What Do Literary Agents Do?

How Planet Agent works, and other mysteries.

Literary agents do a lot of things, but first and foremost they are salespeople.

Agents are there to sell manuscripts (like yours) to publishers. Because publishers won’t mostly take submissions from authors direct, your literary agent is a crucial – the crucial – bridge between you and publication.

We’ll talk about a number of things in this post – including where to find agents, how to choose them, how to present you manuscript and much else.

Our purpose, really is to give you a short but complete overview of how literary agents work – and how you can best approach the scary world of Planet Agent.

First up though, a short guide to what the heck agents actually DO . . .

What do literary agents do?

Literary Agent Functions: Sales

Agents have various responsibilities, but their core role is selling manuscripts to publishers.

In effect, they’re salespeople – so to successfully fill that role, agents need to be very plugged into the industry. They’ll have fabulous contacts among commissioning editors at the larger publishing houses. As a result, agents should know which editors at which publishing houses are suitable for your project, and they’ll know which imprints at those publishers are going to be most suitable.

Having the contacts is great, but agents also need to turn those contacts into gold

In most cases, they’ll do that by conducting an auction for your work.

If that goes well, you may end up with multiple publishers bidding for your work. (That doesn’t always happen, but – speaking from experience – it’s very lovely when it does, not least because your advance can go shooting upwards very quickly.)

If you do get multiple bids, your agent should advise on your best course of action. Sometimes that means the biggest sum of money, but not always. A good agent will weigh other factors, too. They’ll negotiate a contract that reflects current best practice (in terms of e-royalties, reversion clauses, and much else). This area has become very technical, so it’s one you don’t want to enter without agent advice or knowledge.

Agents should then organise the sale of other rights (US, foreign language, TV and film, etc.). Any medium sized agency (and even plenty of small ones) will sell foreign rights themselves. Most agencies will use partner agencies to sell work in the USA (but there are exceptions to this rule.) And, generally, only the biggest literary agencies have credible film and TV sides, so most agencies will export this work to suitable specialists. It doesn’t matter much to you quite how this is arranged, but it does matter that your agent knows the territory well.

That’s the sales process covered – but bear in mind that this sales process may last years. I will shortly be signing an 8-book audio deal for my work, where the first book was originally published six years ago. A good agent doesn’t think of rights sales as a one-time thing, but should be constantly reviewing your list and seeing if there are opportunities to make sales.

Literary Agent Functions: Publication process

You might think that because literary agents are commission-driven salespeople, their involvement ends once that sale is made.

Not so.

A good editor or publisher considers that their product is a good, well-published book.

A decent agent will think of their product as being a good, well-published author.

In effect, they’re thinking about your career holistically, recognising that you may well be generating revenues twenty years hence. But if you are to make decent money on your next book, and your next book, and your tenth book,and your fifteenth book, you need to be well-published, by committed publishers, who gradually expand your readership and solidify your reputation.

The result: any good agent will oversee the publication process. That doesn’t mean they’re in charge of it – they’re not; that’s your editor’s job – but it does mean that they are there to advise and resolve any conflicts . . . and indeed, to pick up the phone and yell at the publisher if the publisher is performing poorly.

trad vs indie

Literary Agents Functions: Pre-Sales

I’ve already spoken about the sales process as though that’s the first element in the author/agent relationship.

And yes, in some cases it is, but that’s now quite rare. Nearly always these days, an agent will want some editorial involvement in your manuscript before they send it out. That might not be the root and branch editorial service that you’d get if you came to us (more), but it’s still extremely important.

Just as a real estate agent will get you to mow your lawn, clear your front room, and freshen up any tired paintwork prior to any house-sale, so too will a literary agent want to send out a manuscript in the best possible state.

Do remember that agents only offer this service if they are already very excited about your manuscript. They’re there to perfect something that is already excellent, not mend something that is broken, so never submit something half-cooked and expect an agent to fix it. They won’t. (And also :don’t send any novel that isn’t finished. An unfinished novel is not saleable, so a salesperson isn’t yet needed.) For more on agents & editing, go here.

Literary Agents Functions: Long term career advice

And longer term . . . well, I said agents were there to produce authors, and that means that your long term career guidance will almost certainly come from your agent.

In my own case, I’ve evolved from writing Jeffrey Archer style romps, through historical fiction, and then non-fiction, to full-on crime fiction.

At every important turning point, my agent has been by far my most important advisor. Yes, I know a lot about writing, and what I’m personally passionate about, but my agent knows way more than I do about the market and what is likely to sell.

As a matter of fact, because of my work with Jericho Writers, and our own huge list of client successes, I know far more than most professional authors do about the market for books. (We have, for example, placed clients with every single large literary agency in the UK, most mid-sized ones, and plenty of international agencies too. Most authors just don’t see that many book deals in a lifetime – and wouldn’t in ten lifetimes.)

So, yes, I’ve got an unusual degree of insight into how literary agents work – how that entire world works, in fact – but I still absolutely rely on my agent.

His career advice has earned a good six figure sum for me over and above anything I’d have been able to generate on my own.

* * *

OK, so that’s what agents do, but that’s not the end of the questions that are probably facing you right now. So, let’s turn to some of those other issues too . . .

Want more help? Did you know that Jericho Writers is a club for writers? We were created specifically to help writers like you improve your work and get it sold. We have a heap of courses and masterclasses on writing and publishing. We have an incredible literary agent search tool. And so much more besides. It’s hardly surprising that bazillions of writers have used us as a springboard to success.

You can learn more here . . .  and if you did choose to become a member of our club, I’d be absolutely delighted.

The agent submissions builder

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Do you need a literary agent?

Most large publishers (outfits like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and their peers) will only review manuscripts that are sent to them by literary agents. That’s because those publishers want to select only from the very best manuscripts out there, and rely on agents to do that first-stage filtering task for them.

And because the big publishers take that view, and because bookstores source their work, for the most part, from the larger publishers, that means that if you want a larger publisher and a more prominent placement in bookshops, you will need an agent, because there’s simply no alternative.

So yes, you do need an agent if:

  • You are writing a novel
  • You are writing general non-fiction (the sort that might sit front-of-store in a Barnes & Noble or a Waterstones)
  • You are writing mainstream fiction for children or young adults

On the other hand, there are plenty of books – business and academic textbooks, for example – which are not mostly distributed via ordinary bookstores. Those business & academic publishers DO commission work direct from authors, and they don’t generally expect to source work from literary agents.

Additionally, there are plenty of sectors of the book trade where sales are so small that agents aren’t involved, simply because there’s not enough money to make it worth their while.

So no, you don’t need an agent if:

  • You are writing a business / academic / professional textbook
  • You are writing poetry (no money there!)
  • You are writing very niche non-fiction (“How to maintain your motorbike“, for example)
  • You are writing in any other area where sales are most likely small

That still leaves one or two rather intermediate cases, where you could choose to go in either direction.

So, yep, you might want an agent if:

  • You are writing children’s picture books
  • You are writing niche non-fiction in an area where significant sales are possible (eg: some pieces of the history market, or the health market etc)

And, of course, these days there are loads of authors who make an excellent living by self-publishing directly on Amazon. If you want to self-publish then (duh!) you don’t need an agent at all. You can just follow our big self-publishing guide here.

how to chooose a literary agent

How can I find an agent?

There are a few different ways to find agents. You can:

  1. Google “literary agents”. You’ll find plenty of results this way, but Google has no idea which agents are good or bad, so the list you’ll get is effectively random. Some great agents will be buried, and there may be some quite marginal or irrelevant options showing in the search results.
  2. Use old-style tools such as Writer’s Market (US) or Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook (UK). These are books and they’re okay. You’ll need an updated copy every year, though. You really want to be able to sort, filter and select data quickly. Books can’t do that. Computers can.
  3. Use a free tool such as AgentQuery.com. AQ is a brilliant tool, though free, which means there are inevitable limitations as to how much data it provides and how easy it is to filter the information.
  4. Use AgentMatch to collect available public data on literary agents and make it super-easy for yourself to filter that data any way you want.

And what is AgentMatch? And where can you find it?

Well, you find it right here, on this website. Full access to our data and best-in-class search tools is only available to members of Jericho Writers, which sounds tempting, right. But remember that joining our club, doesn’t just give you access to AgentMatch. You also get – totally free within the membership package:

  • An AMAZING course on getting published
  • An AWESOME course on how to write a fabulous novel in the first place
  • TERRIFIC resources on self-publishing, if you’re curious to see how all that works
  • MASSES of free masterclasses on pretty much every subject you could imagine
  • and loads more

You can read more here . . . needless to say, we’d absolutely love it if you chose to join us.

How do I choose my literary agent?

How to build your shortlist and make your selection

OK, so it’s easy enough to find a list of all the agents out there. You can go low-tech and just google it, or buy a book. Or you can go higher-tech and use a tool specifically designed for the exact purpose you have in mind.

But what then?

So you query them all? Do you pick at random? Do you do what JK Rowling did and just pick a name that sounds cute?

Well, OK, so that method worked out for JKR, but we’d suggest a more rational approach. So first, you build your longlist of agents by building a list of:

  • Agents who represent work in your approximate genre, and who also
  • Are open to submissions by new authors

The first point is kind of obvious. The second one a bit less so. Although most agents are theoretically open to new clients, many more senior agents will either be busy enough looking after their existing clients or they’ll get most of their new clients via private recommendation. (Picking up work from other agents; getting recommendations from existing clients; etc) That’s why – for most new writers, most of the time – we’d suggest looking for rather younger, hungrier agents. Those people are going to be more keen to pick up work, and will work harder (editorially, for example) in making your manuscript succeed.

Building that longlist of agents doesn’t have to be hard: AgentMatch lets you do it in a couple of clicks. Other tools are harder (or a lot harder), but the basic aim is the same: you want agents who are, theoretically at least, keen to see work like yours.

And once you have a longlist, you want to narrow that down to a shortlist of about 10-12 names. You find those names by looking for:

  • Agents who love the same authors as you (in the same genre)
  • Agents who love the same authors as you, but writing in different genres
  • Agents who share a passion (sailing, say, if your novel is partially set at sea)
  • Or agents with any other point of contact at all. Anything that sparks a connection.

Once you have your shortlist, then – good luck! – it’s time to start querying them.

How do I present my manuscript, synopsis and letter for agent queries?

Many writers worry more about literary agent letters and synopses than they do manuscripts. It’s in fact a lot easier to write these things than to write a novel.

How to write a query letter

You are basically looking to write a 1 page letter that says:

  1. Why you’re writing
  2. What you’re offering
  3. Who you are

And doing all that in a way that makes you look and sound like the professional writer that you want to become.

That isn’t actually a huge ask, and if you are disciplined enough to write a novel and intelligent enough to research properly by reading articles like this one, you are more than capable of writing that letter.

You can get more advice on the query letter directly in this post.

You can read a sample query letter (with our tips and advice) in this post.

How to write a synopsis

Writing a good synopsis for agents is trickier than a letter, though most agents are less interested in your synopsis. (Again, your manuscript is the important part, so consider manuscript assessment if you need.)

The brief here is to create:

  1. A document of about 500 words (ish. It doesn’t have to be precise)
  2. That relates the plot of your novel, from beginning to end
  3. That uses relatively neutral (non-salesy) language
  4. That simply leaves out most of the detailed plot mechanics . . .
  5. But that does clearly set out the structure of your story in its broadest possible form.

If you are a memvber of Jericho Writers, then you get free access to detailed help on all this via our superb Getting Published course. Just login to get access.

If you are not a member of Jericho Writers, then don’t you think you ought to be? Details here.

Or, if you just want simple to the point advice, you can get it via our post in writing synopses here. The same post also includes a sample synopsis, so you know exactly the kind of thing you’re aiming to deliver.

How to present your manuscript

Once you’re happy, any manuscript with clean margins, proper spacing, and a business-like choice of font will be fine. Check for spellings, typos and punctuation errors before you send. Furher tips here:

How to present your manuscript

And that’s it from us! Good luck – happy writing – and grab that deal!

How do I prepare a book proposal for my non-fiction?

If you’re writing non-fiction, you may be able to get away with a book proposal, i.e. sample chapters and an outline of everything else. That’s a beautiful arrangement, because it means you can do a relatively small amount of work upfront, then test the market for the book. Only if you get an acceptable book deal do you need to go on to complete the manuscript.

Compared with the speculative hell that faces novelists, that is a wonderful position to be in.

You can get everything you need on writing a great book proposal here.


About the author

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).

As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)

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Write a perfect query letter and a brilliant synopsis. In just one hour.