This is such a common question, it’s really worth spending some time trying to get clear.
First, let’s establish what a literary agent does, and how they get paid – these things will show us what they want. Then, let’s look at who needs an agent, who doesn’t and why, and finally, the alternatives.
What does a literary agent do?
The main (and most famous) thing an agent does is sell their clients’ books to publishers – they spot the talent, find the match, submit the book to the commissioning editor, and make the deal.
However, literary agents are well-known for being very difficult to get, and may not take on many (or any) new clients in a given year. Very senior agents may have closed their lists to new clients entirely.
Some agents, particularly those who have been editors at publishing houses before turning to agenting, are very hands-on in terms of editing their clients’ books, particularly fiction. They help to mould the work into the best, most attractive book it can be. Of course, ‘the best a book can be’ is very subjective, so even then, a commissioning editor who has bought the book may also have ideas about aspects of the work that need further revision. Other agents are much less involved in editing and want the books that come their way to be ready to sell to a publisher.
In either case, the manuscript of a novel should be as close to ready to publish as the author can make it before they attempt to find a literary agent. This does not necessarily mean the book must be professionally edited before submitting to agents, but perhaps a couple of beta readers have seen it (close friends and family do not really count for this purpose), it should have been re-drafted on the basis of feedback a few times, and the spelling and grammar should have been cleaned up as much as possible. The first draft of a first novel is highly unlikely to be publishable.
Non-fiction, on the other hand, can be sold on the basis of a proposal and sample chapters only, and so polishing the rest of the book can come later.
Next, the deal having been struck, a literary agent negotiates the finer points of the contract. Some sole agents will do this themselves, or outsource this work to an independent service, while bigger agencies will have a contracts manager or even a contracts department to handle all the legal paperwork going through the agency.
Part of the contract negotiation will have to do with who has the right to sell foreign editions and other subsidiary rights. Some literary agents who mainly sell primary rights also have solid long-lasting relationships with foreign agents and can make many great deals with their counterparts in other countries, and some agents specialise in selling foreign rights. Meanwhile, some publishers have whole rights departments that do the same thing, so in the end, this may come down to which party is better equipped to exploit the subsidiary rights.
Of course, the agent will also handle checking royalty statements and receiving payments on their authors’ behalf, deducting their 15% commission and sending the remainder on, and they will usually be the first point of contact for parties interested in working with the author, such as film producers interested in buying an option, or event organisers wanting a speaker.
How does a literary agent get paid?
Agents work on commission, a percentage taken from the advances and royalties their authors receive. They get paid when the author is paid. This affects the kind of books they will represent, and is why the vast majority of books represented by agents are full-length fiction and commercial non-fiction.
Some types of books don’t attract an advance at all, which means the agent wouldn’t be paid anything until the first batch of royalties comes through, six months or more after publication. So it’s easy to see that agents would rather work with books that will attract advances, since they can then start getting paid as the advance is paid out, which is usually in two to four instalments: on signing the contract, on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript, on hardback publication, and on paperback publication.
The bottom line is that the kind of books that won’t get an advance will also usually not appeal to a literary agent, and then the unrepresented author must fend for themselves or hire independent services. The type of books that may not attract an advance includes academic, legal, technical and scientific works, and fee-paid writing for a series developed by the publisher. Fiction and non-fiction bought by small presses may attract a smaller advance, or no advance.
Who needs a literary agent?
Fiction and non-fiction published by the Big 5 will often have come to them via a literary agent, and so if you are determined that your book must be published by a Big 5 publisher, it is best to persevere until you find an agent who will submit your work to them. Some of the Big 5 now have small, often digital-first, imprints that will accept unsolicited submissions, so these may be a possibility if you are struggling to find an agent, though bear in mind competition will be fierce and it may be difficult to be picked out.
If you are interested in working with a small press, an independent publisher, or an academic publisher, you may be able to submit directly to them and so a literary agent will not be a necessary requirement, though again there will be lots of competition to get noticed. Lots of authors work with small publishers, particularly at the beginning of their career, and if they are successful they may want to transition to one of the big publishers later.
The author must be careful, though, as vanity presses often advertise that they are accepting unsolicited submissions, and may present themselves as legitimate traditional publishers before starting to ask for money from the author – this is the big giveaway that the publisher is not a legitimate traditional publisher, because in traditional publishing the money flows from publisher to author, not the other way around.
Somewhat confusingly, these days there are companies who offer what might be called hybrid publishing, assisted publishing, or pay-to-play publishing, and here the author does pay the company for publishing services, in exchange for a higher split of the royalties than they would get from a traditional publisher. These companies may be perfectly legitimate, although not all are, but they are not to be confused with traditional publishing. They provide additional options for an author who may not be quite ready to dive into self-publishing, where the author (as publisher) makes all the investment themselves.
Self-published or ‘indie’ authors are an obvious category of the kind of author who does not need an agent.
Lastly, a few authors, often very successful and published by the big 5, nevertheless set up their representation in a different way, hiring a manager or lawyer with the appropriate skills and experience to handle the work that an agent might otherwise do.
What’s the alternative?
So we can see that there’s more than one approach to publishing, and that getting a literary agent is very much not the only way. However, there are things an agent does that authors may want and indeed need to replicate outside of an author-agent relationship.
One thing that makes a good literary agent so valuable is their negotiation of the contract. It is impossible to overstate just how much an unrepresented author needs to keep their eye on the ball while negotiating and finalising the contract. If you are not represented, the responsibility to inform and protect yourself lies solely with you. Never just sign the contract a publisher presents to you, it quite naturally favours the publisher and may not contain a number of terms that would be more favourable and even necessary to you, the author.
I have written elsewhere about how to read and understand what the contract says, and that it is essential to negotiate it rather than sign and hope for the best. Some authors are confident they can negotiate a contract themselves, perhaps because they already have experience in the publishing industry. Alternatively, you can outsource this job to an independent contract negotiator, so as to feel confident that the contract is fair to both parties before being signed.
A second aspect of the agent’s value lies in their ability to sell foreign and other subsidiary rights. If these rights can be exploited they should be, as not to do so is leaving money on the table. But if the publisher is not really able to sell these rights, an author may want to hold onto them. If the author can show strong sales in their home country, they may be able to get the interest of an agent who will take on the job of selling to foreign publishers, or the author may sell them through a service that connects them with foreign agents and publishers.
A third aspect of great value is the sense that someone knowledgeable is in your corner, on your side, and will be able to suggest appropriate publishers to submit to, discuss how your career is going and help you plan how to achieve the goals you set yourself. Some authors become good friends with their agents, really valuing their opinion and support. This kind of value might be replicated via an ongoing relationship with a freelance consultant who offers the same kind of advice and career support.
Basically, having an agent is necessary in order to submit to many of the Big 5’s imprints, but in other circumstances, it may be possible to get the value of an agent without actually getting an agent.