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Do All Writers Need an Agent? A FAQ

An agent can be a real help. On the other hand, you may not need one. These FAQs should help you decide.

What does a literary agent do for writers?

A literary agent represents the author of a book to publishers. In other words, the main job of a literary agent is to find writers a publisher. Agents also negotiate rights, including film and TV, on behalf of the author they represent.

Most literary agents have a specialty. That is, there are agents who specialize in computer books, those who market mysteries, etc.

How are literary agents paid?

The agent receives a percentage, usually 15%, of any advance and all royalties. They donít get paid unless they make a sale.

What kind of contract do I sign with a literary agent?

As a general rule, an agency contract is a personal service contract. That is, you and the agent sign a contract that spells out what both parties will do, what fees are charged and how they are to be paid and under what circumstances either party can cancel the contract.

Here are some things to consider:

  • The contract should have a time limit. Ninety to 180 days is probably the range youíre looking for. You want the agent to have enough time to do a good job, but you donít want to get locked in for long if the agent is unsuccessful or isnít working for you.


  • The rights the agent will market should be spelled out in the contract. For example, some agents only work with book publishers, others work with film and TV and some do both.


  • An agent may ask for rights to market any and all future work. You probably wonít want to do this unless the agent has already demonstrated they can successfully market your work. Even then, my own feeling is that you shouldnít agree to this.


  • The contract should spell out what sort of reports you will be getting from the agent. These can be formal reports or even a phone call every so often. But you do have the right to know what the agent is doing on your behalf.


  • The contract should also spell out exactly how the agreement can be cancelled by you and the agent. The agent wants to be sure you wonít jerk the work out from under them when they are on the verge of a sale, and you want to be sure you can get out if the agent isnít performing.

    A literary agent offered me a work for hire contract. Whatís that?

    A work for hire contract means youíre giving all rights to the publisher or agents and will only be paid once. There are no royalties and no opportunity for you to sell your work again. Although there may be special circumstances that warrant such a contract, they are best avoided.

    Do I have to pay agent fees up front?

    Not with a legitimate literary agent. If youíre asked for a readerís fee or any other form of payment, run away as fast as you can. The only payment an agent deserves is a percentage of the sale.

    Do I need to complete my work before I look for a literary agent?

    If youíre writing a novel, youíll need to finish the book before an agent takes you on as a client, unless, of course, youíve already sold several in that genre. The reason the book needs to be completed is because itís way easier to start a novel than to finish it, and until youíve got a solid track record agents and publishers want to see the whole thing. (more)

  • f youíre writing non-fiction you can often find a literary agent on the basis of a book proposal, although if youíre an unpublished writer, the complete book may be required.

    Ok, how to I find a literary agent?

    There are several ways. One of the best ways to get a literary agent is through personal recommendation. If you know a successful writer who writes in your genre, ask them to make a suggestion. If you belong to any writing groups, either off line or on, you may be able to get recommendations there.

    Paradoxically, another good way to get an agent is to market your book yourself. When a publisher makes you an offer, ask them to recommend an agent. Publishers like working with agents because they know the ropes and even though the agent may be able to negotiate a better advance and/or royalties, they know they are working through a professional.

    Since it often takes as much work to find an agent as it does a publisher, this is often a good approach for new writers.

    Another way to locate agents is to Google them. Just enter Literary Agents and youíll get a ton of links. And, of course, there are books that list agents. Writerís Digest publishes a directory of agents every year. You may also find listings of agents in writing magazines. Donít overlook your local yellow pages as another possible source.

    Do I need an literary agent in New York?

    No, a New York agent is not necessary these days. Although New York agents have a better chance of lunching with publishers, the truth is a good agent can market you successfully from almost anywhere.





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