Burning Questions About Book Publishing: Literary Agents, Part One

By Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those who submitted questions for me to answer about book publishing at the Get Lit Salon on May 20th. There was one common theme – agents! At my day job, I regularly work with literary agents, so I’m excited to offer insight into the work that these publishing professionals do.

To keep this post short, I will break the column into two parts with the second part posting in late June.

PART ONE

Do I need an agent?
If you want to traditionally publish your book, it is in your best interest to find good representation. Many publishing houses are closed houses, which means that the acquiring editors are only able to evaluate projects submitted via an agent. Some smaller houses accept unsolicited (unagented) projects, though policies are shifting all the time. Thankfully, many publishers share their submission policies online.

This book is a great resource for learning more about agents.

What makes a good agent?
A good literary agent is a business partner. A good agent considers you a long-term client and will invest in your career. Some agents help you edit and refine your work, polishing it for submission. A good agent writes a great pitch for your project and then, using their network of editors, curates a list of editors to submit and who they think will be a good fit for your book. The commission an agent receives – generally 15% of the advance, royalties, and subsidiary rights deals – is well worth it.

A good agent tailors their strategy to your project’s needs. For example, a good agent will be able to evaluate which publishing house and what size house might best support your work. Not all houses publish every book the same way, and a good agent will help you navigate that terrain. Sometimes a regional publisher or small press is best for your work, and a good agent will know that.

A good agent negotiates the best terms for your (complicated) book contract including the basics: advance, royalties, territory, and subsidiary rights. The guest speaker for the Get Lit May salon, Diane Lapis, spoke about how her agent was able to push for better terms for her book, Cocktails Across America.

A good agent knows the ins-and-outs of the business of publishing, and advocates for you with your editor when it comes to things like marketing, publicity, distribution channels, and more. A good agent knows how to manage pie-in-the-sky dreams while being realistic with you about how your project fits into the overall literary landscape.

Stay tuned for part two of this post, which will address: How do I find an agent who is right for me? When should I submit a query to an agent?