If you’ve written a book, or are in the process of writing one, you may have thought about whether to find a literary agent to help you get your book published. On the December SkillBites Show, we spoke to Gabrielle Sellei, an attorney who represents authors and literary agents. As Gabrielle explained, literary agents play a valuable role. They serve as matchmakers between authors and publishers. Many publishers will not even consider a book unless a literary agent brings the book to them. In addition, literary agents understand which publishers to approach and can help negotiate a contract between the publisher and author.

Literary agents typically work on a commission only basis, so you don’t have to pay your agent anything to shop your book for you. The standard commission is 15% of what the author gets paid by the publisher (including 15% of any advance). So if the author receives a 15% royalty from the publisher, the literary agent would receive 15% of the 15%; in that case, for every dollar earned from the sale of the book, the publisher would keep 85¢, the author would get 12.75¢, and the literary agent would get 2.25¢. The publisher pays the author’s royalty and advance to the literary agent, who takes out her share and passes the remainder to the author. Publishers generally make royalty payments twice a year.

For fiction writers who are looking for a traditional publisher, literary agents are almost essential. For non-fiction books, certain niche areas such as romance novels, or if an author is pursuing a small publishing house, the author may not need a literary agent. And if an author wants to self-publish, then there’s no need for a literary agent.

The primary advantages of getting a traditional publisher are the distribution channels they offer, the services they provide to get a book published (such as editing, layout and cover design), and the prestige of having the traditional publisher’s name in the book. The drawbacks, however, are that it takes a lot of time to get a traditional publisher to accept a book, it takes much longer before the book comes out, and the royalty for the author is much smaller. Traditional publishers are hesitant about taking on books from new authors because they want assurance that they will receive a return on their investment. In order to maximize an author’s chances of capturing an agent’s (or a publisher’s) attention, a book must be really good, and/or the author must have a huge following and a strong platform (blog, social media presence, podcast), and/or the author must have a compelling marketing plan for selling thousands of copies of the book. 

In contrast, when an author self-publishes, the author can get the book out quicker and keep 100% of the sales proceeds (after Amazon or other publishing site takes its share). The author, however, has to spend his or her valuable time to find an editor, book layout person and cover designer, figure out how to get the book on Amazon and other book sellers, and pay for any services outsourced to others. A third alternative is to use publishers such as SkillBites, who can do all of the post-manuscript work and get the book on Amazon, saving the author from hours of work and frustration, so the author can do what the author does best. The book will come out quicker than the author could do themselves and likely be higher quality as well. The author pays a fee for the services needed and receives a large portion of the book sale proceeds. 

If an author does want to pursue the traditional publishing route and utilize a literary agent, one way to find a suitable agent is to look at the Acknowledgement section of books in the same genre as the author’s book. Often the literary agent will be listed there. Another source is to join publishersmarketplace.com and search for a literary agent on that site. Literary agents look for the same credentials as publishers. They don’t want to spend their time shopping for a publisher unless they feel the book is likely to be picked up by a publisher. Not only can it take time to get a publisher to accept a book, it can take time to get a literary agent to accept the role for a book as well.

If an agent is willing to accept a book, the author should make sure the agent is well-versed in the market for books of that genre, and genuinely likes the book. Some questions to ask would include:

  • What other books the agent has handled in the genre;
  • What publishing houses would the agent recommend submitting the manuscript to;
  • What excited the agent about the book; and
  • What advice does the agent have to best position the book.

Finally, if there is a good match between an author and literary agent, it is important to enter into a written agreement. Some literary agents wait to enter into a written agreement until after a publisher has accepted a book for publication; and if this is the case, the author should at least document the key terms of the verbal agreement in an email.

The literary agent will want a representation from the author that the work is original and doesn’t infringe anyone else’s copyright interest. The agent often asks for a right of first refusal on any subsequent book and any subsidiary rights (such as film, TV and foreign translations). From the author’s perspective, the author should make sure the literary agent has the capacity to exploit the subsidiary rights before granting those. Also, the author should include a provision in the agreement entitling the author to terminate the agency relationship if (a) the particular agent leaves the agency, so the author can continue to work with the agent in question; or (b) the work is not sold after a certain period of time; or (c) the relationship falls apart. Authors should appreciate that getting a second agent after terminating an agency agreement will be much harder, as other agents will be reluctant to work with an author who has terminated another agent after a book has already been shopped around.

To learn more about Gabrielle Sellei, visit her website at selleilaw.com