by Julie H. Ferguson

Literary agents.

"You must get an agent!" is advice that inquiring writers hear and read everywhere. Is it really true?

Our publishing statistics in Canada demonstrate that it is simply a misconception caused by American influence. In Canada, only ten percent of books are agented. Aspiring and established authors here successfully submit the majority (10,000) of the titles published every year directly to editors. US writers face more worrying odds— 80% of all books published there are agented.

How do you know if you need an agent?

Well, try the following questions:

  • Do I want my book published in the States as well as Canada?
  • Is my book international in scope?
  • Is it likely to sell tens of thousands of copies?
  • Is the topic of interest to almost everyone?

If all your answers are yes, you probably need an agent to break into one of the eight publishing conglomerates in the US, which work solely through literary agencies. In Canada, no, but you could benefit from one.

If your book is more modest, the chances of attracting representation are slim indeed and they are even slimmer if you are unpublished. The reason is the bottom line. Agents are paid out of the author's advance and royalty payments. The math tells the story:

  • An author makes 10% on each book sold;
  • On 4000 copies sold at $25.00/copy, the author earns $10,000.00. (4000 copies is the minimum for a Canadian bestseller);
  • With a commission of 15%, an agent would earn $1500.00 on 4000 copies.

An agent spends about $1000.00 to market the work of a first time author and typically takes a year or more to sell it and receive the commission from the first advance payment.

Writers must remember that first books usually sell considerably less than 4000 copies in Canada and only one in four earns out its advance.

For example, my book, Through a Canadian Periscope (Dundurn 1995), had a print run of only 3000 and was considered a success here, but no agent would have been interested because it didn't earn enough. The figures, of course, get better for the agent as the sales go up. At 10,000 copies, an agent would earn $3750.00; at 50,000 copies, $18,750.00. But in Canada sales of 50,000 are the exception and very unlikely for a first time author....

If you truly believe you have the next blockbuster, you'll need an agent. S/he will help an author to prepare an outstanding proposal or synopsis and even improve your manuscript.

A good agent exposes your work to all the right editors at all the right houses and increases the chances of gaining its acceptance because the publishers know and trust their judgement. After receiving the offer to publish, an agent negotiates the contract for you and can often achieve better terms than a fledgling author can ever hope to do. S/he will also sell subsidiary rights, if they have been retained, after the book is sold.

Where do Canadians find a literary agent?

The Canadian Writer's Guide (available in any library) lists twenty-four agencies in this country, four of which handle only screenplays and scripts, and one, just translations. Most have connections to American publishing houses. If you are seeking to publish your book in the States, there are hundreds of agencies to choose from and the best listing is to be found in Jeff Herman's Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents (Prima Publishing, 1997).

Writers submit to literary agents in the same way as they do to editors—with a sales pitch, which is called a query letter, and a SASE.

You may send out several letters at the same time, as long as you inform the agents that you have done so. If an agent offers to represent you, try and meet face to face. Make sure you find out what he has sold and who's on his client list. Get permission to talk to a few of his authors. Ask if he attends national and international book fairs and what his connections are in the publishing industry.

The rest of us writing books of lesser stature or regional interest have to become our own literary agents. Knowledge is power, so get out and take courses that will teach you how and where to market your work and how to write your own query letters, non-fiction proposals and fiction synopses. Learn what clauses publishing contracts contain and how to negotiate them and, last of all, develop the skills to promote your book to increase sales. Remember, in Canada the odds remain in your favour without an agent.

© 2000 Julie H. Ferguson

Freelance writer and author of two non-fiction books, Vancouver-based Julie Ferguson leads workshops that provide aspiring authors with the knowledge and confidence to approach publishers with their work. For more information contact Beacon Literary Services at

More about Literary Agents ~ Pearl Luke

Sometimes I'm asked if it is possible to bypass a literary agent by using a contract lawyer instead.  I can think of only three reasons why you might want to.

  1. If you have had significant success and high sales volume, you will likely have your own contact with a publisher. You may choose to sell this publisher world rights, rather than rights to a single country. In that case, you won't need a book publishing agent to secure foreign rights. You could have a lawyer negotiate a contract based on past and projected sales.  

  2. If you choose to publish with a small press, you may need the services of a literary contract lawyer. Any advance you're offered may be small. Many small presses or print on demand publishers offer only small advances under $500, or no advance at all. 

    Major bookstores may not carry their books, which can limit sales. This may change, as more sales are made on the Internet, through Amazon, Kindle, and Apple. However, be aware that if you choose a small press, and many will work hard to promote your book, most agents won't want to represent you. There is no money in it for them with such a small advance. At least not until after you have five-figure sales. 

  3. Finally, if you write genre fiction, you may want to employ a contract lawyer. Genre only publishers—publishers of mystery, sci-fi, romance, etc.—such as Harlequin and Avalon, still encourage writers to approach them directly and welcome queries from authors. 

This isn't true of mainstream publishers, who seldom look at unsolicited manuscripts. They rely instead on the recommendations of trusted agents and literary scouts to bring them only the most remarkable work.

The relationship between agents and authors exists because of supply and demand. Millions of writers want to publish, all of them vying for the attention of far fewer literary agents, and even fewer publishers. This puts agents in a position of power, able to pick and choose their "employers."

Any decision to bypass an agent and hire a contract lawyer is only possible once a publisher has expressed interest in your manuscript.

When you have a publishable manuscript, and have sent it to many agents with no luck, the next best course of action is to attend conferences. 

So, in most cases, you won't need or want to use a contract lawyer. If you're fortunate enough to find a publisher before you find representation with an agent, then you can weigh the costs and benefits of choosing a lawyer over an agent, but in most cases, you will want the services of a good agent.

In the end, most writers would rather secure an agent than bypass one. 

Meet Agents At Conferences

Conferences provide the best possible chance of meeting an agent because most have "pitching sessions." You usually apply for these sessions beforehand and if you're accepted, you will meet briefly with an agent to pitch your finished manuscript.

If the manuscript isn't yet ready to publish, there's a good chance the agents you meet will tell you. They may even provide some tips on how to get it ready.

Even if you're not successful pitching your manuscript, at  conferences you'll get current information from the publishing world and you'll make good contacts that may help you later.

If you're in the market for a guide to literary agents, Chuck Sambuchino has a good US based book that I recommend, with over 500 agents listed. In addition, he keeps it updated with supplementary blog posts and even a free newsletter. 

Poets & Writers has another good guide to literary agents, available as an ebook or free download. For a list of Canadian agents, see Finding a Literary Agent on this site. 

You can do a lot with a name. It wasn't always easy to gain access to information about literary agents, but these days, once you have a name, a Google search will turn up the agent's website, Twitter and Facebook posts, news articles, and even articles published by the agent about the business.

From all of these, you will learn quite a lot. Is the literary agent respectful of others, or contemptuous? Does the agent have a positive attitude about change, or does he or she sound mired in the past? Is there evidence of discontent or litigation concerning the agent and/or his or her practices? Who does the agent represent? Which deals have been mentioned in the press? 

The literary agent's website will tell you what he or she wants you to know. The press surrounding the agent will tell you as much or more.

A good agent has spent years with print. He or she will need to read only a small portion of your writing to know whether or not the book is of interest. Sometimes a query letter sounds promising, but the manuscript is not a good fit. That is disappointing, but nothing to get upset over.

Literary agent Rachel Gardner, uses a clothing analogy to explain the process: 

When shopping for clothes, I can browse through racks fairly quickly. "No, no, no, no... " My eyes and hands can take in copious detailed information about each item of clothing. Color, style, size, texture, pattern, fabric... so many things register in my brain in a millisecond. I instantly reject the ones that clearly aren't what I'm looking for - they don't suit the occasion I'm shopping for, or they're not "me" for whatever reason. Occasionally I stop at something. "Hmm. Maybe." I grab that item to take to the fitting room and try on. 

This is one of the best analogies I've heard. Assuming that you have consulted with a professional and know that your query letter and synopsis are all they should be, don't worry if your work doesn't suit several agents.

Go back to your list of  literary agents, create a new one if you have to, and carry on. As with everything else in this business persistence is key.

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