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Literary agents are part of the game of traditional publishing

March 12, 2013

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Over the years, I spent more time than I care to recall trying to land that elusive creature known as a literary agent. For those of you out there who don’t know, a literary agent is that person who can help you find a home for your book, that is, if you choose to go the traditional route to publishing.

Think of an agent as a broker. They take anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of your earnings on a book. But more important, they are the gatekeepers of publishing. They find publishers for authors. 

Landing an agent has never been an easy deal. Many of the best writers out there fail to find agents. The nature of the game is money, and if an agent doesn’t see your book as marketable, despite it being an incredible book, that agent won’t think twice about signing you on as a client.

Whether you want to go with an agent or take the path many writers now choose – that of self-publishing or Print on Demand, which gives you, the author, total control over your book – is up to you.

For traditional publishing, an agent is considered all but mandatory for becoming a published author. It’s actually not that hard to attract the attention of an agent. Compose a query letter, stick it an email, and it’s quite possible you’ll hear back from an agent in a matter of hours if not days.

The trick is getting the agent to sign you on as a client. If you manage to interest an agent with a good query letter, you’ve accomplished something. Often an interested agent will ask an author to send the first few chapters of the manuscript.

I have to say, the first time that happened to me, I was, to put it mildly, excited. My heart began to race, and my mind immediately went into over-drive, imagining literary lunches at New York restaurants, parties with famous authors, the whole deal. Over the years, I had more than my share of such responses from agents. Occasionally, an agent was bowled over enough by my opening chapters that I was asked to send the rest of the manuscript.

More often than not, my wonderful books were rejected for one reason or another. I finally did manage to sign on with an agent or two. I won’t bore you with all the details. One agent who loved my book was unable to find a publisher for it. Suffice to say, she was a rookie with little clout in the publishing world. Another agent asked for an upfront fee to represent me. I was more than hesitant to part with one hundred and fifty dollars, but after much agonizing and soul-searching, I reached into my pocket for the money.

It was a mistake, a decision resulting from one author’s desperate need for publication.

An author should never, never pay a literary agent for representation. An agent makes money from selling authors’ works, not by demanding fees. If you ever draw interest from an agent who wants an upfront payment, or any money for that matter, run away from this nefarious creature as far as you can and don’t look back. An author wants a credible, legitimate agent, not a shark looking to make easy money from overly eager writers too willing to pay to get published. An agent working off authors’ fees is a sure sign that the agent isn’t a very good one.

By the way, that agent never found me a publisher.

The question is, do you want to go the traditional route of publishing by searching for an agent? Or do you want to self-publish? Those are questions only you can answer.

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