry is small, and writers who contact their editors frequently to ask questions or to vent can quickly become known as “difficult” or worse. As your representative, your agent can shield you from such a possibility.
The most important part of the process of professional writing is creating work that people want to read. A close second is finding a good agent to represent you.

Finding an Agent

Your engagement with your agent is probably the most important business relationship of your career. So how do you find this important person? For most writers, unfortunately, it is not easy. Established agents are inundated with queries from your fellow writers, so many, in fact, that many successful agents do not accept new clients. You need to prepare for a lot of rejection and for a long journey to finding an agent, and at the same time, to protect yourself from being misled by unprofessional actors calling themselves agents.

Before reaching out to any agent, you must be ready to show your work, as perfect as you can make it. If your work is not ready to be shown to a publisher, then you are not ready to query the agent. Agents will most likely reject aspiring writers with great ideas or half-baked proposals but nothing tangible to market to editors. Unless you are a valued client of long standing (or a celebrity), you cannot expect an agent to edit your work or find you a ghostwriter. Keep in mind that agents who are accepting new clients get dozens of queries a day and are constantly committed to reading large stacks of manuscripts and proposals. If your query interests the agent, she is going to ask to read some or all of your manuscript or proposal. If it is not ready to show her, you will have wasted her time. Wasting an agent’s time is a bad way to begin; you will probably not have a second chance with her.