“What’s it like working with a literary agent?”
‘What’s the role of a literary agent?’
“What can I expect from a literary agent?’
‘What’s expected of me?’
“Are there any mistakes I should avoid?”
If you wonder about the answers to these questions, today’s post is for you!
One of my clients recently signed with one of my favorite New York literary agents. My client’s questions reminded me how daunting the process can seem, and how helpful it is to know what to expect.
The whole process of submitting your book proposal and waiting to hear back can feel stressful, especially if you don’t hear back from the agent quickly. In this post, I’ll share some general information about how agents, and the submissions process, work, as well as nuances that may vary agent to agent. In addition, I’ll share how to choose a literary agent.
A literary agent’s role is to:
* Help Sell Your Book to a Publishing House: In this role an agent may be involved in refining the book concept, suggesting changes to the book concept or proposal. The agent will contact acquisitions editors at publishing houses, encourage offers, help you evaluate any feedback that comes from publishers. help you decide among competing offers. Your agent may also make suggestions to you that would improve your chances, especially suggestions that involve growing your reach (platform).
* Ensure You Get Paid Properly for Book Sales: The publishing house will pay your agent directly, who will take a percentage (usually 15% for US sales) and j
* Nurture Your Career as an Author: While not all agents perform this service, many agents will keep their authors in mind as they speak with publishers about what they are looking for. It’s not unusual for an agent to suggest a book topic to an author of their, particularly a journalist.
- Identify Agents Who are a Match. To start, identify agents who are a good fit for your book, based upon what they say they are looking for on their website and on any books they’ve sold to publishing houses. Don’t waste everyone’s time with a book that’s not a match.
- Read their submissions guidelines. You don’t have to follow the names of sections exactly, nor the exact order of each section, since you will be submitting to multiple agents, but do make sure you include everything they say they are looking for. For example, it’s okay to name a section “Audience” instead of “Markets” if one agent’s site says “Audience” and the other says “Markets.”
- Send a query letter to 3-5 of the agents you identified. Don’t send your query email until your proposal is 100% complete. If the agent responds that they want to see the book proposal, immediately follow up by emailing them the proposal. Do let them know if you are sending the proposal to multiple agents and mention the number you are sending to. If you don’t hear back in two or three weeks, you can ask whether they received the proposal.
- Once an Agent Expresses Interest in Representing Your Book, Set Up a Call to Discuss Their Way of Working. These questions to ask a literary agent will help you clarify whether the agent is a good match for you.
Sign a Contract with Your Literary Agent. It can’t hurt to have an Intellectual Property Attorney look over the agreement, but most agreements are fairly standard. One thing to look for is how long your agent has to sell your book. You want an agreement that has a specific time period such as one or two years.
- Once you sign a contract with a literary agent, they may help you refine your book concept in any way they think will make it more marketable to publishers. Sometimes, they will even tailor a submission to the interests of a particular acquisitions editor whom they see as the ideal fit. Of course, it’s your book and they will work with you to revise the concept. However, it’s good to know an agent’s vision for the book (and any changes they anticipate) before you sign a contract with that agent. So do ask them about their vision and any changes they would suggest.
- When Your Agent Decides the Proposal and Platform are Ready, They Will Query Publishers. Your agent will identify publishing houses to pitch the book to. They will pitch to acquisitions editors, often someone with whom they have an existing relationship.
- If an editor is interested your agent will send your book proposal. This is the time to sit tight and be patient. Perhaps start working on any book chapters you have not yet written, or dive into some research for the book.
- If the acquisitions editor or board have questions, your agent will answer those questions, possibly turning to you to see if you are flexible about an alternative vision or change suggested by a publisher, such as a more (or less) niche audience.
- Once a publishing house makes an offer on your book, the agent will let other editors know and do their best to get additional offers at the same time, so that you can choose among several offers. If that happens, it’s called an “auction.”
- Your agent will negotiate your contract, including advance, terms, foreign rights and other aspects.
- If you have concerns, your agent can take those to the publisher. For instance, if you don’t like the cover designs, your agent can advocate for a different design.
How Often Can I Expect to Hear from My Literary Agent?
I know one literary agent who doesn’t meet her authors in person until she’s sold their book. Agents are swamped and any time spent socializing is time not spent on landing and negotiating a publishing deal.
Once an agent submits your proposal to publishers, you may not hear back until they have an offer. Other agents send every “pass” (by email) with any feedback the publisher gave for passing. Don’t expect, however, to be on the phone with your agent for frequent calls. They are especially busy and want to use their time developing relationships with acquisitions editors and selling the books they’ve taken on.
In addition to refining your concept, your agent may request that you do more platform building before they send out your proposal. This could include social media, PR, getting endorsements in hand, getting a commitment from a foreword writer, getting commitments for bulk sales, and more.
You want to know ahead of time if the agent will delay pitching until you meet certain requirements. Before you sign with a literary agent, ask whether they are happy with your platform as is or whether there is more they will want you to do before they pitch to publishers. If more, get specifics, so you are on the same page.
While you certainly can get a literary agent with a well written, well-researched query letter to the right agent, you can improve your chances by meeting agents in person. Not only will that in person meeting help them get a sense of you, but even if they don’t take you on, they may provide valuable feedback about what they see as the weaknesses in your pitch, ideas for how to improve it, and or even saying that while they are not a match, they have a suggestion for an agent who might be a strong match.
For this reason, I encourage you to go to writers conferences where you have a good chance of meeting appropriate agents. The International Women’s Writing Guild offers a “Meet the Agents” panel and pitch session twice a year in New York. The San Francisco Writers Conference has a large number of agents each year and many opportunities to meet and pitch them. Just do your homework and research the agents attending, so you know whom to speak with and can even mention books they’ve represented that relate to yours.
You can also attend more niche conferences, such as Harvard Medical School’s CME writing and publishing course, Writing, Publishing, and Social Media for Healthcare Professionals, which is coming up June 20, 2019. There, you will meet literary agents specifically looking for books about health, wellness, medicine and related fields. In addition, you can speak to any of the faculty—agents, publishers, editors and book coaches (including me)—and get feedback on your book idea, platform and more. So, more than just pitching agents, you can get valuable input from agents and other publishing professionals on one or more book ideas. Plus, there is also an opportunity to learn to refine your book pitch, pitch your book to a panel of professionals and get feedback on your pitch.
Perhaps I’ll see you there! Share your questions about meeting, pitching and working with a literary agent as a comment below.