What Work Doesn’t Require an Agent? What Work Does?
Please note that literary agents only work with long stories, no agent concentrates on short stories, poetry, articles, or essays. Anyone claiming they do is misleading you. Unless it’s written by a famous author there’s simply no money to be made by representing anything but long literature.
Publishers publish more non-fiction than fiction. If your work is non-fiction (memoir, war stories, etc.) you can usually submit un-agented. Due to the demand even big commercial publishers have accepted un-agented non-fiction, provided that the author has formatted the manuscript correctly. So follow the publishing house guidelines before submitting. (Before you commit to going agent free look at the Why Hire an Agent below.)
There are companies in the publishing industry where literary agents aren’t part of the publishing process, such as niche or specialty publication, regional publication, most small presses, and self-publishing. These companies accept your free submissions but don’t expect any responses for about a year or so. Do NOT get disheartened or chose to self-publish after a short time, I’m friends with an author who chose self-publishing just a month before the publishing house responded. She lost a contract and the chance to commercially sell her romance novel. Romance novels are the other genre of high demand, so authors can consider submitting un-agented work there too.
Why Hire an Agent?
Did you know J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript went through eleven publishing houses before it was seriously considered? One of the reasons it took so long was lack of literary representation.
A literary agent’s job is to match your work to the right publisher/editor. Each year the publishing houses fill their shelves with different genre markets, such as fantasy, medieval fantasy, urban fantasy, YA (Young Adult) fantasy, and MG (Middle Grade) fantasy. Depending on the size of the publishing company these market shelves will diverse further into more age groups, topics, themes, and motifs. A good literary agent has professional relationships with different companies and knows which company needs specific manuscripts, such as yours, to fill their shelves. The agent presents your work to their editor friend, cutting the waiting time for responses in half.
Just like every publishing house, a literary agent has their own tastes or preferences. Some prefer historical fiction over fantasy fiction, others prefer children’s books. Please refer to my post Finding a Suitable Literary Agent for further information about finding agents an choosing one for your submissions.
Literary agents take a twelve to fifteen percent commission from the sale of your book, but it’s for more than matching your work to a publisher. Agents will help writers make professional manuscripts that seem marketable to the Editorial Board and the Publishing Board, which results in the size of your profit. After that they explain the publishing contract terms, and have the ability to negotiate what rights you can keep and what rights you’re willing to part with. These rights can be sold at future dates to other companies, so it’s important to keep as many as you can. (Famous first time authors, like J.K. Rowling, often mistakenly sell movie rights to the publishing house.) Other things they negotiate include royalties and profits for the writer. Literary agents often help the author find future publishing deals as well, so it’s important to develop a camaraderie with your agent!
Literary agents work like real estate agents, they won’t charge you anything until they have a commission. Once an agent sells a manuscript to the publishing company, they receive their commission of 12-15% (this varies) off the writer’s advance royalties. Advance royalties is the payment the publishing house settles on between you and your agent, accounting for however many books may be sold before you see another paycheck. Sometimes it’s called an advance against royalties; if the amount settled is 500,000 copies than the author won’t receive another paycheck until 500,000 copies have been distributed and purchased. Royalties are never the full amount the book is sold at, costs like manufacturing, distributing, advertising, and others are taken out first. Literary agents receive a commission again on any further royalties you earn, so contracts with agents and publishing companies sort of act like a double edged blade. Standard commission these days for domestic sales is 15%, and 20-25% is standard for foreign sales, because the commission is frequently split between domestic and foreign agents.
For more about Literary Agents and where to find them, read my post Finding a Suitable Literary Agent.