Literary Agent, Anyone?

I’ve spent some time on this blog talking about book publishers and what to look for, so today it’s time to talk about literary agents.

For those old school thinkers who think royalty publishing is the only way to go, you’ll need to find a literary agent before you find a New York publisher. Why? The big publishers use literary agents as their manuscript screeners.

You see, literary agents get paid a percentage of your earnings. They won’t represent an author unless they think the author is good enough to sell (and earn their commission from).

Well, at least commissions used to be the way literary agents got paid. With the big publishers less inclined to give an unknown author a chance these days, literary agents have had to find new ways to create income without having to earn it by selling your intellectual property.

One of the most common ways literary agents fill their bank accounts is by charging reading fees. You send in your manuscript. The agent offers to evaluate your work by reading it for a fee. RUN as fast as you can from reading fees. You have no guarantee the agent is even looking at your manuscript–the chances are better a college intern or some other assistant is doing that work. You’ll also want to watch for photocopying costs because that’s another way agents get money without selling anything.

One of my editing clients paid a well-known Los Angeles agent to read his manuscript. He paid her a lot of money for her insights and feedback on how to improve his book. We made the changes she suggested and resubmitted his manuscript for her representation. She called him and said that not only wasn’t she interested in representing him, she thought the changes were terrible and made the manuscript worse! Of course, she had long cashed his check for reading fees.

Another way agents make money off hopeful authors is to suggest hiring a book doctor to work on the manuscript. And, as luck would have it, the agents always seem to have book doctors available to help out.

I’m not saying book doctors can’t help you. I AM saying find your own if you decide you need to work with one. Ask around. Get recommendations. Don’t work with the one the literary agent sets you up with if you can help it.

Some say it’s harder to get an agent than a publisher. If that’s so, it follows you should be as wary of literary agents who advertise in writing publications as you are of publishers who do the same. In both cases, it’s pretty certain they’re interested in your dollars, not in your writing.

The best thing to do when looking for a literary agent is get an introduction from an author already working with the agent.

If that’s not possible, you can find an agent yourself, but do your homework. Get a list of clients the agent works with and call those people. I have one friend who had an agent “market” her book for two years, then tell her the book wouldn’t sell. Really? When the author asked for a list of places the agent approached, the agent couldn’t give her one.

You’ll also want to get a list of books the agent has sold to publishers. There’s no reason to tie your work up with an agent who can’t sell manuscripts!

Beware agent scams and schemes as much as you beware publishing scams and schemes. Publishing is business and you should only do business with those who are ethical and professional.

Happy writing!


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