Do you need a literary agent?
Literary agents conjure up so many images in the book culture. Two of the most common ones might be fabulous lunches at expensive New York restaurants or excited phone calls about a book auction. Let’s dive into what a literary agent is and examine if you need one.
A literary agent (let’s just call them agent from here on out) represents writers and their written works to publishers. They assist in the sale and negotiation between the writer and the publisher. They are not editors or publishers. They prefer your work to be in its final form or very close to it.
Agents are paid a fixed percentage (maybe 10% to 20%) of the net proceeds of sales they negotiate on behalf of the writer. They don’t make money unless the book sells! They are there to make you look good to the right editors and publishers.
An important side note: there is no qualification to call yourself an agent. You could call yourself one today. Some editors call themselves agents and offer to review or help improve your work for a fee. If someone says your work has promise and asks for money to review or improve it, then they are not an agent. Caveat emptor. To combat this, ask for a list of references of authors they have represented in the last two years, with contact information.
Agents normally concentrate or specialize in certain genres or fields, such as science fiction novels or business books.
TAA members may ask themselves if an agent is right for them. First, if you are writing a novel or any kind of general interest/trade publishing/mass market book, agents certainly might be interested in your work.
If you are writing a monograph, a highly specialized technical book, or looking to the university press market, you likely do not need an agent.
Textbook authors also normally do not need an agent. Most textbook publishers will gladly entertain your proposal based on your academic and writing accomplishments.
There are exceptions. If your book/textbook has “significant commercial potential,” than an agent might be a good idea. I love optimism, but “significant commercial potential” will apply to very few authors in scholarly publishing. Is one of the co-authors the former Surgeon General of the US? Or has the author done national TED Talks? Or do they host a podcast with 50,000+ downloads weekly? These rare type authors, even if they are writing a textbook or scholarly book, may need an agent to ensure they maximize the potential with a publisher.
Now one of the top questions I get asked: How do I find an agent if he or she only represents published authors, and how can I get published if I do not have an agent?
There are some worthy websites to consider. Publishers Marketplace is probably the most respected of the website databases. Query Tracker helps authors find agents or publishers as well as track their efforts. Agent Query offers “one of the largest searchable databases of literary agents on the web.” There may be fees associated with the full uses of some of these websites.
A common way to find agents is to look in the acknowledgments in a book. Look in books that are in the field in which you intend to publish. Many times, authors will thank their agent by name and sometimes by agency. If an author thanks an agent just by name, put the name into a search engine and see what you can find.
Networking can be invaluable. Ask authors of highly successful textbooks if they use one and would they consider sharing their contact information.
Whenever possible, try to find an agent who is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives. This non-profit organization also provides a Find an Agent feature. While admirable, this is a voluntary group that at this point contains 400 agents and is not a comprehensive list but is a good place to start.
The majority of academic authors with standard expectations for their book can successfully approach the publishers in their fields without an agent. If you can secure an agent though, they can be of significant help and likely secure a much better deal for you, the author.
John Bond is a publishing consultant at Riverwinds Consulting. He has been in scholarly publishing for over 25 years. In his career, he has directed the publishing of over 500 book titles and 20,000 journal articles. His newest book is the new edition of You Can Write and Publish a Book: Essential Information on How to Get Your Book Published, Second Edition. He is the host of the YouTube channel “Publishing Defined.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.