All about book literary agents

by Victoria Bennion

What do literary agents do? 

Book literary agents will help you sell your work to publishers. They work on a commission basis for the work they sell. Often they take 15%. Some are more hands on than others and will work with their authors to develop their manuscripts.

Why do you need one?

Having an agent is not compulsory but agents are well connected. They will know the editors at the publishing houses and which ones might be interested in your manuscript. Also many publishing houses only take submissions from agents so they’re important gatekeepers. 

Book Literary Agents: How do you find one?

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is a good place to start (I’ve bought a few.) The huge red tome contains a complete list of all the literary agencies. Apart from a list of agents it contains a wealth of valuable information for writers. 

You’ll find advice about writing for newspapers and magazines, writing a book or poetry, writing for television, film and radio, finding a literary agent, art and illustration advice and listings, digital and self-publishing information, a resources for writers section, a copyright and libel section and a section about finance for writers and artists. I make sure the latest edition is always on my Christmas list.

If you’re solely interested in writing for children then they offer a much smaller green coloured edition focusing on children.

If you’re just after a list of UK agents there is  searchable online service called Agent Hunter to which you can subscribe.

Another way to find agents is to search the internet (but make sure you do your homework and ensure they’re reputable.) Agent sites contain biographies, what they’re looking for and what they’re not after and importantly if they’re open to submissions.

Follow agents on Twitter. I follow quite a few and often they will tweet when they’ve just opened to submissions. Also, you can get a feel for what they’re like. The relationship between an author and agent is so important. You both need to feel you’ll be able to work together for a long time.

Book Literary Agents: Do they charge reading fees?

A literary agent should not charge a reading fee. If they do AVOID.

How do you get signed by a literary agent?

Isn’t that the big question. When I’ve got one I’ll let you know! 

But seriously, write the best book you can. Research agents that are open to submissions and are interested in the subject you’ve written – just an aside on that…

Panel of literary agents at SCBWI Agents' PartyPanel of literary agents at SCBWI Agents' Party

Last year at the  SCBWI Agents’ party the literary agents were asked questions about their likes and dislikes. One said she hated science fiction, then added that it actually came down to the story and she might take on a science fiction book if she liked what she read. This sounded quite common. So, don’t be put off applying to an agent if they say they’re not looking for a book in the genre you’ve written. Your book might grab them.

Landing a book literary agent: Stand out 

Agents receive hundreds of submissions from writers and take on very few writers. Winning literary competitions can help you stand out from the crowd. Plus, some contest prizes are contact of some sort with a literary agent. 

Follow their submission guidelines carefully, write a great synopsis and query letter. If you need help there is plenty of advice online and editorial services such as the Golden Egg Academy who will help you put your package together.

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