What Does a Literary Agent Do?

As a writer, the publishing world can feel large and overwhelming. The process of writing, querying, and submitting work is time-consuming and daunting. However, there is a group of professionals whose sole job is to help you through the process. These people are called literary agents, and they might be the best investment you make in your book.

A literary agent’s primary responsibility is to find an editor who likes your work enough to buy or publish it. They can’t promise to sell your book, neither can they purchase the rights to the writing and try to sell it without you. Instead, literary agents use their wide network of contacts and relationships to find a perfectly suited editor. They often have relationships with acquisition editors at publishing houses, allowing them to get your writing to the top of the pile—rather than allowing a query letter to wilt and fade for months. These professionals know what editors are looking for, and they’re experts at sending submissions to the right people. Additionally, editors understand that submissions by literary agents have already undergone a screening process—the process necessary for you to be picked up by an agent. Therefore, regardless of the connection, agented submissions will nearly always land at the top of the pile.

A good literary agent will also provide essential manuscript feedback. They will often edit or critique your work, offering valuable suggestions to increase marketability. This service is often more helpful than a standard workshop, as an agent will know exactly which tweaks will make your book succeed. However, keep in mind that literary agents do not offer line edits or make rewrites. It is the writer’s job to incorporate suggested changes.

If you hire and are accepted by a literary agent, this professional will be your biggest advocate. They will pitch your book to publishers and try to get the best deal possible. It is their responsibility to negotiate contracts with publishers, and they will often manage your affairs with the publisher once the deal goes through. If you don’t make money, the literary agent won’t make money, meaning it is in their interest to get you the best deal possible.

However, those seeking literary agent help should remember: though these professionals are industry insiders, they are not tax consultants, publicists, writing coachers, or lawyers. Though their duties may include aspects of those roles, they are not experts in contract law or public relations. If you are picked up by an agent, don’t over-rely on their assistance; simply allow them the space and resources to do their job.