Keller Media Blog

Ready to Sell Your Book to a Publisher? You’ll Need a Literary Agent

Most people sit down to write a book and only later do they start to think about how to get it published. The dream is to find a publisher who will pay you a lot of money for the joy of printing and distributing your book. Then thousands of people will buy it, you’ll be famous and you’ll be able to quit your job and write full time.

I’ve heard versions of that fantasy tens of thousands of times in my 26+ years as a literary agent.

But how does this all work, anyway? If you do want that dream, where do you start?Well, as it turns out, you start by attracting someone just like me.

Literary agents are the “gatekeepers” of the publishing industry.  (Note: I mean “publishing” as in traditional publishers like Penguin Random House and HarperCollins, not as in self-publishing where you pay someone to create your book for you.)

The literary agent’s role – from the author’s perspective – is to take their book, offer some editorial suggestions (in most cases) and then present it to the editors who work for the publishers. Then, the editors get excited, offer you money in a conversation with your agent, the agent negotiates the contract and voila!  You get a publishing contract, or a “deal” as we call it.  You’re in!

The literary agent’s role – from the publisher’s perspective – is different.  An editor expects the agent to know not just the genre of books they acquire (e.g. business books, self-help, personal finance, humor, etc.) but also the style of book/author they prefer to work with (e.g., academic, research-based, light and cheery, appealing to the masses or to the intelligentsia, etc.).

Then, they expect the agent to show them only works that match their preferences – projects that are well-prepared and which come with qualified authors attached.  (This information is curated by agents who work for years in the business.)  They want the agent to be reasonable about how much money the author gets, and to help the relationship between them and the author to be a smooth, pleasant and efficient one.

So how do you get an agent to represent your book to the publishers?

1. First, you look online for lists of agents who have a history of selling books in the same genre as yours.  That means those agents know the preferences of editors who buy books like yours – which comes in handy!

2. Note how the agents want to be pitched on your book. My agency and my colleagues’ get offered thousands of projects every year, so the easiest answer for our staff is “No.”  To stand out, approach in the way requested. For instance, to reach my agency, start here.

3. Follow up in two weeks with anyone who has requested your proposal (nonfiction) or manuscript (fiction).

If 30 agents have been offered your material and still no one wants to help you, find out what’s wrong – because 30 rejections DOES mean something is grievously wrong. Literary agents make their money by selling books to those publishers.  We all get 15% commission in the USA.  If we see something we think we can make money on, we’re like barracudas – we fight for the chance to represent it.

If that’s not the response you’re getting, it’s time to rethink your project, or the way you’re pitching it (or it may be that you skipped Step 1 above!  That’s pretty common.).

Because it’s a straight commission job, you don’t “hire” an agent and the agent is not paid by you at any time. The money comes from the publisher.  The agent opts to work with you – for free – while you begin your career as an author.  Your agent can become your coach, consultant, best ally in the process of publishing.  Even if this is your first book, it is not the agent’s.  For instance, my clients laud me for helping them craft marketing strategies to help them sell their books once published.  Other agents might excel at editorial development.  Your agent can guide you toward certain publishers and away from others.

Finding an agent who believes your work will sell is a major milestone in any author’s life.  Good luck finding yours!

Want to get a great agent who will love you to bits and help you enormously?  Click here.

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