What does an Agent do?

I get asked in my queries fairly regularly to explain what an agent does. I've also been asked on panels at conferences to explain why an agent is helpful to an aspiring writer looking to be published. So, I decided to write a post on it for those looking for more information.

Some of you may be wondering, why can't I just submit directly to a publisher?

Well, in some cases you can. Some publishing houses will accept what are referred to as unsolicited queries. This simply means queries that aren't referrals or requested specifically, say at a conference etc. But, fewer and fewer houses accept unsolicited queries. Some of the smaller and midsize indie presses will accept them, but most of the big 5 don't (HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, and Macmillan) nor do many of the other major publishers or midsize presses (Bloomsbury, Scholastic, Abrams, Chronicle, Sourcebooks, Candlewick etc. etc.). Most publishers only accept Agented submissions. Of course, before submitting direct you would always want to check the publisher's website to see if they take unsolicited submissions directly from authors or not.  

Regardless if a publisher takes unsolicited queries or not an Agent is helpful to an Author in many ways:

Editorial feedback: Many Agents will work with you editorially on your manuscript before submitting to an editor at a publishing house. Though, this varies by Agent. When you receive an offer from an Agent, it's important to ask if they will work with you on this. While most Agents aren't line-editing/copy-editing, like an Editor would, we often will do big picture editorial--making sure the pacing is tight, the story makes sense, there aren't plot holes, the character's are fully developed, things are consistent and make sense, world-building is on point if it's a fantasy or sci-fi, etc. etc. In this tough publishing landscape it's become increasingly important to polish a manuscript as much as possible before submitting to Editors. 

Help you make those tough calls: It's hard to cut a scene or area of a novel that you wrote and love that isn't working, but sometimes it will make the manuscript stronger. We help you navigate things like this. We'll also let you know when it might be time to pull the plug on a submission or shift focus to another project. These decisions are never easy and would be a discussion between Author and Agent, but if a manuscript really isn't clicking with Editors and it's been sent out fairly widely it might not be the right time for it. Remember, many successful Authors may have written a handful of novels or more before getting published.

Network: A big part of an Agent's job is networking. We often go to publishing mixers, coffees. lunches etc. to meet with Editors at a variety of imprints and houses. This is an opportunity for us to get to know them personally and get a sense of what they like and are looking for. Sending submissions willy nilly to any editor you've heard of it, is likely going to waste your time and the Editor's.  Editors prioritize agented submissions and will likely read a project from an agent they know personally before an agent they don't know. Though others read in the order submissions are received and some will prioritize something that really grabs them. So a good pitch can really make a difference! An agent will likely be well-read and a master pitcher :)

Take care of business: Many agencies handle everything from subrights (TV/film, dramatic, audio, translation rights etc.) to contracts, accounting and beyond. This is very valuable as it leaves more time for you to write or illustrate. Some smaller agencies will have one person who handles all this (your primary agent), others will have separate subrights departments and points of contact. This will vary by agency. For foreign rights specifically, an agent will pitch your book to subagents around the world that they have established relationships with and whom know the publishers in their territory. It's definitely an exciting day to receive translation copies from different countries! As far as subrights go, some will be kept by the US publisher. Sometimes a publisher will keep audio, and foreign/translation rights for example. If this is the case, your agent cannot sell them on your behalf, but it's your agent's job to try and keep as many subrights as possible for you, the author. They're an extra source of income for you! What rights are able to be kept vary by house, book and your agent's negotiating prowess. Though at some house even the most skilled agent will not be able to keep certain rights.

A listening ear and helping hand: Agents are there for you when you are anxious on submission, have writer's block, are confused about a specific part of the process, to run ideas by on how to expand your Author platform and talk things through with you. Some Agents are more hands-on and involved than others. We all work slightly differently. 

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