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How Publishing Agents Increase Your Chances of Success

Publishing agents (commonly known as literary agents) act as intermediaries between author and publisher, much as real estate agents act as intermediaries between buyer and seller. The right agent has current knowledge and powerful contacts.

The agent knows the book market—what editors have bought, what has been successful, and what has flopped. He or she knows which editor prefers a particular kind of story, and what price to ask for the book.

The value of the agent's knowledge and personal connections cannot be underestimated. Editors trust agents to screen out unpublishable work or work that would never interest them, so when a literary agent takes a manuscript to a publisher, it will receive fair consideration. A manuscript sent to the same publisher without representation may never see the editor's desk. Nevertheless, not everyone believes an agent is necessary, particularly in Canada. For a different perspective, see this old but excellent article by author Julie Ferguson.

What You Will Pay an Agent

For his or her expertise, the agent will receive 15 % of whatever you earn. A few agents will charge slightly less, and all will charge more for overseas sales, to compensate for fees they will pay a sub-agent in the foreign market. You will also pay for all expenses incurred on your behalf.

These days, the expenses rarely include telephone calls and photocopying fees, as the agent absorbs these costs as part of general office expenses.

However, you will pay all costs to courier your manuscript to publishers, and once you have a contract, you will pay for review copies of the published book, which the agent will send to foreign publishers in an attempt to sell additional rights.

Out of the 15% fee the agent receives from all clients, he or she must pay all office expenses: rent, utilities, staff wages, office supplies, telephone, Internet, memberships, and subscription fees. In addition, the agent will have substantial travel and entertainment costs as he or she attends book fairs, and visits foreign publishers. Other expenses include the cost of business lunches with a multitude of national and international editors. An agent has to sell a lot of books just to meet expenses.

When You Pay

Successsful, reputable publishing agents do not charge a fee to read your manuscript. Nor do they ask you to pay any expenses up front. Once the agent accepts you as a client, he or she goes to work and any expenses incurred on your behalf, normally only a few hundred dollars, will be deducted from advance money you earn, after the agent sells your manuscript, and after the publisher pays the first advance.

Agents to Avoid

Publishing agents who ask for money or who offer paid services are suspect. Avoid any agent who:
  1. Requires a "reading fee," "marketing fee," or "submission fee." A real agent doesn't have to read your ms. He or she will know in the first few pages if it is possible to sell your work.
  2. Offers to critique your work for a fee. Once an agent signs you, he or she will often go through your ms. and makes suggestions for improvement, at no extra cost to you.
  3. Runs a contest to find writers. Successful literary agents turn down far more people than they sign, and they have no shortage of writers vying for their attention.
  4. Informs you of a publisher willing to publish you, if you pay the "upfront" or "marketing" costs. A real agent earns you money; he or she does not cost you money.

Should You Bypass Publishing Agents and Sell Your Manuscript Yourself?

I am acquainted with two authors who sold books to a major publishing house without the help of a literary agent. Two.

Out of the dozens of authors I know, two author successfuly sold their manuscripts without representation to receive an advance of several thousand dollars. I also know many other writers who have successfully sold their manuscripts to legitimate small presses without the assistance of an agent. These authors received advances ranging from $300 to $1500. After expenses, some of them earned nothing but the satisfaction of a book published.

What You Will Earn

The earning potential of a manuscript cannot be determined until its time has passed. Everyone has heard of a first time novelist who received a six figure advance. That is news mostly because it's such a rare occurrence. For a first novel, a good agent will likely get you an advance in the low five figures. If you are very fortunate, the literary agent may be able to interest more than one publisher, and one of them will bid the price up to the mid five figures. This will normally be for rights in your country of origin. After that, the agent will attempt to sell the rights to other countries, which will raise your income substantially.

Other articles about agents:

Finding a Literary Agent

When you may NOT need a book publishing agent

Literary Agents, Part I

Literary Agents, Part II

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