Literary agents focus mainly on the business side of publishing.
Literary agents are employed by literary agencies to identify and represent literary talent. Once they have accepted an author as a client, they approach commissioning editors at the most suitable book publishers; if multiple editors are interested in the author’s work there may be an auction. They then negotiate publishing contracts to ensure writers are fairly compensated for their work. Agents receive a percentage of the profits from book sales as commission. Most publishers in the UK don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, and those that do accept them receive a huge number of submissions, so it is difficult for an author to be published without the help of an agent.
A literary agent may come under the umbrella term ‘talent agent’, which covers a number of roles that involve representing people in the entertainment industries. As well as literary agents, it includes acting agents, sports agents, model agents and music agents, for example.
Typical responsibilities include:
- reading query letters from prospective authors, responding to rejected queries and requesting sample chapters or complete manuscripts
- assessing manuscripts and deciding which would be suitable to submit to particular publishers and imprints
- undertaking market research to predict how well a book is likely to sell
- suggesting editorial changes to authors
- pitching books to publishers
- attending auctions if multiple editors are interested in a manuscript
- negotiating terms with the publisher such as the author’s advance, royalties or rights (such as film rights or foreign rights)
- keeping up to date with developments in the publishing industry and the media
- attending launches and book fairs to build up a network of contacts
- maintaining long-term professional relationships with editors and decision makers at publishing houses
- being the main point of contact between authors and publishers
- managing authors’ publication schedules, contracts and payments
- offering authors guidance and encouragement.
Although literary agents may help authors polish their manuscripts and suggest changes to make the work more marketable, they focus mainly on the business side of publishing. It is also worth noting that literary agents often need to read submissions outside of working hours.
Literary agents are typically employed by literary agencies, although some experienced literary agents choose to work freelance or establish their own agencies.
Vacancies are advertised by publishing recruitment agencies and on websites such as The Bookseller.
Literary agents often begin their careers as literary agent assistants, becoming an agent once they have gained the necessary skills, experience and contacts. The role of agent assistant tends to focus on providing administrative support such as maintaining databases and processing contracts, but it may also involve reading submissions and liaising with authors and publishers. The amount of responsibility you will have as an agent assistant varies between literary agencies, so check job adverts carefully.
Becoming a literary agent after working elsewhere in the publishing industry (starting out as an editorial assistant, for example) is also a widely accepted route in. This is useful for familiarising yourself with the industry and gaining contacts.
There are no set entry requirements to become a literary agent; many have a degree but this is not normally specified as a requirement on job adverts. You should have a demonstrable interest in books and the publishing industry. A second language can be useful when pitching work to publishers in other countries.
Work experience is highly valued; this could be via a literary agency internship or an internship with a publishing company, but other experiences can also allow you to develop your industry knowledge and the skills that agencies look for. These could include working in a bookshop, volunteering at a literary festival, setting up a blog or taking part in a writing group that involves giving feedback on each other’s work.
- Verbal and written communication
- Analytical, problem-solving and organisation skills
- The ability to build and maintain a strong network of contacts
- Concentration and attention to detail
- Negotiation and persuasion
- Determination and resilience
- The ability to make decisions confidently
- An entrepreneurial spirit
- Awareness of book market trends and an understanding of what makes a good book
- The ability to work well both independently and as part of a team.