Illustration of writer and agent meeting and shaking hands
Getting published

What is a literary agent?

Like many creative industries, the publishing industry relies on a highly experienced network of agents who work with, and for, authors in a number of different ways: from securing opportunities, to managing negotiations, to offering advice and support. Publishing can be an overwhelming industry for an author on their own, and that’s where a literary agent will prove a useful guide and ally. 

The role of an agent

Agents, who can work for themselves or as part of a larger agency, "represent the interests of writers to publishers, newspapers and production arms (be that theatrical, podcast, motion picture, television) in deal making and negotiations,” explains Felicity Blunt from Curtis Brown, one of the leading literacy agencies in the UK.

The work of an agent is vastly varied, with Felicity describing agents as “part lawyer, part accountant, part counsellor and part editorial sounding board”.

“You sort of have to be all things to all people,” she continues. “My relationship from client to client changes, because ultimately every author is a distinct person with particular needs, so I try to match those needs and support them where most needed.”

Why an agent is important

The vast majority of writers have agents, and for most writers getting an agent is the very first step in the long but exciting journey to getting published. 

One of the first things that an agent will do is work on an author's manuscript with them before sending it out to an editor.

“I think the situation can vary as to whether the author is a debut or an established author with an editor in place,” Felicity says. “If the former I tend to do a number of rounds of edits with the writer until I am very happy with the book. These edits will cover plot, pacing, character all the way through to sentence structure or spelling errors I pick up.

“I genuinely want the book to find the best home and the biggest part of that is ensuring that it is in the best possible state before it goes out.”

'My role is to make sure that the book is in as strong a shape as possible so that it will be acquired by a publisher'

Catherine Cho, literary agent at Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency, agrees, saying: “My role is to make sure that the book is in as strong a shape as possible so that it will be acquired by a publisher. It can mean doing a draft or two, or sometimes even months of drafts. The important thing is to get this right.”

Of course, a book will usually change once an editor works on it with an author, but that’s exciting for an agent to see. Felicity adds: “It’s always exciting to see the book you have worked on for months be taken in by a loving home and made even better.”

Agents also act as a crucial connection to the rest of the industry. For those writers hoping to sign with a publisher, for example, having an agent is a key part of the process. Most publishers don’t take unsolicited submissions - which is the industry term for the manuscripts a publisher receives directly from a writer without asking for them, and without an agent. This is because the volume of submissions received would be so high that it would be almost impossible for editors to get through them all. Instead, agents help streamline this process by ensuring editors receive manuscripts for genres or types of books in which they have particular expertise or interest.

And more generally, says Felicity, agents are an “invaluable buffer” for authors and publishers. “Editor and author can decant all frustrations and issues into the agent and the agent can then take up the baton to try to deliver what is needed,” she says. “It also means that importantly the editor/author relationship can remain creatively focused. That is not to say that authors are not interested in the business of publishing… but the daily to-and-fro about timing of Kindle deals, Tesco promotions, package, quote placement, Amazon copy, stock issues, marketing ideas, etc., can not always be something every author would welcome in their inbox on a daily basis.

“For any agent, selling a book to a publisher (i.e. the process whereby a publishing deal is agreed) is often the easiest moment within the life of a contract. What follows is where I believe an agent can truly add value.”

Looking for an agent: where to start

There are hundreds of literary agents in the UK, so finding the right one can seem daunting. A good starting point for those looking for an agent is the Writers and Artists Yearbook, but Felicity also has some other tips: “Looking at books that you feel yours is in keeping with, to see who is mentioned in the acknowledgements section (the agent is often named), is a good way to start thinking about exactly who might be the person to direct a submission to.”

Like editors, most agents have particular expertise or experience in working with certain genres or with particular authors. Working out which agents might be most appropriate (and, more importantly, most likely to get excited about your book!) is an important first step.  Sending a proposal for a piece of historical non-fiction to an agent who specialises in children’s literature, for example, isn’t going to get you very far. Instead, think about which authors you might compare your work or writing style to, and try to find out who represents them.

Make sure you do some online research too. Felicity adds: “Most agencies are now open to the outside world… they have websites with agent bios and a long list of their clients and what they are looking for. They have Twitter accounts (mine is not very active, whoops) that you can get a great sense of the agent from.”

But it's not just on writers to search for an agent, many agents also actively look for new clients to represent. Felicity says she looks “everywhere” for authors: “In anthologies, via our submissions portal (we get a number each day to my office and I try to read the cover letter of each to work out which I want to prioritise - so never underestimate the importance of first impressions!), via author recommendations, enquiries from authors looking to move, recommendations from publishers who think an author needs an agent, or know an author is looking to move, via first novel prizes, short story competitions, creative writing schools, within journalism, opinion pieces, podcasts, talent from other fields.” 

There are so many different routes to getting an agent - the important thing is to use whatever channels you have available to get your work noticed. We’ve compiled a handy list of some of the prizes and opportunities available to writers, which you can find here

What happens next

Even if you’ve done extensive research, it's still difficult to know when you’ve met the right agent; Felicity says the process is a “bit like a marriage proposal”.

“You have to - in your gut - be excited about that other person,” she explains. “If you are approached or offered representation by a number of agents you should always as the author meet with all of your potential suitors.

“Each agent is different, they have a different style, taste and approach to the job. It’s like any other. We are individual. Who makes you feel excited about the future, whose advice makes the most sense to you, and who are you most excited about sending your next book to, who has books on their list that fill you with joy?

“These all factor into any author decision I’ve been included in.”

For more recommendations on how to pitch your book to a literary agent, read our handy guide to what agents are looking for.

Illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin

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