by Joelle Steele

Writing Logo

Do you need a literary agent? Most writers don't. There are plenty of reputable and competent publishers out there who will happily receive and review your query letters and manuscripts. But, if you think you're ready for the big publishing houses that only review agented material, you will have to find someone to represent you and your work.

Literary agents are essentially book marketers who network within the publishing industry and keep track of who is buying what type of manuscript at any given time. They submit your manuscript to suitable publishers on your behalf. Once a publisher expresses an interest in your work, the agent will negotiate the contract on your behalf, trying also to get you the best advance possible. Once your book is published, the literary agent continues to handle all business aspects related to your book, including the disbursement of royalties.

When it comes to finding and selecting a literary agent to contact, you will find that they come in all shapes and sizes. Some may be attorneys, some are editors or former editors, and others are simply salespeople. A literary agent can be a one-person operation, or they can be part of a full-scale agency with other agents and many employees. You can find them almost anywhere: in the "Writer's Market," the "Literary Marketplace," the Yellow Pages, on the Internet, and through the Association of Author Representatives (AAR).

No matter where you find an agent or who refers you to one, never assume that an agent is who or what they say they are. You must do your research and ask a lot of questions to find out if they are legitimate and if they might be the right agent for your manuscript. Ask if they handle the type of manuscript you have written. Ask what they've sold, when, to whom, and who their authors are. Ask them how many publishers they submit to on your behalf and who those publishers are. Ask them how soon they follow up with those publishers once they have submitted your manuscript. Last but not least, ask to see a sample of their contract so that you can take your time reviewing it and having it reviewed by an attorney of your choice.

But before you even begin the search for an agent, be sure that what you have to sell — your manuscript — is truly ready for publication. Start by writing your own book proposal. The research you do in the process will help you establish in your own mind what the market is for your work. Many writers are also surprised at the number of flaws they find in their work when they start to write the proposal. That's why it's often a good idea to write the book proposal before you write the manuscript! And be sure your work is thoroughly edited and proofed.

As for trusting a literary agent, remember, if someone takes advantage of you, it is largely because you were not paying attention. A literary agent works for you, but that does not absolve you of supervising what they are doing and where the money is going. It is entirely your responsibility to regularly obtain and review any and all records that pertain to your books in print. Likewise, you must always keep track of what your agent is doing for you with your published books and any manuscripts they are currently marketing. My very favorite advice in this and all other things is "caveat emptor" — buyer beware! You can't go wrong if you take care of business.

This article last updated: 06/21/2006.