Literary Agents

What is a literary agent?

Literary agents manage all the business relating to the sale, contracting, publication, production and reproduction of a writer’s work. Skills they should bring to this include thorough knowledge of copyright, contracts, overseas rights, subsidiary rights and other legal issues related to the sale of intellectual properties. They should have good contacts in the writing and publishing industry and a thorough knowledge of current industry trends and developments.

What do they do?

Literary agents act as a conduit between authors and publishers; they sell projects to book publishers, or television and film producers, and they negotiate contracts for their clients. Some agents look after a variety of writers, including non-fiction, poetry, screen writing, adult and children’s fiction, while others choose to specialise in a particular genre or area.

As well as bringing you and your work to the attention of publishers, your agent will use their industry knowledge and contacts to protect your financial and legal interests, making sure that you, and all the authors on their list, get the most out of their contracts. Opinions on the importance of agents vary amongst established authors; some writers prefer to negotiate for themselves, but most find their agent an invaluable part of their business team.

Will a literary agent charge a reading fee?

An agent should never charge to read your work or to represent you. Agents make their money when you make your money as a percentage of your royalties.

What percentage of my income is an agent likely to take?

An agent’s cut can range from 10 per cent to 15 per cent.

Do I need a literary agent?

Short answer: no. Long answer: no, but you need to feel confident of your own skills and knowledge in the areas of copyright, contracts, overseas rights, subsidiary rights and other legal issues related to the sale of intellectual properties, and industry contacts. Remember: the time you spend on these aspects is time you are not engaging in your core business: writing.

Also, many publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, i.e. manuscripts not submitted by a literary agent or manuscripts not specifically requested from the author by the publisher.

How do I find a literary agent?

Finding a literary agent to represent you to publishers is a similar process to approaching a publisher. Literary agents look for talented, marketable writers. You can refer to The Australian Writer’s Marketplace for a list of agents, or visit The Australian Literary Agents’ Association. Keep in mind that some agents only represent writers of a certain genre, so be sure you know what genre of book you’ve written. Make sure your work fits the profile.

General Tips

  • Always be polite! If you meet an agent at an industry function, do not hand them a manuscript then and there. Introduce yourself and outline your work, and if the agent expresses interest in seeing the work, then send it along the next day. Do not monopolise the agent for the entire evening.
  • Check the agent’s website for the submission guidelines as to what they want to see: generally, it’s an approach letter, a synopsis and the first twenty to fifty pages (or sometimes three chapters) of your novel. Do not read the submission guidelines and then ignore them, and especially do not write to the agent telling them why the guidelines don’t apply to you. This is the fastest way to the circular file (i.e. rubbish bin).
  • Your approach letter to an agent should be polite and concise. Introduce yourself in the first short paragraph, including any writing credits or courses you may have done. If you’ve met the agent previously, then mention that; if not, do not assume that the person you’re writing to is male – go to the trouble of finding out the name of the agent and address your letter appropriately. The next paragraph should cover your novel: genre, length, target audience and a summary of the plot in one, two or three sentences – further detail should be left for the synopsis. The next paragraph should cover what inspired you to write the book, and note any authors whose work covers similar ground to yours. As a courtesy, if you’re submitting to other agents, mention that also.
  • The synopsis is a precise outline of the plot and characters. Use short sentences, simple language and keep it to one or two pages.