Literary Agents: Who They Are & What They Do

Literary agents: the gatekeepers of the publishing industry, the first door you knock on, the ones with the connections to get your manuscript published…so, who are they? A good agent is your advocate and champion throughout the publishing process. He or she will help ensure that your manuscript finds a great publisher and that you, the author, are the happiest you can be as you see your dreams of publication fulfilled.


Literary agents were not always a part of the publishing process. In the early days of publishing, actual print houses did all of the legwork for authors who wanted their books to reach public consumption. Even publishing houses didn’t truly exist at that time. Print houses would typeset and print copies of books, but they offered few other services. As publishing grew and expanded, publishers began offering a wider range of editorial services to authors (including, later, services for marketing, publicity, rights, production, etc.). From this boom in the publishing industry, literary agents were born.

The larger the publishing industry became, the greater the demand for someone to join the fray on the authors’ side, someone to protect authors’ interests and advocate for them in in-house discussions with publishers. Agents answered those calls, and so, the literary agency model was born.

Literary Agency Today

Nowadays, literary agents have become a very important part of the publishing world. They are, simply put, authors’ advocates throughout the publishing process. One of a literary agent’s primary roles is to champion his or her author’s book from manuscript to bookstore shelf.

A separate post discusses further how an author goes about finding an agent, but first, we can all benefit from a brief description of what exactly an agent does. It goes without saying that each agent and agency operates differently, but here is a general rundown of the responsibilities of a literary agent:

Authors seek out agents and query them with brief descriptions of their manuscripts and/or pages of what they have written. Agents (and their interns) read the manuscripts, and if the agent sees potential, he or she might offer to represent that author. Once an agent accepts a manuscript for representation, the author signs a contract with that agent stipulating the terms of their agreement. Note: No reputable agent will ever ask you for a “reader’s fee” to look over your manuscript, nor any other form of payment to represent you. Authors do not pay agents for their time or representation.

Once the author signs on to work with an agent, that agent begins the process of polishing the author’s manuscript in preparation for shopping it around to acquisitions editors at various publishing houses. “Polishing the manuscript” can take many forms, including (but not limited to) copyediting, developmental editing, and/or substantive editing. The agent and author collaborate to make the manuscript the best it can be before the agent begins his or her search for a publisher.

When the manuscript is up to snuff in the author’s and agent’s eyes, the agent takes the next step: shopping the manuscript to acquisitions editors at different publishing houses. The agent writes his or her own query for the editors he or she knows have an interest in the type of book the author has written. The editors may then pass on the manuscript or request a sample to read if it sounds interesting to them and like something that will fit with the other books they have acquired for their houses. Largely, this process of shopping the manuscript takes place behind the scenes. The author knows that his or her agent is searching for an editor, but the agent may or may not update the author on how many editors have passed or asked to read more.

Finally, an acquisitions editor at a publishing house offers to buy the manuscript. If multiple editors are interested, this could result in an “auction”—but we’ll talk about that in a future post. The literary agent now converts his or her role from editor to legal representation and negotiates the author’s contract with the publishing house. The agent helps to secure the best possible contractual conditions for his or her author, including the highest advance for the manuscript, the best terms of future royalties, and the best options for foreign and subsidiary rights.

After the contract is signed, the agent begins to make money off of his or her commission. This is usually about 15% of the author’s advance and any future royalties. However, the agent’s role is not over. As the author’s manuscript moves through the publication process—including the publisher’s plans for marketing and publicity, amongst other decisions still to be made—the agent is the author’s champion, handling communication with the publishing house professionals, answering questions, and continuing the relationship he or she has built with the author.

The entire process from querying an agent, to getting signed to be represented, to editing with the agent, to shopping the manuscript, to signing a contract with a publisher, to the day that the author’s book goes on sale, can take years. However, if you have found a great agent, you won’t be in it alone.

A Note on Self-Publishing: Self-publishing has been on the rise for the last decade and has some exciting success stories. If you have self-published and want to go the traditional route later on, I highly recommend finding an agent to represent you through that process. Self-publishing is a valid and growing option for many authors, but this particular blog will focus on traditional publishing and agenting in the majority of its posts. Many resources exist for authors interested in self-publishing, and I encourage you to seek them out if you are interested.


5 thoughts on “Literary Agents: Who They Are & What They Do

    • Emily Neiss says:

      Thank you so much, LV! I’m glad you found value here. I’m excited to hear what you think of next Monday’s post about finding an agent!


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