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What Do Agents Do?

I didn’t go to the Writing the West conference to learn about publishing, but there happened to be some interesting sessions on the topic, which I attended out of curiosity. I’m glad I did. The publishing world is fascinating and a process and practice that before the weekend, I didn’t have a clue about how it worked. There are a few people in my life, interested in getting published. So for those people and any others who might be curious, I’ve summarized what I learned. 

The primary source of information was an agent that led most of the publishing conversations. Sandra Bond, of Bond Literary Agents, shared her perspective and experience on the process of getting published. One of the primary lessons I learned through discussions with Sandra was the division of responsibilities between the agent, author, and publisher, and really a discussion of, what an agent does.

What Do Agents Do?

Agents use their experience and their connections to find the appropriate publisher for a book. They serve as the liaison between the author and the publisher, providing coaching and insight into the publishing world. Ideally, they are your champion and are usually rewarded, through commission, only when your book gets published. Standard commission is 15 percent of book sales. They are incentivized to get you published. Some of them also edit the books that they represent. 

What Don’t Agents Do?

Marketing. The author is primarily responsible for marketing unless the publisher is heavily invested in the book and wants to help with promotion via book tours and events.

What to Look for in an Agent.

Before pursuing publishing, you should understand where your book might live in a book store. Book retailers, including Amazon, operate on the BISAC system and categorize books based on this system. Publishers care about where your book fits into this system and it’s a good way to find the right agent, who represents your genre.

For fiction writers, understanding your genre is usually easy. Mystery, YA, Science Fiction, Romance, etc. Here’s a great Fiction Genre chart to refer to.

Nonfiction seems to be less clear in regards to categorization. Here are some categories of nonfiction, but when you think about the sections of a book store, it’s harder to identify where you might fit, as a nonfiction author. Unfortunately, this makes publishing more difficult for nonfiction authors. 

Should You Self-Publish?

There wasn’t a ton of discussion on how to self-publish, which I interpreted to be pretty telling about how compelling the self-publishing option is. It seems that if you self-publish and your book sales aren’t good, then you become less attractive to an agent. In summary, if you think that at some point, you will want to have an agent, but you want to self-publish, you should be pretty confident that the sales of your self-published book will be good.

Reaching out to an Agent

If you decide that you want to work with an agent here are some considerations.

  • Look for an agent that represents your genre.
  • Check out the other books that the agent represents.
  • The 1st page of your book is the most important page. It’s obviously where an agent will start reading and if it isn’t good, you won’t get very far. 
  • Spend time making your query letter awesome. Here’s some insight on writing a query letter.
  • Follow the instructions given on their website. If they suggest that you email them a query letter in the body of an email. Don't send an attachment and don't mail them the query letter.
  • Be sure to include information about the other publications you've been featured in. If you've self-published, tell the agent, so there aren’t any surprises.

Here's an interview with Sandra Bond that has some more details about finding an agent.

Andrea Steffes-Tuttle