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A literary agent (often synonymous with "publishing agent") is an agent who represents writers and their written works to publishers, theatrical producers, film producers, and film studios, and assists in the sale and deal negotiation of the same. Literary agents most often represent novelists, screenwriters and non-fiction writers. They are paid a fixed percentage (usually twenty percent on foreign sales and ten to fifteen percent for domestic sales) of the proceeds of sales they negotiate on behalf of their clients.
Literary agents exist largely to provide services to authors. These services include connecting the author's work with appropriate publishers, contract negotiation, ensuring payment of royalties, and acting as a mediator if there are problems between the author and the publisher. Agents also assist publishing houses and others in expediting the process of review, publication, and distribution of authors' works. Many well-known, powerful, and lucrative publishing houses (such as the Big Five) are generally less open than smaller publishers to unagented submissions. A knowledgeable agent knows the market, and can be a source of valuable career advice and guidance. Being a publishable author doesn't automatically make someone an expert on modern publishing contracts and practices, especially where television, film, or foreign rights are involved. Many authors prefer to have an agent handle such matters. This prevents the author's working relationship with his or her editor from becoming strained by disputes about royalty statements or late checks. Another frequent function of the agent is often that of counselor, advising an author on various aspects of how to make writing a paying proposition on a timely basis.
Literary agencies can range in size from a single agent who represents perhaps a dozen authors, to a substantial firm with senior partners, sub-agents, specialists in areas like foreign rights or licensed merchandise tie-ins, and clients numbering in the hundreds. Most agencies, especially the smaller ones, will specialize to some degree, representing authors who (for example) write science fiction, or mainstream thrillers and mysteries, or children's books, or highly topical nonfiction. Very few agents will represent short stories or poetry.
Legitimate agents and agencies in the book world are not required to be members of the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR), but according to Writer's Market listings, many agents in the United States are. To qualify for AAR membership, agents must have sold a minimum number of books and pledge to abide by a Canon of Ethics. Effective professional agents often learn their trade while working for another agent, though some cross over to agenting after working as editors.
Legitimate agents do not charge reading or other upfront fees (e.g. retainers), or bill authors for most operating expenses.  They also will not place their clients' work with a vanity or subsidy press. Both these practices may indicate that the author is dealing with a scam agent. Traditionally representation agreements between agents and clients were simply verbal; however, an increasing percentage of agents are offering written contracts to make the terms explicit. Another questionable practice consists of referring the author to a so-called "professional editor" or "book doctor" who is in collusion with the agent. The ensuing edit may or may not be appropriate, or of professional quality, and is almost always expensive. However, a good agent can also help refer you to legitimate professional book editors who can bring your work to the next level. Just make sure the agent isn't earning a portion of the editor's fees, and check the editor's website or CV to ensure they are experienced and have a good track record (such as a list of published books they have worked on, testimonials from published authors--preferably authors published by the "big 5" publishing houses).
A client typically establishes relationships with an agent through querying, although the two may meet at a writers' conference, through a contest, or in other ways. A query is an unsolicited proposal for representation, either for a finished work or unfinished work. Various agents request different elements in a query packet, and most agencies list their specific submissions requirement on their Website or in their listing in major directories. It typically begins with a query letter (1-2 pages) explaining the purpose of the work and any writing qualifications of the author. Sometimes a synopsis or outline are requested as part of the query. Often, the author sends the first 3 chapters (equivalent to 50 pages) of their work. Lastly, for paper queries, a self-addressed stamped envelope must be included to receive a response, though email submissions are becoming increasingly popular.
If a written query is rejected, the response is sent in the self-addressed stamped envelope. Typically the rejection is a form letter; getting a rejection which is not a form letter or has hand-written comments (especially a message to the effect of "query me for other projects") is typically taken as a very good, even if disappointing, sign.
The first literary agents appeared around the year 1880 (Publishing).
- Gerald Drayson Adams
- George T. Bye
- Richard Curtis (active ca 1980-present)
- Barthold Fles
- Rod Hall
- Kurt Hellmer
- Morton L. Janklow
- Otis Adelbert Kline
- Toni Mendez
- Harold Ober
- Larry Shaw
- Toni Strassman
- Virginia Kidd (1921-2003)
- Stephen Slesinger
- H.N. Swanson
- Curtis, Richard (2003) How To Be Your Own Literary Agent: An Insider's Guide to Getting Your Book Published. ISBN 0-618-38041-8
- Herman, Jeff (2005) Jeff Herman's Guide To Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, 2006. ISBN 0-9772682-0-9.
- Fisher, Jim (2004) Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell. ISBN 0-8093-2575-6
- Glatzer, Jenna (2006) The Street Smart Writer. ISBN 0-9749344-4-5
- Williams, Sheri (2004) "An Agent's Point of View". ISBN 0-9748252-5-5
- Reiss, Fern (2007) "The Publishing Game: Find an Agent in 30 Days". ISBN 1-893290-83-2
- Association of Authors' Representatives
- Preditors and Editors: A guide to literary scam artists
- QueryTracker: A searchable database that helps authors find reputable literary agents
- AgentQuery: Another searchable database of literary agents
- Writer Beware: A watchdog site that exposes scams directed at writers