What a Literary Agent Really Does

Nov 25, 2014
Photo courtesy Ivy Dawned, Flickr Commons

When we became literary agents, an inquisitive child we know asked if we’d have to start wearing hats. It took us a while to realize why he was asking that question. In many of the cartoons he’d watched, agents have a specific role: they are secret agents — mysterious people wearing fedoras and trench coats, whose briefcases contain intelligence that can crack open big cases and change the world.

Without disappointing our young friend, we had to set the record straight. We sometimes wear trench coats but no fedoras. And we don’t crack open cases. But we do support authors whose books change the world, and in our opinion, nothing could be more thrilling than that. Our friend isn’t alone in his confusion about what literary agents do. We often get asked to explain what role an agent plays in the publishing process. We wear many symbolic hats. We act as consultants in the non-traditional and self-publishing world, but we act as literary agents when we broker book deals with publishers, and that process is multifaceted. Here is a snapshot of the kind of work we do when we take on agency clients:

We help shape a book’s concept and prepare the proposal

Sometimes an author will come to us with a fully formed book concept and an accompanying proposal, but that’s rare. In most cases, the author has done a lot of writing and thinking about the book, but it won’t be ready for a publisher pitch. That’s where we come in. We’ll discuss the concept with the author, helping her determine the book’s outline, its central themes, and its marketing hook. We’ll then help her draft a proposal and review the document to ensure that it’s ready for pitching to publishers. This process can take months of intensive work for both parties, but it can produce an effective pitch that can result in a successful deal.

We pitch the book and find a publisher

When the proposal is ready to go, we’ll then draw from our list of publishing contacts to prepare a pitch plan. We’ll select the acquiring editors who are most likely to be interested in the author’s work, and we’ll submit the proposal to them, along with a personalized covering letter. We then follow up and manage the editors’ responses, evaluating offers when they come in and negotiating with the publishers to ensure the book deal is as good as it can be.

We advocate on the author’s behalf

Agenting isn’t just about pitching books and brokering deals. The agent acts as the author’s advocate throughout his entire publishing journey. Whenever the author has questions or concerns about the process, he turns to his agent. If he needs support in navigating his relationship with publishers or other industry professionals, his agent can help. When he’s ready to dream up ideas about future books, the agent is often his first point of contact. It’s a business arrangement, but in the best possible circumstances, it’s also a literary meeting of minds in which the author and agent can work together to make the most of an author’s career. We feel fortunate to wear many hats when it comes to providing professional publishing support. Let us know how we can help you on your publishing path.