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Writing and Publishing > Literary Agents; Help or hinder?

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message 1: by A.D. (new)

A.D. It seems to me that Literary agents are too often an extention of the publishing houses and not an agent of the writer.
Once publishing houses looked at manuscripts in-house and now they use interns and literary agents and publishing advisors to sheild them from having to read what they publish.
I understand they recieve thousands of manuscripts and that the bean counters have more of the say than any editor, but do literary agents help or hinder?

Kjersti but you can call me Captain | 32 comments Please, for those of us who have not been blessed enough to be published (yet), enlighten us on what literary agents are.

Woefully Ignorant,

message 3: by Marc (new)

Marc (authorguy) | 97 comments A literary agent is a person who is supposed to represent the author to a publisher. They are often used as the first line of defense by the big publishers, who only accept manuscripts from agents, not from authors directly. An agent signs with the author, who pays him a percentage of the royalties from the book the agent represents, so the agent makes more money if he can get a better contract for the book. THe agent reads the books first and decides for himself whether to take it or not. If he does, he contracts with the author and then starts to shop the book around to the publishers with whom he has contacts. This is the shorthand version and leaves out all the downside details: query letters, etc. Jennifer Jackson, an agent with the Maass agency, has a regular blog theme she calls Letters from the Query Wars, usually comes out on Friday. Most agents have blogs, often going on about what they're looking for, as well as what they actually get.

message 4: by GW (new)

GW Pickle (gwpickle) | 22 comments AD asks "Do literary agents help or hinder?"
First of all you have to realize how much an author actually makes per book. The usual persentage is say 10% - 40% wholesale, that breaks down to about to about .50 - $2.00 a book (before agent fees).
So you need to sell a lot of books to make money. An agent will get a percentage of your royalities. The publisher usually sends your royality check to your agent, who sends it along to you minus their cut. Lets say you sell ten books in a reporting peroid. You recieve $1.00 a book (I'm being generous). XYZ publishing sends a $10.00 check to BAC agency, who sends you a check for $8.00. This means that your book made 8 buck over the last 3 months. Now you say that your agent got your book signed with a "big" publisher and that without the agent you might not have gotten as good a deal.
If you did the leg work yourself and got your book published with CBS publishing at say $.85 a book and you sell 10 books in a reporting peroid. You get a check directly from your publisher for $8.50. So where is the better deal? You have to ask yourself, is my time better spent shoping my book around or working on my next project. If you feel you can't deal with the selling process then by all means go the agent route. The long and short of it is unless you sell a lot of books no one makes much money. more later
G W Pickle

message 5: by M.C. (new)

M.C. | 24 comments Respected* literary agents have access to editors at the five major houses, where most** imprints are closed to unsolicited submissions. This means an agent is absolutely necessary for a multiple book deal with a substantial advance and (the very important) backing of marketing representatives who not only promote the book to booksellers but have dibs on prime shelving at brick and mortar stores.

* There are literary agents that editors avoid due to unsavory standards and ethics. A current listing is available at Preditors and Editors.

** Some imprints will accept an unsolicted YA ms and one house holds a YA contest yearly for a contract.

message 6: by A.D. (new)

A.D. Thanks for the tip about Preditors and editors. But what is "YA" represent?

message 7: by Leslie Ann (last edited Oct 21, 2008 10:12AM) (new)

Leslie Ann (leslieann) | 48 comments "YA" means 'Young Adult' and refers to a specific target audience encompassing the teen to early 20's demographic; however, a LOT of people older than that routinely read YA fiction, which can be every bit as compelling as non-YA fiction. The Harry Potter books are a perfect example.

Leslie Ann Moore

Griffin's Daughter

message 8: by Sandy (last edited Oct 21, 2008 12:12PM) (new)

Sandy (sandynathan) | 5 comments Great discussion! I think of literary agents sort of like real estate agents. I would never buy a piece of property without a Realtor. I did it once––which resulted in the only law suit in which I've been involved. Now I always use a Realtor.

Literary agents are probably the same. I had one once.


Getting an agent is hard. You have to write queries and do research and have a platform (Why you were the person to write the book and why anyone would want to buy it.Colin Powell has a platform, for instance.). You also need a really good, professionally edited book that you could hand to your sophomore English teacher for word by word dissection and get an A+ when it came back.

Getting an agent on the front end––where you convince them to pick you over the thousands of others by the power of your written word––is hard. Many of them are English and literature majors and are real sticklers about writing quality and punctuation.

On the other side, the business side, I wonder how good they are at negotiation? This is a skill requiring lots of practice and schooling. There's also a conflict of interest.

Read Freakonomics, by Stephen Levine. In the part about the interests of real estate agents vs. the interests of sellers of property, you'll see the two actors' incentives are different and opposed. I expect this applies with literary agents as well.

People are so awed if they get in sight of one that they don't ask: Hey, can you negotiate worth beans? Ask this question when you next pitch to an agent at that writing conference. You may lose the agent, but you may save yourself grief when your book sells.

Get an agent who knows the business side or comes from a large agency where they've got a negotiator to do the sale. And have your attorney look at the contract.

It's true: You need an agent if you want to appear in bookstores in a large way or if you want be on the New York Times Bestseller lists. Period.

But will your book be your own? If you sell your book to a publisher through an agent (or by yourself), the publisher can demand that you rewrite it to suit their standards, change the title, put a cover you don't like on it. They own the book.

For this reason, many authors who could be agented stick with small presses where they have more control. Some start their own presses. With your own press, you have absolute control, including the right to put out terrible books that no one would buy and work for nothing, twenty four hours a day.

The own your own press and the self publishing routes require you to set the publication standards of your work.

Bottom line: If you want to make money, be a brain surgeon. A venture capitalist. Corporate attorney. They make money. Writers scratch.

And now, for a total change of pace, I just put up a new piece on my blog about the importance of winning. It's written about winning in horse shows, as applied to writers and others. Read and laugh and weep. You may see yourself. Here's a link:
WHAT DOES WINNING MEAN? Lots of photos from our ranch and the shows.


message 9: by M.C. (new)

M.C. | 24 comments Regarding publishing houses vs small presses and author 'control'; in my experience there is no difference.

Independant pubs also contract for satisfactory edit and possible title change. Further, no editor anywhere will ever demand a complete revision. If a concept is of interest, they will suggest major changes and a resubmission before offering a contract.

Cover input is required but the final product is out of the author's hands.

The marketing department writes a blurb 'creatively' from a synopsis and the result: some details can be incorrect or misleading.

It is difficult acquiring an agent but not on the basis of query letters, research and platform (for literary venacular 'hook' or 'logline' are used) as all are necessary requirements for submission to any press or publisher as well.

A.d., it may be helpful to know that books released with small/indie presses can garner agent interest, depending on sales and genre. Alas, unless a break-through block-buster, a self pubbed book is viewed as a mark against the author.

message 10: by David (new)

David Korinetz Why would a self-published book be seen as a mark against an author?

I can understand that it will not lift an author to 'Published' status, but I do not see how it would actually be a hindrance to future publication by a bona fide publisher. Please explain.

message 11: by Marc (new)

Marc (authorguy) | 97 comments I got my current publisher without a standard query letter, which is fortunate for me, as I can't write a query letter to save my life. For my first novel, the editor made revisions without consulting me, and in some cases, she did ask, I told her no, and she did it anyway. She did the cover art after dismissing my own suggestion, and she did the blurb on her own. She's not there anymore. For my second novel the revisions were much more extensive and carefully thought out, the cover art was based on my ideas and with my approval, and the blurb was written by me. Contracts often give the publisher control of these things, true, but a good publisher will ask the author.

message 12: by Kameron (new)

Kameron (kameronmf) | 3 comments Because agents and publishers often look at past sales performance for an author as a gauge of their marketability. Self-published books (that have an ISBN) have low sales numbers, and thus work against the author in that respect.

message 13: by M.C. (new)

M.C. | 24 comments David, literary agents assume an author would only choose to self-publish when a book could not meet the requirements/guidelines/standards for a publisher. Even though a book might be an incredible tale and perfectly edited, unless there is a buzz with sales reflecting great interest, it is considered an editor's reject.

message 14: by M.C. (new)

M.C. | 24 comments I am rather stunned by your experience Marc, as no reputable publisher would allow an editor to make changes to a manuscript. There is a clause in contracts; Satisfactory Manuscript: Author’s Primary Responsibility. This includes a definition of genre and length. Specified deadline. Manuscript satisfactory to Publisher, with a provision the Author has time to correct. If an editor made changes, it would be a breach of contract and should have been brought to the attention of the publisher or Senior Editor.

A 'good' publisher will allow some input but does not give final approval to an author due to reliance on the expertise of the marketing department.

message 15: by David (new)

David Korinetz To M.C.

I admit that most self-published books tend to suffer from a lack of editing. My own self-published novel could certainly have used another proof reader; an oversight I will address in further publications, but by Editor's reject, you mean like J.K.Rowling's first Harry Potter book? I understand it was rejected by every US publisher she submitted it to.

What I have learned about self-publishing is that the most important thing is to send out review copies 4 months prior to the release date. Not doing that and not hiring an independent proof reader are my only regrets.

message 16: by Marc (new)

Marc (authorguy) | 97 comments My publisher, Karen, was not even aware that the book was under contract until she saw it in the piipeline for formatting to the printer, and by then it was too late. I was not aware that I could have gone to her over the head of the editor, who was also an owner of the company. She was later bought out by Karen, and now the company runs much better.

message 17: by M.C. (new)

M.C. | 24 comments David, if an author chooses to self publish for whatever reason, an agent will assume it is due to multiple rejections. Even though a potential bestseller can be overlooked by editors, just one example is Eragon.

Every aspiring author receives rejections; Steven King has been very open about his experience. JK Rowling less so regarding her first publisher, but I believe you're correct and it was a small Canadian press that offered a contract on the first HP.

It does seem that excellent literary agents are willing to represent only those with proven popularity but at that stage, why would an author require them? As major houses would be clamouring for a book deal, a lawyer with a background in literary contracts would seem a better choice financially.

In the end, it is the responsibility of the author to understand contract clauses and propose amendments, for example, remove rights the publisher is not able to exploit.

If the publisher is not willing to negotiate or respond timely to proviso(s), I will not sign a contract. This year, I have declined 2 for those reasons. Much can be gleaned about a publisher from a contract and it is a reliable means of determining a good fit for an author.

message 18: by David (new)

David Korinetz I spent two years trying to find a publisher for FireDrakes. In all that time I had two offers. I turned them both down because they were POD publishers.

After reading a few books on self-publishing I bit the bullet and printed 1500 books. Marketing proved to be far more difficult than I imagined, but in the first year I sold over 600 copies, recovered my investment, and made more money than I ever would have seen with those other publishers.

It's not for everyone, to be sure, but I plan to Self-publish my second book next year without even bothering to send it out first.

message 19: by M.C. (new)

M.C. | 24 comments Marketing and promotion is the most daunting aspect of being an author, most of us enjoy the solitary work for good reason! It is definitely a learning curve with the first book and although you mentioned some stumbles in prior comments here, it does seem you have a solid plan. Congrats on your achievements, David!

message 20: by Christine (new)

Christine | 10 comments The few queries I did sent out had agents saying they could not spare the time considering their obligation to their authors. Considering they read none of my work and responded within days, is this classed as a rejection of my work or not?
I find it disgusting that agents would see self-published authors as rejects, as there are best selling S.P authors.

Apparently, agents don’t like writers querying many agents at the one time. If it takes 3 months, if not more, for an agent to get back to you, in one year, a writer would send out only 4 queries. Think of how many years a writer could spend searching for that one acceptance.

As others have pointed out, agents and publishers end up with complete control of your work, which the author gets little money in return. Authors have to eat, so I would rather make some money by trying self-publishing than spending all my time being rejected
by people who have not even read my work.

In my opinion and research, authors need to come together on this issue of self or traditional publishing. It is like a war between the two and I have read many insulting blogs on writers bagging out those self-published, seeing their work as inferior.

The reason I elected to self publish - A: I love writing more than anything else. B: Control of my work. C: I don’t care about fame and fortune, the reader is important to me, not how much money an agent and publisher can make out of my work. D: Readers encouraged me to get my stories into print.

Having done research with readers of books, not one cared whether a book was self published or traditionally published, it never even crossed their minds. More than anything, it is the story that sells.
Blessings to you all - CJ

message 21: by Marc (new)

Marc (authorguy) | 97 comments You could always do what I did. Set up a business to sell the books. I make more as a bookseller than I do as an author. The problem with self-publishing for me is the up-front cost, and the issue of storage of the books afterwards.

message 22: by Christine (new)

Christine | 10 comments I had the same problem Marc with up front costs until I came across Createspace, no storage problems and cheap as for a good product.

Tell us more about being a bookseller.

message 23: by Marc (new)

Marc (authorguy) | 97 comments I started out as a new author, with no clue that I was supposed to be the primary mover of my books, or how to do this. I spent 6 months trying to get my books into stores or libraries, with no success, when I spotted a sign for a craft fair at a local school. Strangely enough I had a phone book with me, so I called the school and through them found the name of the host for the fair, and signed up for a few fairs during the holiday season, to sell whatever books I had, just my own two, Unbinding the Stone and an anthology called Wyrd Wravings, now OOP, which had a story of mine in it. I lost money, but mainly because I didn't appeal to a lot of readers who didn't read fantasy. After the season ended I was given an opportunity to acquire all of my publisher's titles at mostly reduced prices, so I got 60 books in a variety of genres and tried again the following year, with greater success. My thought was that if they aren't going to buy fantasy, it doesn't hurt me to sell them someone else's book, and the other Echelon authors were in the same boat I was, so why not help out.

Then a town on LI tried to start its own Literary festival, and in order to get in I had to have a business certificate to collect sales tax, so I created Author Guy, my little operation. I still sell mostly everything my publisher, Echelon Press, makes,plus a few titles in genres they don't do, like children's books. Since then I have spent the last 4 years or so going mostly to local craft fairs at schools and churches, selling my ever-growing collection of titles. I also have a small sideline of toys, which often sell where the books don't, and work well as a giveaway promo item. Lately I've begun going to out-of-state literary events and fantasy conventions, so I have certificates for four different states now. Author Guy isn't big enough to live off of and probably will never be, but the goal is to get the books out there.

message 24: by Rosemary (new)

Rosemary | 7 comments I think if you go the self-publish route or start your own publishing company to publish your favorite undiscovered authors, you should try to get out there and chat with other small publishers. Every city has a group of folks publishing one or two titles or more. Most states have a small press or publishing group, usually an affiliate of Independent Book Publishers Association. USE these resources!

I run the website for the Seattle group Book Publishers Northwest. We have two terrific meetings in November: how to make book trailers (Nov. 11) and how to market small press fiction (Nov. 20).

I ran a small publishing company for a nonprofit for a few years. It's an interesting business, but it is a business and requires more than just writing a great book.

Which is why I like to have my stuff published by other people -- it lets me concentrate on the writing and not worry about ISBNs and distributor contracts and so on.

message 25: by A.D. (new)

A.D. As the person whom started the question, I thank all of your participation. I have worked in the self-publishing arena. The best by far POD (print on Demand) publishing company is Lightning Source. It turns out that they also print many books for middle pod publishing companies whom pass on higher prices to the author/ publisher. By the way, POD eliminates all the problem of printing large runs and storage difficulties.

message 26: by A.D. (new)

A.D. By the way, I just came across this as I finally got an agent to look at one of my manuscripts. They write this as their Acquisition guidelines:
1.) Will the subject matter sell? Is it commerically Viable?
2.) Is the writing good enough, or would it be good enoughwith some degree of assistance?
3.) Did you as the evaluator like the work and would you believe in it if you were selling it?
If they get 3 yeses, the manuscript is accepted.
It is the first time I have seen a logical approach to how a literary agent chooses a manuscript.

message 27: by Christine (new)

Christine | 10 comments Sounds good A.D, can you tell us who this agent is?

message 28: by A.D. (new)

A.D. Well I have not been assigned a particular agent. The agency is the wlchildrens agency. This particular story is a children's story. Kind of ironic, after all the rejections in Science Fiction, that my first stab at a children's book has peeked someone's interest.

message 29: by S.A. (new)

S.A. (suerule) | 3 comments Christine wrote: "The few queries I did sent out had agents saying they could not spare the time considering their obligation to their authors. Considering they read none of my work and responded within days, is th..."

CJ, I agree with every word you've said!

I self-published because life is too short to go on hitting your head against a brick wall. And for what? Even if you get an agent, you don't necessarily get a publisher; if you get a publisher, you won't necessarily get any effective marketing. I think the big publishing houses have lost the plot, just as the big record labels did. The future is here, on the internet, with readers and writers talking direct to each other.

I just wanted to reach some actual READERS!!! I have, and it's brilliant. I've had some excellent feedback on my writing and some great reviews. Of course it would be better if I could stop spending money on trying to sell my books and start earning some, but...well, what else is the day job for?


message 30: by Leslie Ann (new)

Leslie Ann (leslieann) | 48 comments I sold my book to a traditional publisher on my own. I was unable to get an agent at the time. A lot of small presses accept manuscripts for consideration directly from the author, as mine did. Now, it is true that without an agent, unless an author is very savvy on negotiations, he/she won't get as good a deal. I hired an attorney with experience negotiating literary contracts to look over mine before I signed. So, it IS possible to sell to a traditional publisher yourself. However, it is best to get an agent for that NEXT project.

Leslie Ann

Griffin's Daughter (Griffin's Daughter Trilogy) by Leslie Ann Moore

message 31: by Robin (new)

Robin (robinsullivan) | 71 comments Mod
I have a blog where I talk about various "business related" topics related to books. And I just made a post on exactly this subject. It discusses the various options (large publisher with agent), small press, self-publishing, subsidized publishing and the like. You might want to check it out.

Wife of fantasy author: Michael J. Sullivan
The Crown Conspiracy (Oct 2008) | Avempartha (April 2009)
Reviews: Fantasy Book Critic | Odysssey | Amazon | MidWest Book Review | Huntress Reviews

message 32: by Gwendolyn (new)

Gwendolyn (drgwen) | 36 comments A good agent can be invaluable. A great agent can mean the difference between getting a mediocre deal with a small publishing house, an acceptable deal with a large publishing house or a great deal where the author has creative control and asset rights over multiple media formats.

We were lucky. The first book was sold without an agent to a small publishing house. Then, just before the publisher was about to screw their authors with a contract change that was definitely in their own interest and no one else's, we were offered representation by a really great literary agent that was able to not only get around the proposed change but also re-negotiate our contract, to our benefit.

The other positive aspect is that our agent has been able to represent us on both sides of the great pond.

On the other hand... agents are, in our experience, more demanding of their clients than editors at publishing houses. This can be both a blessing and a curse.

Now... how do you get an agent?

Well, here's one way.


message 33: by Adrienna (new)

Adrienna (adriennaturner) I am sending info to a literary agent. I want one that helps me, but it is about sales (money). They will not pick you up if you do not help make them money, it is a business. This is why I am considering to open a literary consulting firm to help the author with advice, consulting them on the literary market, offering editors to make their manuscripts best-sellers to do it themselves, and networking with others in the literary market...some of us are clueless and need someone that has been there who can help. I will keep you posted and post my website once it is up and going! Check my BTR shows on

message 34: by Robin (new)

Robin (robinsullivan) | 71 comments Mod
I agree that many people are "clueless" on how to get from "written book" to "published" and it is an important thing to learn as much as you can about. I have a blog where I deal with "the business side writing side" of writing that covers these types of issues.

Unfortunately, writers spend way to much money in this area - they want their dreams fullfilled and are taken advantage of many times. There is a lot of free information out there - books, blogs, internet etc. A little bit of research can go a long, long way.

message 35: by Erin (new)

Erin Quinn (erin_quinn) | 2 comments Hi, I am jumping into this conversation late in the game, but if you are interested in taking your writing from hobby to career--no matter what the venue you choose, you definitely need to gather more information. I've published 3 books with major NY publishers and have 2 more coming out this year and next, and I am still learning how to navigate this business.

When you're writing a book you think, "this is the hard part." And then you try to sell the book to a publisher and you realize, "nope, this is the hard part." And then you realize you have to convince readers to give your book a try and it dawns on you that "THIS is the hard part." Oh, but wait, now you have to write the next book, while trying to promote the last book and propose the one after that. That's when you realize, it's all the hard part.

But OH SO rewarding.

I recommend if you haven't gone to a writers conference before, you get yourself to one. There is so much to learn and it's usually a life changing experience. It's where you get to meet agents and editors and learn from industry professionals.

I give a scholarship away every year to the SDSU Writers Conference (one of the very best in nation, IMHO). This year there were about 60-70 agents/editors to 240 writers. you do the math--about 4:1 ratio. I'll be opening the scholarship for next year sometime this summer. For the record--I do this because I know how hard it is to break into this business and how important it is to live your dreams. Giving a hand up to someone else makes me feel good. :-) More info at (click on "scholarship" link.

Good luck to you all!

message 36: by Robin (new)

Robin (robinsullivan) | 71 comments Mod
M.C. wrote: "Alas, unless a break-through block-buster, a self pubbed book is viewed as a mark against the author.

I disagree - it will not "help" but it does not hurt either. Most won't even know you have one unless you bring it up and you shouldn't mention it in your query because it has no "value" in validating your abilitiies.

message 37: by Phyllis (new)

Phyllis Twombly (ScifiAliens) | 47 comments M.C. wrote: "David, if an author chooses to self publish for whatever reason, an agent will assume it is due to multiple rejections. Even though a potential bestseller can be overlooked by editors, just one exa..."
I never bothered with 'trying' to get a traditional publisher. I didn't like what I learned about the industry decades ago and it looks like too little has changed. The author is still at the very bottom of the food chain. I was fortunate to find a self-publishing company that treated me well but I checked them out first, even to the point of 'testing' them. They rang true every time.

A lot of the comments I read online still cater to the old realities of publishing. Yes, the cheaters are out there, as they are in every other industry. But times and technology have changed. Why not make use of it? How many of us would take a horse and buggy when a car is available?

In other news, my third novel, Martian Divides, is now 'live' on iUniverse.

message 38: by Tiffany (new)

Tiffany | 3 comments I just came back from a Writing Conference where this was a heavily debated topic-agent/editor vs. self-publishing/POD books. I think it really has to do with the book and whether you are a new author. I just had an editor agree to look at one of my picture books from a closed house at a Writing Conference. On the other hand, I've self-published my middle reader novel series since of course, of large rejections and the fact it's a fantasy on fairies. I don't want to wait years while they are popular now.
It may depend on the book and where does it fit best.
However, there is talk that a publisher may pick you up if you got numbers, hits on your website/blog, etc. There was a lot of talk about Kindle. I think there is an awareness that the publishing world will need to adapt to the new technology, but good writing is still what is needed. Even if it is a self-published book, you can tell from the Look Inside searches if it is good writing and buy it on Amazon.
Plus, B & N is like the Starbucks of publishing right now. Often B & N buyers dictate a lot of decisions on how to sell the books and what they carry. All the publishers want their books in their stores. So there is this monopoly mentality that is really hindering choice. The internet might open this up. Amazon is the leader on-line, and costs in publishing will most likely be a factor. No paper, no ink or binding with Kindle or ebooks. And even Print on Demand(POD) books save all the pre-printing costs. We've seen what not changing did to the car industry. Most of this is because people are thinking 20th century ways of doing things in the 21st century. It will be interesting to see what happens in publishing in the next several years.

message 39: by Robin (new)

Robin (robinsullivan) | 71 comments Mod
Tiffany wrote: "However, there is talk that a publisher may pick you up if you got numbers..."

At your conference did they happen to mention what "numbers" would draw attention? I'm thinking 5,000 - 10,000 but I'm that is just a stab in the dark.

message 40: by Tiffany (new)

Tiffany | 3 comments One editor mentioned something like 20 million hits on a blog, Ghostgirl, before they picked it up to turn it into a book.

message 41: by A.D. (new)

A.D. I started this thing, and recently I have been di-secting the chain of events from writer to publisher. I realized that publishing houses are focused on the "selling" end of the industry with little choice. After all, no one gets paid if a book does not sell. Then I realized that to sell a book, the communication "book" and it's marketing must create an impact on the potential reader in order to seperate such a person from his dollars. I don't know about everybody, but with the economy the way it is and the higher awareness of crooks, any sales pitch, whether it is a book or a waffle iron, any pitch falls on dead ears as we are careful to trust anyone who says that such and such book is a goodread or regard any effort to sell us a book as a covert effort to get our hard earned money.

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