Literary agents: what do they do?
Literary agents act as authors’ representatives in relation to their written work. They may represent a wide range of writers including writers of both adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction, poetry, as well as screen writers and writers of scripts for TV, theatre and radio. Some agencies specialise in representing particular types of writers.
Agents sell “projects” to publishers of books and producers of radio, television and film. They may start with a preliminary telephone call, followed by sending a short written proposal for non-fiction books or a treatment for a screenplay. They may send the first few chapters for fiction books and in other cases will send the entire manuscript for consideration if the publisher or producer has shown interest in the work.
If the agent is successful in placing the work or if the writer has come to the agent with an interested publisher or producer, the agent will negotiate terms for contracts that are offered. The agent should explain the main features (e.g. copyright, territories, royalty arrangements, subsidiary rights) of the contract to the writer, suggest changes to contracts if any are thought appropriate and then negotiate on the writer’s behalf based on the writer’s instructions.
Why should you use an agent?
It can be helpful to use an agent for a number of reasons. Some publishers will not look at material unless it is submitted through an agent. Agents have an understanding of the different publishers’ and producers’ range of activities and interests and will be able to direct proposals to the most suitable people and in the most professional, enticing and efficient manner. Some publishers and producers are more likely to seriously consider proposals submitted through agents as they value the opinion of the agent. However, it must be remembered that at the end of the day it is the written work that will sell itself. If it is not good enough and if it is not what the publisher or producer is looking for at the time, no amount of networking and good salesmanship will sell it. Finally and perhaps most importantly, an agent should have a good knowledge of writers’ contracts and excellent negotiating skills and make sure that the writer’s financial and legal interests are protected.
How should you approach an agent?
In order for an agent to decide whether they are interested in considering representing a writer they may prefer to receive a brief written description of the work/s the writer wants to sell (including length, genre, target audience, short synopsis) and some background information about the author. Some agents may prefer a telephone enquiry. It is not a good idea to send long unsolicited manuscripts. If a written response is required, and the writer wants to receive back any material that has been submitted, a stamped, self addressed envelope should accompany the enquiry.
What fees do agents charge?
Agents’ fees vary from agency to agency but a commission of around 15% on the earnings of the client for contracts that they negotiate is normal. Agents will usually add an “Agency Clause” to contracts that they negotiate, requiring that money owing to the writer under the agreement will be paid to the writer’s agent on their behalf. When payments are to be made the agent passes on the royalties or fees to the writer, minus the commission.