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Though the role of literary agents is changing, there are at least a couple of reasons you may want one. First, they are well-connected in publishing, which means they may be able to open doors you can’t open yourself. Second, they are experts on the publishing business, including negotiating contracts.
Literary agents have traditionally been the gatekeepers between the writer and publishers. There are an awful lot of people who would like to get published, which can leave publishing houses inundated. For this reason, the biggest publishers closed their doors to unsolicited materials. Literary agents provide a screening process, weeding out all but the very best of the material that is submitted to them.
Statistics vary, but most agents say they reject between 95% and 99% of what crosses their desks. (If you’re interested in a particular agent’s statistics, QueryTracker provides detailed information on how often each agent in the database responds positively—with a request for more material, for example—vs. negatively, as is the case with a rejection.)
Agents develop relationships with publisher editors who are interested in the types of material that agent represents. So when Agent X approaches Publisher Y to say that the editor should take a look at Writer A’s manuscript, the editor is open to learning more.
As publishing experts, agents know the market well. They know what is selling, to whom, and why. They may know about markets you’ve never heard of, and they know how much editors are paying for particular types of manuscripts. They can also negotiate contracts (which include when, how, and how much the writer will be paid) and can act as a go-between with the writer and the publisher, especially if something goes wrong or the writer needs some help. [Edit: A reader notes that agents can also help negotiate foreign rights and film rights.] Usually they can negotiate better contract terms for you, both by knowing what they want removed from publishing contracts and by knowing what should be added or changed. You pay for this service by giving your agent a percentage of everything you earn (usually 15% - 20%), but particularly if the agent negotiates better terms than you could negotiate yourself, their work may proverbially pay for itself. It is in a reputable agent’s interest for you to make as much money as possible, because that's the only way they get paid!
Some agents represent a book or a series of books only; other agents represent the author. Many writers prefer to work with the latter type, as these relationships tend to be longer-term and often include help with their writerly career—improving manuscripts, trying out new ideas, and so on.
So when would you not use an agent? If you are self-publishing, you probably won't use an agent. Also, some writers decide (even if they have worked with an agent or agents in the past) that they are happier or more comfortable going it alone. They prefer to approach small publishers directly and are comfortable negotiating their own contracts (or hiring an attorney familiar with literary contracts just to review a proposed contract).
Because good agents are picky about who and what they represent, some authors get so focused on finding an agent that they forget that not all agents are equal. First, not all “literary agents” are legitimate or reputable. Second, all of us get along better with some people than others. It’s important to find someone who “gets” you and your work. I’ll be exploring these issues in upcoming posts.
Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook!