A literary agent (sometimes publishing agent, or writer's representative) is an agent who represents writers and their written works to publishers, theatrical producers, film producers, and film studios, and assists in sale and deal negotiation. Literary agents most often represent novelists, screenwriters, and non-fiction writers. They are paid a fixed percentage (usually twenty percent on foreign sales and ten to fifteen percent for domestic sales) of the proceeds of sales they negotiate on behalf of their clients.
Literary agents perform various services for authors. They connect the author's work with appropriate publishers, negotiate contracts, ensure royalty payments, and mediate problems between author and publisher. Agents can help new authors get public recognition. Agents also help publishing houses and others expedite the process of review, publication, and distribution of authors' works. Many well-known, powerful, and lucrative publishing houses (such as the Big Five) are generally less open than smaller publishers to unrepresented submissions. A knowledgeable agent knows the market, and can be a source of valuable career advice and guidance. Being a publishable author doesn't automatically make someone an expert on modern publishing contracts and practices—especially where television, film, or foreign rights are involved. Many authors prefer to have an agent handle such matters. This prevents straining the author's working relationship with the editor with disputes about royalty statements or late checks.
An agent can also function as an adviser, showing an author the various aspects of how to make a living writing. Literary agents often transition from jobs in other aspects of the publishing industry. Though self-publishing is becoming much more popular, literary agents still fulfill a useful role as gatekeepers to publishing houses.
Literary agencies can range in size from a single agent who represents perhaps a dozen authors, to a substantial firm with senior partners, sub-agents, specialists in areas like foreign rights or licensed merchandise tie-ins, and clients numbering in the hundreds. Most agencies, especially smaller ones, specialize to some degree. They may represent—for example—authors of science fiction, mainstream thrillers and mysteries, children's books, romance, or highly topical nonfiction. Very few agents represent short stories or poetry.
Legitimate agents and agencies in the book world are not required to be members of the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR), but according to Writer's Market listings, many agents in the United States are. To qualify for AAR membership, agents must have sold a minimum number of books and pledge to abide by a Canon of Ethics. Effective professional agents often learn their trade while working for another agent, though some cross over to agenting after working as editors.
Legitimate agents do not charge reading or other upfront fees (e.g., retainers), or bill authors for most operating expenses. They also do not offer to place work with a vanity or subsidy press.
A client typically establishes a relationship with an agent through querying, though the two may meet at a writers' conference, through a contest, or in other ways. A query is an unsolicited proposal for representation, either for a finished work or unfinished work. Various agents request different elements in a query packet, and most agencies list their specific submission requirement on their Website or in their listing in major directories. It typically begins with the author sending a query letter (1-2 pages) that explains the purpose of the work and any writing qualifications of the author. Some agencies want a synopsis or outline as part of the query. Often, the author sends the first three chapters (typically around 50 pages) of their work. For paper queries, the author must include a self-addressed stamped envelope to receive a response, though email submissions are increasingly common.
If an agency rejects a written query, they send the response—typically a form letter—in the self-addressed stamped envelope. A rejection that is not merely a form letter, or has hand-written comments (especially a message to the effect of "query me for other projects") is typically a good sign.
The first literary agents appeared around the year 1880 (Publishing).