It’s common to see social media posts from authors seeking agents. New and experienced authors alike often want to find a literary agent who will help them get that publishing deal. Maybe with one of the New York publishing houses or even with one of the Big Five. But are agents still relevant in this age of digital self-publishing? What does an agent even do? How do you prepare for starting the search for an agent? And where do you find one? To help answer these questions, we turned to publishing professional David Morris.
David is a writer, creative leader and content strategist. He also has nearly three decades’ experience in publishing, having worked at the executive level for Zondervan – part of HarperCollins – as well as Guideposts Books. He’s also involved in coaching and consulting with authors and acting as an agent, helping them shape their messaging and building on their strengths.
We spoke with David on The Empowered Author Podcast, which you can listen to (and subscribe! and review!) here.
What is a literary agent?
Before we can talk about agents’ roles in the current publishing environment, authors seeking agents need to understand what it is that they do. At the most basic level, agents represent authors and their work. They act as go-between: as David says, “Agents know the publishers; they know the editors; they know the different brands and imprints out there.”
The literary agent’s job is to help an author find the best imprint match for them and strike a really good deal for them. This can be in terms of a good advance, good royalties and all the different rights: sub rights, audiobook rights, even movie rights.
Are agents still relevant?
In this age of authors self-publishing their work on platforms like Amazon, it might seem that there’s no longer a place in the process for agents. Indie authors are quite empowered and able to do it themselves, after all.
David agrees that authors whose works may sell fewer than 5,000 copies—which is the norm for most new indie authors—probably won’t have an agent and won’t need one. If you’re angling toward a book deal that’s most likely not even going to pay you an advance, you may not want to involve an agent who’s going to take a 15 percent commission. Besides, as a new author, you’re still learning and should be soaking in as much as you can about publishing.
It’s when you’re going for that bigger book deal that an agent will be really useful. Agents can act as a liaison to the publisher—there is a lot of turnover in in publishing industry personnel and, according to David, it’s common to hear authors say, “My editor has moved on and my book got lost.” Or they may feel that their publisher doesn’t care about them or their book.
Authors seeking agents — in for the long haul
An agent, however, is usually in it for the long haul. Whereas the publisher may focus on a per-book deal with the author, the agent focuses on the author’s career.
For authors seeking agents, it helps to expect an agent to ask the questions that will help reveal how you, as an author, can work in the best way. Then, they’ll say, “Okay, we got the publishing deal for you. But now, I’m in your corner for the long haul. We’re going to hold the publisher accountable and I’m going to hold you accountable. And I’m going to be sure you understand what the publisher is asking and the publisher understands what you’re asking and doing.”
Authors often find the marketing aspect of their publishing journey challenging. Because it’s in the agent’s best interests that the author they represent sees good sales of their book, they’ll ask the publisher questions about the initial marketing of the book. They’ll also take a long-term view: helping advocate for a second edition or reintroducing the book when sales are flagging, for instance, or releasing a new format such as a paperback or audiobook.
How do you prepare to find an agent?
Before authors seeking agents start their search, David says it’s important to keep your first priority on honing your craft. That means getting words on the page. After all, that’s core to your identity as an author. It’s something you also need to continue developing.
The agent proposal
To convince an agent to take you on as a client, you need a solid proposal. This will not only help sell you and your work to the agent but it will also help the agent sell your work to publishers. David suggests that you look at examples of proposals and templates online, seek advice, and maybe even find a coach who can help you get all the right pieces into your proposal.
Treat your proposal like a typical high school essay, with the following elements in your description, which should be between about 250 and 300 words:
- Supporting argument with a brief example
- Conclusion or benefit and takeaway.
You also need to include the following in your proposal:
- Table of contents
- Comparative titles: not big blockbusters but recent books that are at your level
- Your endorsers, if you have any
- Your platform, especially your digital platform
- Creative ideas for marketing your book.
Fiction agents usually prefer to also see a completed manuscript. Nonfiction agents generally prefer to see a sample chapter included in your proposal.
Where do you find an agent?
Research is essential in finding a literary agent. David suggests that you look at the acknowledgements pages of books similar to yours because these often mention the author’s agent.
Writer’s conferences that attract editors and agents can be a good place to find out and understand who these people are. However, David believes that it’s key to work on your relationships. For instance, get to know other authors. Follow their social media feeds and see who they’re following. As you create those relationships, you can find out who those authors’ agents are and find out if they’re accepting submissions, are looking for new clients, and work in your genre. You may even get your fellow authors to refer you to their agents.
What do you think?
What’s your experience looking for and working with a literary agent? What tips would you offer to other authors seeking agents? What questions do you still have about the process? Let us know in the comments. And happy writing!