Do You Need An Agent To Sell Your Book? A FAQ

An agent can be a real help. It can also be as hard to find an agent as it is a publisher. Or, you may not need one at all. These FAQs should help you decide.

What does a literary agent do for writers?

A literary agent represents the author of a book to publishers. In other words, the main job of a literary agent is to find writers a publisher. Agents also negotiate rights, including film and TV, on behalf of the author they represent.


Most literary agents have a specialty. That is, there are agents who specialize in computer books, those who market mysteries, etc.

Does having an agent mean my book will sell?

No. The possible advantage an agent offers is their contacts in the publishing industry. They act as brokers and filters to acquisition editors. If an agent with good contacts likes your book, it will get consideration quickly.

An agent who likes your book may help you shape it so it is more likely to be purchased by a publisher.

Agents can also help in negotiations with a publisher, often getting you a higher advance, higher royalties and/or more promotion.

But just because an agent takes you and you book on doesn’t guarantee a sale. And if there’s a sale it doesn’t guarantee the publisher will invest a ton of money to make your book sell the way it should. An agent can help, but they are only part of the publishing puzzle.

How are literary agents paid?

The agent receives a percentage, usually 15%, of any advance and all author royalties. They don’t get paid unless they make a sale.

What kind of contract do I sign with a literary agent?

As a general rule, an agency contract is a personal service contract. This means that you and the agent sign a contract that spells out what both parties will do, what fees are charged and how they are to be paid and under what circumstances either party can cancel the contract.

What should I consider when reading an agent’s contract?

The contract should have a time limit. Ninety to 180 days is probably the range you’re looking for. You want the agent to have enough time to do a good job, but you don’t want to get locked in for long if the agent is unsuccessful or isn’t working for you.

The rights the agent will market should be spelled out in the contract. For example, some agents only work with book publishers, others work with film and TV and some do both. Whatever it is, make sure it’s clearly stated in the agent’s contract.

An agent may ask for rights to market any and all future work. You probably won’t want to do this unless the agent has already demonstrated they can successfully market your work. Even then, my own feeling is that you shouldn’t agree to this. One possible approach is to agree to a right of first refusal on future works with a time limit of no more than 30 days. This means you’re giving them a chance to look at the book but the time limit means you won’t be tied up for long if they decide they don’t want to take it on. But you don’t have to do that unless you want to.

The contract should explain what sort of reports you will be getting from the agent. These can be formal reports or even a phone call every so often. But you do have the right to know what the agent is doing on your behalf.

The contract should also spell out exactly how the agreement can be cancelled by you and the agent. The agent wants to be sure you won’t jerk the work out from under them when they are on the verge of a sale, and you want to be sure you can get out if the agent isn’t performing.

A literary agent offered me a work for hire contract. What’s that?

A work for hire contract means you’re giving all rights to the publisher or agent and will only be paid once. There are no royalties and no opportunity for you to sell your work again. Although there may be special circumstances that warrant such a contract, they are best avoided.

Do I have to pay agent fees up front?

Not to a legitimate literary agent. If you’re asked for a reader’s fee or any other form of payment, run away as fast as you can. The only payment an agent deserves is a percentage of the sale.

Do I need to complete my work before I look for a literary agent?

If you’re writing a novel, you’ll need to finish the book before an agent takes you on as a client, unless, of course, you’ve already sold several in that genre. The reason a novel needs to be completed is because it’s way easier to start a novel than to finish it, and until you’ve got a solid track record agents and publishers want to see the whole thing.


If you’re writing non-fiction you can often find a literary agent on the basis of a book proposal, although if you’re an unpublished writer, the complete book may be required. I do offer an ebook on book proposals that some have found helpful.

Okay, how to I find a literary agent?

There are several ways. One of the best ways to get a literary agent is through personal recommendation. If you know a successful writer who writes in your genre, ask them to make a suggestion. If you belong to any writing groups, either off line or on, you may be able to get recommendations there.

Another way is simply to look for agent’s blogs online.

Paradoxically, another good way to get an agent is to market your book yourself. When a publisher makes you an offer, ask them to recommend an agent. Publishers like working with agents because they know the ropes and even though the agent may be able to negotiate a better advance and/or royalties, they know they are working through a professional.

Since it often takes as much work to find an agent as it does a publisher, it may make better sense to look for the publisher first.

Another way to locate agents is to Google them. Just enter Literary Agents and you’ll get a ton of links. And, of course, there are books that list agents. Writer’s Digest publishes a directory of agents every year. You may also find listings of agents in writing magazines. Don’t overlook your local yellow pages as another possible source.

NOTE: You need to decide if you’re going to seek an agent or a publisher – it won’t work to sell to an agent and a publisher at the same time. You can see why. If you’ve already been rejected by a publisher, the agent isn’t likely to want to represent your book.

Do I need an literary agent in New York?

No, a New York agent is not necessary these days. Although New York agents have a better chance of lunching with publishers, the truth is a good agent can market you successfully from almost anywhere.

Write well and often!

Anne Wayman, Ghostwriter

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

KathleenK March 15, 2012 at 4:46 pm

Anne — Thank you for addressing this set of issues. You answered a number of questions for me. And as I have a couple of Novels in the can… on the desk … on the hard drive (heheheheheee) and a couple of non-fictions in the works… I have found this to be of much assistance as I continue on down this path.

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