What Exactly Does A Literary Agent Do?

What exactly does a literary agent do?
© Salima Alikhan 2020

For those new to publishing or completely outside the industry, this seems to be the eternal question. People are constantly asking me “What is a literary agent?”, “What do they do?”, and my personal favorite, “Why on earth would someone want to do that?”

We don’t try to hide what we do. In fact, most agents I know would happily chat about our jobs and our clients with anyone who asks.  But then you have people like my well-intentioned father who tells everyone that I’m “a book editor.” I’ve tried to correct him, but the whole “you edit but you’re not an editor?” thing doesn’t seem to make a ton of sense to him… but I digress.

 

So what exactly is an agent?

What Is A Literary Agent
An agent is someone who has, in all probability, interned without pay for years in order to get their title. I can’t speak for everyone in the industry but my particular path took four years of intern work before achieving “agent” status.

Once an agent has their title, they’re faced with a growing (unpaid) workload and a stigma against “young” or “new” agents who don’t have multiple sales on their resume. Still, some brave authors are willing to take a chance on the fire and drive behind new agents who are eager to prove themselves in this industry. These authors give the young agent a big boost and they can break into the publishing world together.

Agents, new and established, deal with rejection, backlash, uncertainty and artistic woes throughout their careers. They’re bookish connectors who love being integral to the publication process, but are also completely content to stay out of the spotlight so their authors can shine that much brighter. 

 

What does an agent do?

On a very basic level, agents represent authors to publishing houses. We ensure that our clients are getting treated fairly through contract negotiation and acting as a go between with the author and the publishing house on any issues. Here is a short list of what an agent does for their clients…

  • Editorial Support (not all agents are editorial)
  • Bring network and industry knowledge into targeting the best places to pitch a manuscript
  • Pitch manuscripts to publishing houses
  • Help evaluate any feedback
  • Help navigate offers and auctions
  • Contract negotiation
  • Ensure you get paid
  • Help build their authors’ careers

  • Editorial Support (not all agents are editorial)
  • Bring network and industry knowledge into targeting the best places to pitch a manuscript
  • Pitch manuscripts to publishing houses
  • Help evaluate any feedback
  • Help navigate offers and auctions
  • Contract negotiation
  • Ensure you get paid
  • Help build their authors’ careers

Why would anyone want to do that?

True, we’re working without pay and no guarantee of a paycheck in the future, although we do take commissions on our sales. We deal with really angry authors on occasion. We have an endless to-do list and are constantly getting nudged about when we’re going to complete a specific task. We are working against burnout and imposter syndrome and did I mention the no guaranteed pay?

With that said, sometimes I ask myself the same question. Why do I put myself through this?

 

Two words: My Clients. 

 

It never fails, when I’m having a bad day or I’ve finally found some free time only to discover that I can’t, for the life of me, remember what I used to do with this free time concept, one of my authors messages or emails just being their wonderful selves and my motivation is renewed.

These wonderful people and their incredible stories are so amazing and I’m so grateful to be part of bringing their stories to the world. I’ve found a job where I can get excited about stories, help to polish those stories and then share those stories with the world. Not to mention, I can be part of making these wonderful peoples’ dreams come true and I can’t imagine anything more rewarding.

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