When I first started out, there were many things that I didn’t know about literary agents. The fact is, these things aren’t widely talked about unless you have an agent, so here’s what you need to know.
1. Literary agents aren't going to submit everything you write
That was a big surprise to me when I first started. I got my literary agent about two years ago and she loved my first few picture books. We successfully sold those, and then I sent her another one. She said, “Yeah....this one's not really right for the market right now.” She wasn't going to submit that one.
Why? That’s just the way the industry is.
An agent doesn’t get paid until they successfully sell your book to a traditional publisher so it’s their job to act as the gatekeeper and pitch manuscripts of the highest, most relevant quality.
2. It HAS to be a good fit
This one is hard. Getting an agent is so difficult so when you finally get accepted by one, it seems like you can’t say no. But the thing to remember is that they are your publishing champion so it is important that the two of you work well together.
If you get a “yes” from an agent and you’re on the fence about how your personalities mesh even a little...you may want to consider stepping away.
On the bright side, an agent won’t say yes unless they really believe in your book so typically, you’re good to give the green light.
3. Literary agents don’t make much money
There’s a lot of prestige and perceptions about traditional publishing and with literary agents, it’s no different. After all, they have all these great connections to publishers...they have to be rolling in the dough, right?
Not the case.
Let’s look at an example. Pretend that you get a literary agent and they sell your manuscript to a traditional publisher. That publisher is going to give you a $5,000 advance on your royalties and your agency gets 15% of it. That’s only $750 but that full amount doesn't go straight to the agent - the literary agency needs to take a cut to cover expenses as well.
In fact, a $5,000 advance is high for a picture book (depending on the publisher) so your advance might more realistically be $2,500 or less.
Meaning your agent did months of work for less than $375 in this example.
THAT is the reason why agents have to be so picky--they might only sell a handful of books per month, on average. For their own livelihood, they need to know that they will be the best salesmen for the books they represent. Many of them also have second jobs to pay the bills.
The next time you wonder why it takes weeks or months for an agent to accept or reject your submission, this is the real reason why.
4. They are your biggest cheerleader
Your literary agent is your champion. When you succeed, they succeed so it’s important to find one that you work well with. They’ll be your sounding board, advisor, and in some ways, your friend in an industry that can be confusing to navigate.
People tend to think of agents as the matter-of-fact, poker-faced abstract figures that we need to impress…
...but agents are mothers. Fathers. Friends. Coffee addicts. Book hoarders. Literary agents are just like you and me. Their love for literature just happens to be their occupation, like I hope it soon will be yours.
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