Do Christian Writers Need a Literary Agent?
You saw the movie “Jerry Maguire,” starring Tom Cruise, so you understand how sports agents earn a living. They try to sign a young promising athlete, and then they try to sell that athlete’s skills to sports teams, trying to get one of them to pay top dollar for a soon-to-be star. Of course, the sports agent takes a healthy portion of the athlete’s income for services rendered, but that’s the way of the world.
Book agents, better known as literary agents, are in the same game. They’re looking for fresh talent that they can pitch to publishers. If they can place your book with a publisher, they will get a cut of your income for the economic life of the book. How much does a literary agent get? I remember when it was 10%, and when it climbed to 15%. These days, some agents want as much as 20% of your hard-earned advances and royalties.
Jerry Maguire, an agent in action.
Is a literary agent worth that kind of money? The answer to that question is unique to each writer. Back in the day, a writer would the toil over a manuscript, put a copy of it in a package along with a cover letter, synopsis and as a self-addressed stamped envelope, and send it off to any publisher in the country. You could be very sure of getting a response back in a few months–a rejection letter or one of acceptance.
Unfortunately, those days are almost gone. There are a few publishers who still accept submissions “over the transom,” but most don’t due to the enormous number of manuscripts they receive and the possibility of legal problems if they end up publishing a book similar to one that another author sent them.
Publishers need someone else do the grunt work of finding good manuscripts, and those people are called literary agents. They read manuscripts just as publishers used to do, and then they make a decision about whether or not to represent you. If they think they can sell your book to a publisher, they’ll take you on as a client. If they don’t think you’ll become their private ATM machine, they’ll write you a “no thanks” letter just as sweet as one from any publisher.
Agents want writers who will likely be producing a lot of books, so they will have a continuous income stream. If you have a pet project you been working on for 25 years, a literary agent probably would not consider you a hot commodity.
I would like to think that all literary agents were like publishing genius Seymour Lawrence, who spotted writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Katherine Anne Porter, William Saroyan, and Frank Conroy when they were merely typists. He saw their talent when no one else did, and each reached the literary firmament because of his dedication to his authors. Sadly, not all agents are literary visionaries Seymour Lawrence.
Many agents are book lovers holed up somewhere in Kansas, and they’re trying to make a living in the publishing world. If you’re serious about getting an agent, one of the things that you should do is find one who lives either in the greater Los Angeles area, or preferably in New York City. That is where almost all the book publishing action takes place among major publishers, and you can’t schmooze a book editor if you’re in Topeka. Christian publishing is more decentralized so at least make sure your agent has accumulated lots of frequent flyer miles.
When you’re out looking for a literary agent who might take you on as a client, an important thing you want to do after determining their geography, is to see what manuscripts they have sold lately, and to which publishers. Laugh out loud if a literary agent tells you they cannot reveal their client lists or sales. Bragging about clients and sales to publishers is stock-in-trade for all literary agents.
Notice that I said you should not consider a literary agent unless he or she has had recent sales to reputable publishing companies. You do not want an agent whose claim to fame is selling books to obscure publishers every other year. You want an agent who is constantly in the process of plugging product to the most prominent publishers.
A really good agent is not a salesman. He or she is a person who has a lot of friends in the publishing industry. They like to make recommendations to their friends, and one of those recommendations may be your book if it meets both human and market needs.
If the publisher trusts the agent’s judgment, you may very well have a sale. Generally, agents and publishers do not have a financial relationship. You are paying the freight by signing over a percentage of your advance and royalties to the agent.
Once the agent has found a home for your book, he or she will negotiate a contract on your behalf. This is a good thing. The agent knows what the market will bear and will squeeze every dollar for you as if his or her commission be depended on it (which it does). Once you get your contract and the details have been explained to you by your agent, you may also wish to consult your own attorney. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Since I’m talking about money, let me touch on one other important topic. That is, there are a lot of posers and charlatans masquerading as literary agents. I’ve given you clues to finding a good one–they do business in one of the major geographical publishing hotspots, they have a client list that you can look up on Amazon.com, and they have fairly recent sales to publishers.
There is also a nearly foolproof way to spot a bad literary agent, one who wants to spread his or her bad vibes to you. He or she will want to charge you a “reading fee,” or will come up with some other creative products or services to make their own cash register ring. Don’t fall for it. If a literary agent is not good enough to earn a prosperous living off client advances and royalties, then the agent is of no value to you.