Who needs a literary agent?
Most large, well-known publishers of full-length works do not accept “unsolicited” submissions, which means manuscript submissions directly from an author. To get your foot in the door at this type of publisher, you’ll need a literary agent.
Mid-size, academic, boutique, and small publishers vary in terms of whether they will look at un-agented submissions. Your best bet is to check the submission guidelines on the publisher’s website. If the publisher doesn’t publicly share submission guidelines, that can be a sign that they are only open to literary agents. Note that some publishers have designated “open periods,” while requiring an agent for the rest of the year. Others may require an agent except for certain contest-related submissions.
If you would like to pursue self-publishing, you will not need a literary agent.
If your goal is to publish something like a short story, poem, or essay in a literary journal, you will not, apart from a few exceptions, need a literary agent.
What do literary agents do?
Put simply, a literary agent tries to sell their client’s book to a publisher. This means signing projects the agent thinks will sell, working with the author to get the manuscript into shape, submitting the manuscript to editors at publishing houses, and (fingers crossed!) negotiating a deal.
Agents get paid on commission, which explains why they are looking for highly commercial projects.
After the publishing deal is signed, an agent’s job is not finished. Going forward, an agent will be involved with handling commission and royalty payments and negotiating foreign and subsidiary rights. A literary agent also provides guidance to their authors about the publishing industry, future projects, author brand, social media, career trajectory, and more.
How do you get a literary agent?
It’s notoriously challenging to get a literary agent. I’m planning a future blog post with some tips that may help. Stay tuned…