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What Authors Should Know About Literary Agents

KWE Publishing Newsletter - 10/26/23

There are a lot of people involved in the publishing industry, and sometimes, you might only have a vague idea of what a person's role is—and many authors aren't totally sure what literary agents do or if they need one.

So, what is a literary agent? A literary agent represents authors and typically pitches their unpublished manuscripts to traditional publishers.

In some cases, a literary agent may also pitch an author's work to editors, but typically, traditional publishers prefer that authors work with editors within their agencies.

Now that you know what a lit agent is, let's take a look at some of the nuances involved in querying an agent and talk about who can benefit from working with an agent (and who can skip out)!

Not all literary agents are looking for the same thing.

Most literary agents stick to a handful of genres, so if your book is a memoir, you don't want to pitch it to someone who's looking for a middle-grade fantasy book.

If you query a literary agent, you need to make sure you're querying an agent who works with publishers in your genre. It takes time to find a literary agent who's actively seeking out manuscripts in your genre, but it's worth it to take the time to find them rather than pitch your manuscript to every agent. If you find an agent who's looking for something that sounds similar to your manuscript, or if you can adjust your pitch (in an honest way, of course; don't misrepresent your book!) to cater to an agent's needs, you're more likely to find a good match.

If you're interested in seeing your writing being turned into a series or a movie, then you won't want to pitch to an agent who deals with books. Instead, you'll search for agents who have represented screenplays that have been turned into films.

Literary agents tend to prefer to represent authors whose work hasn't been published, though there are exceptions to this rule.

In most cases, a literary agent will want to work with an author who hasn't published their work elsewhere. If, for example, a book doesn't sell many copies initially when it's first self-published, an agent will be less inclined to represent it; instead, they want to represent books that they feel have a place in the market.

Of course, the reality is that books that don't sell thousands of copies do still have a place in the market—but it's important to keep in mind that a literary agent's end goal is to sell a lot of books, so they're going to gravitate toward books they think have the best chance of selling well.

There are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes, if a literary agent feels that a writer has published a book with a compelling premise that didn't do well financially for one reason or another, the literary agent might be interested in rebooting the book.

Whether or not you need a literary agent depends on your goals for your book and your idea of success.

So many authors start out wanting to sell a million copies of their book and become household names, and while this is an amazing goal, it's extremely hard to attain—and success isn't just about commercial success.

If you're publishing a book to preserve a family legacy or to share with your community, you can easily do this without a literary agent. If you're someone who wants total control throughout the publishing process, you probably shouldn't work with an agent since you have less control over the process when you publish traditionally. Your book can be successful—financially and otherwise—if you self-publish or publish with a hybrid publisher.

There's no wrong way to publish a book, so it's important to consider what you want to get out of the publishing process. What does success look like to you? What impact do you want your book to have?

So, if you want to go down the route of getting your book traditionally published, querying an agent can be worthwhile. However, if you plan on self-publishing or publishing with a hybrid or indie publisher, then may not need an agent.

Have you ever pitched your writing to literary agents? What was your experience? Feel free to reach out and share your experiences with us; we appreciate hearing from you!

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