Nathan Bransford, Author

Sunday, April 9, 2017

What Do Literary Agents Do?

Updated! Revised! With more links!

It's been a long time since I originally published this post on what literary agents do.

For context, I was a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. from 2002-2010, so posts that were written during that time will sound as if I'm currently an agent (which, again, I'm not).

Behold! This is organized in the form of tracking one project from query to post-sale:

The Filter

Literary agents are the baleen to the publishing industry's whale. The Brita to the publishing industry's drinking water. The pan to the publishing industry's gold. (I could go on)

Basically: agents serve as a filter. Because editors are so busy, it's rare for publishers to consider unagented submissions and they instead rely on agents to filter through the tens of thousands of aspiring writers and present editors with only the very best projects.

This means that agents open the floodgates to submissions. Most agents receive between 5,000 and 20,000 or more submissions a year and choose only a few carefully selected projects to send to editors.

Agents may specialize in certain areas or they may be generalists, but all have to reject way way way more projects than they are able to take on.

For further reading:
A day in the life of an agent
Query stats: Salutations!
Digging for mushrooms
You've got 30 pages, pal
In praise of reading slush

Pre-submission Editing

Because the marketplace is so difficult, many agents will work with clients or prospective clients on their manuscripts or proposals prior to submissions.

I was a hands-on agent and would often work with authors on revisions before offering representation so that we could both get a sense of how well we would work together.

A project has to really be perfect in order to attract an editor, and so it behooves agent and author to work together to get the project or proposal as perfect as possible ahead of time.

For further reading:
The agent as editor
Unagented revisions

Submitting to editors

Submitting a project to editors is both art and science.

The science: a huge part of being an agent involves networking, knowing which editors like what type of books, networking, keeping imprints and mergers and layoffs and hires straight, networking, keeping up with industry news and gossip, networking, and networking.

The art: An agent will carefully select the best editors to consider a particular project, but at the end of the day an agent never quite knows who is going to respond the strongest to a particularly project.

Then agents will also pester the editors they submitted to at regular intervals until they get a response.

Also, it's worth mentioning that every responsibility I've listed up until this point is done on spec - an agent has not yet gotten paid for any of this. Since agents only receive income if they're able to sell a project, they could very well spend tens or a hundred or more hours on a project, send it to editors, and come up empty.

For further reading:
Let's do lunch
I write queries too
Spaghetti agents

Negotiating offers

Hooray! An offer comes in!

Now the agent will help the author decide what comes next. There are different types of offers with different territories and terms, and, of course, the dollar amount of the advance varies greatly. It's an agent's job to negotiate the terms of the offer upward, possibly conduct an auction if multiple houses are interested, and make sure the i's are crossed and the t's are dotted prior to the author accepting.

For further reading:
How a book gets published

Negotiating contracts

Some agencies have in-house contracts specialists, some agencies have agents negotiate their contracts directly. All will negotiate an agreement that is far, far better than what an unagented author will achieve on their own.

For further reading:
The basics of publishing contracts
Separate vs. joint accounting

Keeping track of the publication process

An agent will follow up on payments and badger publishers until said payments come in, keep track of key dates, discuss marketing plans with author and editor, serve as mediator between author and publisher in case any disputes arise, and generally keep on top of everything to make sure everything is proceeding as it should.

For further reading:
An Ex Publishing Insider Talks About What Editors Really Do (Part 1)
An Ex Publishing Insider Talks About What Editors Really Do (Part 2)
Book sales demystified


In the offer stage the agent will also try to retain certain rights, such as film, audio, and translation, which can be sold directly. These rights can be quite lucrative, and if they're sold directly the author doesn't have to split the revenue with the publisher.

Some agencies work with subagents to place these rights. Some, like Curtis Brown, have in-house film and foreign rights departments.

For further reading:
Jeff Abbott on the importance of having an agent
I guess I should blog more about this.

Career Shaping

Even apart from the nuts and bolts tasks that go into making a book happen, an agent can help an author plan their career trajectory, whether that involves helping the author choose projects to pursue, thinking of new ideas for breaking them out to larger audiences, serving as a sounding board, brainstorming, keeping the author apprised of changes in the industry, and in general being an experienced ear and brain, helping the author navigate the business.

For further reading:
Jeff Abbott on the importance of having an agent
I guess I should blog more about this too.

The Ultimate Advocate

Ultimately: the agent is the author's advocate. They help the author become more successful and work tirelessly to advance the author's career.

For further reading:
Trust and communication
Jeff Abbott on the importance of having an agent
8 ways to know you have a good agent

This is just a basic list, and there's often more to it than this. It's quite a catchall job, one that requires a long apprenticeship, time in the business, a strong work ethic, a good eye, and a passion for books.

For all of these tasks the agent receives income based only on commission -- again, the agent is only paid if/when the author is paid. The standard commission is 15% for domestic book deals and 20% for foreign (split between the agent and subagent).

And in case you're wondering if having an agent is worth it - here's Jeff Abbott's post (once again) on the reasons you need one.

Originally Published: September, 2009
Revised: April 9, 2017

Art: Sir Walter Scott by Sir William Allan


lynnrush said...

Nice stuff here, Nathan!

Sean Craven said...

Thanks for the information.

I am curious -- I've recently been told that you stand a better chance of getting an agent if you've placed a book with an editor. But from what you're saying here, the extra polish that an agent could contribute to a manuscript seems as if it could be significant.

So -- submit first to editors? First to agents? Both, simultaneously?

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Nathan! Although I'd learned most of this from your other duty-related posts, I like having it all in one place... and I appreciate your taking the time to put it all together!

I do have one question for you, though. Nowadays, do you find that you negotiate film & audiobook rights for EVERY book you represent - or have there been a few deals without such components?

It sure seems like most books become audiobooks and optioned screenplays at some point, but perhaps not all lend themselves to such media.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm really not sure where the myth that you need to get a book deal before an agent is coming from, and I'll soon post about why authors shouldn't generally submit to editors.

I've been hearing that a lot lately and it's really not true - where did you see that, if you don't mind me asking?

Nathan Bransford said...


No, I wouldn't say that most books are made into audiobooks and are optioned for film. Less than half.

Natalie Whipple said...

Agents are pretty awesome people, at least from my experience.

Sean and Nathan, I think that myth stems from a few stories about when writers meet editors at conferences. Sometimes they are invited to submit? And I guess sometimes they're offered a deal. I've seen that scenario retold a few times around the web.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, meeting editors at conferences is one of two exceptions where I do think it makes sense to query editors directly. It's strange though that that has then morphed into a rule or that people have the sense that it's better to first query editors directly. With few exceptions they really don't want unsolicited submissions.

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Nathan. I thought that might be the case.

How does an agent decide what might be a worthy book for films and audiobooks, or do you try with every book - and see which ones spark an interest?

Kasie West said...

Agents rock! I know I wouldn't want to do it on my own. I'm so glad I have someone helping me that knows a lot more than I do about the business.

Nathan Bransford said...


It varies from project to project.

Travener said...

What's hard for most of us aspiring authors as we go through the difficult, lengthy and at least here and there humiliating process of finding an agent is that theory...want to work for us. It usually feels like it's the other way around.

Karla said...

I look forward to that post about why authors shouldn't submit to editors. I'd especially like your take on how that rule relates to e-publishers, many of whom have extensive submission guidelines posted and say they are open, open, open to unagented subs.

Travener said...

"What's hard for us to believe..." that should have read. (My ms. has no typos, I swear...)

Ink said...

And here I thought agents mostly sat around watching reality television. Who knew?

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Nathan!

Haha, Bryan. You one funny dude.

P.S. You (Bryan) asked about Katrina books a while ago. Here's another good one: Bayou Farewell.

Ink said...


I hear where you're coming from, but it seems like in the end it's usually more of a partnership. You team up, making use of each other's skills, to try and get a book published.

But from a querying writer's viewpoint it does seem a bit like you're auditioning... but if you've written a fabulous book and ten agents want it, well, it's the agent who's going to feel like they're auditioning and doing their utmost to catch the eye of the lucky writer.

The only difference is that the first is a wee bit more common than the latter. But once you have a relationship, it's really more like a team. All for one, one for all. Probably some secret handshakes, too.

Richard Mabry said...

Nathan, Excellent post. A good agent is truly worth his/her weight in gold---but I think I'll stick with 15%.

Lydia Sharp said...

Excellent post. Another link for my blog. Thanks!

Amber Hamilton said...

After my last e-mail faux pas, I had not intended to submit to you for a critique in Austin. But, because it seems there are those who don't know the value of a good agent, you and another agent were the only two spots open, so I'm lucky enough to be set up for a critique with the oh-so-awesome Nathan Bransford. (My plan was to duck if I saw you, but now I guess I'm just going to have to swallow my pride. I'm actually (mostly) teasing, and I'm looking forward to meeting you.

Ink said...

Thanks, Laura! That does look interesting. I just read Matthiessen's Shadow Country a little while ago, so I'm still in a marsh mood.

Laura Martone said...

Cool, Bryan.

Ooh, Amber, I'm a little jealous... but only a little. Good luck!

Susan Quinn said...

I'm wearing black today, in mourning after finding the post that you (Nathan) won't represent MG SF books, for apparent conflict with Young Master Wonderbar.

*shakes fist at universe*

Not fair that the good ones are taken! :)

I will, however, continue to avidly read the blog, because it's just about the best thing going.

p.s. I may have to write a different kind of book next time. :)

Larissa said...

Thanks! That was very informative! :)

Jil said...

How does a new agent survive with no money coming in until a book comes out? And that seems to take so long!
I don't mean to be personal but it does seem a tough job with no rewards for a long time and no chance to take on a second job.

Nathan Bransford said...


Young agents are often earning their keep by still serving as assistants while they begin to take on projects or by working on selling subrights for other clients at the agency.

The Decreed said...

I wonder how much differently the agent pursues these various tasks for different kinds of books: non-fiction, fiction... fantasy or romance? Or is it a book by book basis?

Amber Hamilton said...

Just realized my parenthesis mistake, but I also wanted to comment on the "editor first, then agent" train of thought: I've heard this idea at almost every writer's conference I've attended. Mostly, it's not stated exactly this way, it's usually in some form of "you don't really need an agent to find a publisher" and "it can be easier to find an agent after you have a few published books". You, to me, seem unique as an agent. That's one reason why I'd be interested in your representation, if I ever get to that point with my current novel.

I've tried to reason out the "why" of this advice, and for my own comfort, I've concluded a couple of things: Agents don't tend to show partial interest. (Another place where you seem to be different.) They tend to either accept or decline. I've not gotten hand-written notes from agents to help me along, but I have from several editors, which help me gear my writing more to their taste.

The second conclusion is that agents aren't necessarily selling one piece of work; in my experience, agents talk about clients they've signed, editors talk more about books they've signed, so the human relationship seems more important to the author/agent agreement. What better way of determining client potential, and what better way to convince an editor of a client's potential than if they are already solid authors? Agents seem interested in the author as a whole and possibly in several projects. They have to be absolutely sure that they author they are representing is solid in order to keep their reputations solid while competing with other agents for publisher's attention. If they market one "bad apple", it could potentially hurt their influence with editors.

I'm not sure if my assumptions are correct; that's just my two cents. I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks about those possibilities.

Kristi said...

I think agents are fabulous and thought Jeff Abbott's post was insightful. I have heard that agents don't make much money from picture books and PB's are hard to get published right now anyway, so it could be easier to get an agent AFTER getting a PB published. That's just what I've heard from several published PB authors who aren't agented (if that's a word) but I'd be curious to hear about the experience of PB authors who do have agents.

Personally, I only want one agent the same way I have only one husband - I'm a loyal gal and want to make sure it's a good fit before getting married (in the business sense of course). I'd love to have the same person for the duration of my career to help guide things in a positive way. On my end, I'm working on the best ms I can write to snag such a mythical agent creature. :)

Haste yee back ;-) said...

If 80% of published books don't earn out, how do agents plan for and encourage *long term* relationships?

Just wonderin'!

Haste yee back ;-)

Anonymous said...

...sunscreen to the publishing industry's UV rays...

~The Anonymizer

Victoria Dixon said...

Thanks, Nathan! This goes in the keeper file so I'll someday know what to expect. :)

Laura Martone said...

I'm with you, Kristi! I'm a loyal gal, too, and hope that I can snag and keep the same agent for the duration of my writing career (i.e., the rest of my life).

Anonymous said...

If I already got a book deal on my own,. I wouldn't then go and get an agent so I could give him/her 15%! That's no different than handing a stranger $$$ for nothing!

For a second deal, though, where it becomes obvious you've got at least a part-time career goingm it makes sense to seek an agent.

~The Anonymizer

Nathan Bransford said...


I think that's at least a misguided assumption. An agent can help build an author's career from book one. I've seen contracts from the same publisher for both agented and unagend authors, and trust me, just having an agent for the contract alone is worth 15%. And that's even apart from selling translation, film, and audio rights, which an author isn't very well-equipped to do on their own.

Robin said...

Terrific post, Nathan. I like how you have broken the demands of the job down in a beginning to end type of fashion.

Candy said...

Thanks for this information. I sure makes you think twice when wanting to become angry with agents for not accepting what is delivered. This was very insightful of what agents and others surrounding this work really go through. It's tough.

CindaChima said...

Take it from me--an agent is worth his weight in gold. Or at least 15-20%. Because two publishers were interested in my first book, I was able to get more than 5 times the first advance I was offered (which I would have been thrilled to accept.) My agent just went to bat for me this week. It really helps when there's someone you can have those "am I crazy?" conversations with.
That said, I think a lot of people are told it's easier to find an agent when you have a deal in hand, because it is. Many people spend years trying to get an agent to take them on. In the meantime, they submit to houses that will accept unagented ms. That's what I did, figuring if I got an offer, I would quick call several agents. In the end, I found an agent, and she made the sale.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone give me a site to look up individual agent's by name to test if they are legit? I already went to preds & eds...and absolute write (did they just change their site or something)...can't find this agent's name anywhere, positive or negative...and I don't subscribe to PW.

Makes me nervous when they come to me but I haven't heard of them. Not asking for fees, though.


~The Anonymizer

Susan Quinn said...

Having recently talked to a friend who is a published author, I think finding the right agent for your work is even more important (than I thought before). She had a very poor experience with an agent, who neglected to push her work, and subsequently dropped her (in a round about way). My friend proceeded, through pixie dust and magic, get her books published and sold. After some considerable success (read: sales) she decided to try an agent again, because the enterprise was getting too big for her to handle on her own - and she wanted to get back to writing! The agent got her a great contract and she's having even greater success now.

I read this as a cautionary tale for getting the right agent-fit for you and not just taking whomever. And also how agents can really navigate the waters for you, and get you a good deal, allowing you to do what you want - writing!

Emily White said...


This post was wonderful. It has made me so anxious to finish my first draft (any day now!). I am really looking forward to the day when I might get the chance to work with an agent.

Thanks for taking the time to offer this information!

Marla Warren said...


You've sold me! You can be my agent.

:-D LOL!

Seriously, this is a wonderful and informative post.

B. Nagel said...

Love the last line of the negotiating offers paragraph: "make sure the i's are crossed and the t's are dotted."

What fun! Oh, and thanks for all the info.

Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

I find it hard to believe this has never been the subject of a post to date.It permiates in purple prose :)
The follow up post: "What Literary Agents Don't Do" would also be useful.

T.Wolfe said...

Thank you for that information. I knew going with an agent was a great idea that I look forward to pursuing one day ... I just never had it spelled out just how important it can be!

Also it sounds like a ton of fun! :)

Linda Godfrey said...

I wonder if you would agree, Nathan, that it is easier to sell non-agented nonfiction than it is to sell fiction directly to a publisher? That has certainly been my experience.

I (WEIRDLY!) sold my first book with a one-line phone pitch when I called to find a regional publisher's submissions policy. It happened the staff was out for lunch except for the acquisitions editor, and I decided I had nothing to lose by pitching. He said wow, asked for an outline and three chapters, and that was that. I just kept on getting deals on my own from that point.

Not that I have ANYthing against agents or believe its best to do things this way. It's just that the books I write usually involve fairly modest advances, and I have always felt that an agent wouldn't want to bother with them. So I've never queried an agent for NF. I'm aware, however, that I've probably not always received the optimum contract benefits by negotiating solo.

So here is my question; how much of an advance does either a NF or F book need for it to be worth an agent's while? Or is representation about other things entirely, like Mork and Mindy quotes or maybe space monkeys?

Yat-Yee said...

So, can you please clarify: do you have to do lots of networking then? ;)

Anonymous said...

Can anyone give me a site to look up individual agent's by name to test if they are legit? I already went to preds & eds...and absolute write (did they just change their site or something)...can't find this agent's name anywhere, positive or negative...and I don't subscribe to PW.

Makes me nervous when they come to me but I haven't heard of them. Not asking for fees, though.

You're right to be cautious. How did this agent find you? (Did he/she read one of your published short stories, for example, or was it some random contact via Facebook?) If you can't find this agent's name anywhere on the Internet, I'd be very careful. Start asking him/her questions: who are their current clients? What sales have they made recently? You can also email Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware and see if she has any information on this individual.

The Sesquipedalian said...

Great information, Nathan; clear, concise and too the point. Exactly what I needed to know. Thanks for demystifying the role of Literary Agents for this aspiring author.

Q said...

Every aspiring author should read this. This is GOLD. Thank you.

Rick Daley said...

Thank you for this post.

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Nathan!
I'm not sure how useful my information is going to be. It's a classic friend-of-a-friend situation. I'm attending a writer's workshop next week (Viable Paradise, if you're curious.), and I recently met with a couple of other people who are also attending.

What I was told was that the foaf in question had attended a similar workshop -- I believe it was Clarion West -- and that one of the instructors said that you weren't likely to attract an agent who would really work for you until you'd actually placed a book with an editor.

I have to admit that I was predisposed to buy into the proposition because it makes the whole enterprise seem impossible.

Thanks for going into this; I'll be talking about it with the pros at the workshop.

Rocky said...

Great post, Nathan. I've considered submitting to publishers directly (as many children's book publishers still accept unagented manuscripts), but this blog entry made me realize how important an agent really is. I'm a lawyer, and a damn good researcher, so I know I could negotiate a decent contract, but I definitely need help with subrights and career shaping.


Lucinda said...

This is a great blog, as usual, Nathan. It certainly helps us to understand an agent's responsibilities even more.

A special thanks for the link to Jeff Abbott's guest blog. His blog was before I began lurking around these parts, so now I have copy/pasted the info into a file on my computer for future reference.

For the longest, I have felt that without an agent, we sell ourselves short on our potential as writers. Same as with an editor, we need them.

Thanks again

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. This subject of agent or editor first, has been on my mind.

I had the belief that editors would work with me on a ms and agents wanted only polished work.I have had my eyes on editors at conferences-thinking the agent comes later. It's good to know there are some agents who are willing to work with authors they believe in.
Kdrausin-LJ's not working

T. Anne said...

Wonderful info. I'd like to know how much communication to expect. I had an agent once and there was no communication whatsoever after the initial call. (Surprisingly she's still trying to agent.)
So what are we talking, an email a week?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Anon 4:40.

~The Anonymizer

Synolve said...

Really great post!

Gail Handler said...

Thanks Nathan! Those of us who are still new at the publishing game frequently go though the "should-I-shouldn't-I" dilemma. I'm convinced now that we should have an agent. Back to the queries!

Linda Godfrey said...

I wanted to add my agreement that this is a most excellent post, Nathan. I wish I had read it six years ago. There is SO much more great information available on blogs like this one than even that short distance in the past.

Sean Craven, I've also heard at conferences and from a few authors that it's easier to get an agent when you've already placed a book.
My personal, very humble opinion is that it surely can happen but is probably not the best overall strategy since so few editors look at unagented submissions. Especially in fiction.

The exceptions, though, are the smaller presses that publish niche books but pay much less. I'm still curious whether there is a threshold below which an agent just wouldn't make enough to take something on. I would understand that. It is a business, after all.

Adam Heine said...

Anonymizer wrote: "If I already got a book deal on my own,. I wouldn't then go and get an agent so I could give him/her 15%! That's no different than handing a stranger $$$ for nothing!"

I used to think the same thing. This survey of author's advances helped sway my opinion.

See also an editor's point of view on the subject.

Anonymous said...

I have a two book contract with a major publishing house and I'm busy working on the second book. I don't have an agent, but I'm beginning to wish I did. I work very well with the publishers, great people BUT so damn busy. I need to ask questions and toss things around and I can't do that with them. And I can't really get an agent until this contract is over and I have another project underway. I just want that middleperson so I can ask the dumb questions.

JDuncan said...

I must admit to having achieved success in the back door fashion. I snagged interest from an editor first. The notion that you should be doing this however is indeed erroneous. The reason is that by submitting to editors, you decrease your options if you do indeed find an agent first. For any given genre you write, there are a fairly limited number of editors one can submit to. If you hit up the ones open to unagented submissions and get turned down and then find representation, you've just ruined a chunk of the options your agent has for submitting. This is not the best course of action by any stretch.

On the other hand, you have someone like me, who queried about 70 agents with no success. As I was hitting the end of this list and realizing that I had or was nearing the end of my options for this novel, I decided to submit to a couple of editors because, what did I have to lose? I was about to say, "enough" and shelve the book or look at self-publishing it. Low and behold however, one of the editors loved the story and made an offer. I then turned around and went back to about a dozen agents to see if they would reconsider, and got around the fact that my query was basically poor and written with the wrong genre in mind (that's a whole other post-worthy issue by itself). Nathan loved my story as well and now have the immense fortune to have him as my agent.

My case obviously is not the norm, but it does point out the fact that success can be achieved in different ways. Going after editors from the start is not one of them. Don't ever think this is the smart move because it isn't. Writing a great story with a smart, snappy query focused on the proper agents is, and will be for at least the forseeable future, the best path to take. One can only keep trying, improving, and trying again.

Tracy Madison said...

I don't normally comment, though I am a regular reader of the blog. However, I wanted to put my 2 cents into the agent/editor mini-debate going on here.

First off, to put everything on the table, I am a published author with two books currently out and two more to be released within the next year.

I receieved an offer from my publisher on book one before I had an agent. Not that I wasn't looking or submitting to agents, because I was.

I met my editor at a conference. He asked for the partial. I was so focused on finding an agent first, I did not send the chapters in immediately. But then, I finaled in a contest in which the aforementioned editor was going to be the final read for the finalists.

I sent the partial out immediately. He requested the full rather quickly, and then, over the next 8 months, I continued to try to find representation.

By the time I received the actual offer, I had several fulls still out with different agents, as well as a couple of partials. The offering editor gave me some time to check in with the agents, so I could share the news of the deal, and we set a date I would get back to him.

At the end, I had 3 offers of representation, along with several rejections (agents don't necessarily take on an already sold project). After I decided on the agent I wanted to go with, she contacted my editor and she turned the one-book deal into a two-book deal. She also made several adjustments to the contract (in my favor).

Having an agent is about so much more than "selling" the work. I'm in a much better place with contract number two because of the changes made in contract number one.

Anyway, I didn't mean to write a book here, but thought it worth mentioning.

Fernanda Panther said...

So I'm a little confused. I understand the work we submit to an agent cannot be completely unedited, but is it best to hire an editor before we submit to an agent? Or are the publishers the ones who take care of those things?

Adam Heine said...

All of the above, Fernanda. You edit your work the very best you can. You may also pay an editor to edit even better than you can by yourself.

If it's good enough (and you're lucky) you'll get an agent who may help you edit it even further. Luckier still, you'll get an editor who will require you to edit even better than that.

So to answer your question: at each step of the process your work must be the absolute best that you can make it.

mkcbunny said...

I cannot imagine navigating all of those areas of publishing without an agent. The business end is very time-consuming, and it seems to me that there are many advantages to having an advocate other than yourself (the author) conduction negotiations.

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nomadess 2012 said...

"Literary agents are the baleen to the publishing industry's whale."

That is so FUNNY and brilliant! So well said that I didn't even have to read the rest of the article ha ha ha!

Mira said...

Remind me not to post after class on Mondays. They have this one class where they deliberately try to freak us out. It works.

I really appreciate this, Nathan. I've been hoping you would write up a list like this one day - this makes an agent's job much more clear. Thanks.

J.J. Bennett said...

Thanks Nathan... For the post and for the efforts you put into the blog. It really has helped me out. I know you hear statements like this all the time; just know they are sincere. Thanks! I hope things are going well with your book. I had a block for a week or two after the workshop, but have put my ideas in order since.

Thermocline said...

Adam Heine,

Thanks for the links. I've never seen actual data that compares agented versus unagented advances. That pretty much closes out that part of the argument.

Cara Powers said...

You wouldn't happen to need a slush pile reader, would you? I'd love the opportunity.

Alan B. Steeks said...

He forgot to say "crushing the hopes and dreams of the innocent."

Anonymous said...

Nathan (or others), I'm curious how you would respond to this:

A recent blog post with a mainly anti-agent point of view

Nathan Bransford said...


Well, first off, I tend not to listen too seriously to people who say the magic words, "If the agents wanted to write, they would be." Not every agent wants to be a writer, nor is having any talent for writing any part of the job description. You can have a brilliant eye for books without being a writer yourself, and anyone who has been around the business should know that.

But really, for a post that excoriates most agents, and especially young ones, all you need to do is look at the author's track record: he has almost always used an agent.

Amber said...

*raises hand and jumps up and down* I have a question!

Nathan (or anyone),

How does getting an agent work if you, say, live in rural New Hampshire but the agent you want lives in San Francisco? Is working with an agent something that should be done face-to-face all the time, or in this wonderful world of technology are we able to have far-away agents without having to fly out to San Francisco every couple months? Or does it depend on the agent, agency? I.E. Should I be querying closer to home?

Also just for Nathan: :-) You say you're interested in sci-fi... does that extend to fantasy? Some people say its the same thing, but I wonder what you interest is. :-)

JEM said...

This article is really great for pointing out how an agent earns their share of the royalties and advances. I've heard authors complain about the pieces their agents take, but after reading this blog they should be thankful that's all they take! A good agent definitely earns their piece of the pie.

AM said...

Informative and concise.

I’ve always appreciated the insights that you provide into the inner workings of the publishing industry. Thanks.

Sissy said...

Love the information!

Anonymous said...

How does getting an agent work if you, say, live in rural New Hampshire but the agent you want lives in San Francisco? Is working with an agent something that should be done face-to-face all the time, or in this wonderful world of technology are we able to have far-away agents without having to fly out to San Francisco every couple months? Or does it depend on the agent, agency? I.E. Should I be querying closer to home?

It's a wired world. You don't have to live anywhere near your agent or editor. Just focus on targeting agents with a solid track record in your genre.

Anonymous said...

Another great post :)

Thanks, Nathan.

Jon Gibbs
(OpenID still refuses to work for me)

Fernanda Panther said...

Thanks :)

To Amber:
Just my opinion, I consider science fiction to basically be fantasy. I mean sure it's "different" but isn't it like a part of a fantasy world anyway? I mean it all came from the same inspiration anyway right? I think it just depends on the type of book you right however. A book can fall in two categories and sometimes they aren't the same thing at all. :)

Amber said...

Thanks Anon. and Fernanda. :-)

Las Vegas Cabbie said...

Thanks for posting this - at ladt! (Think I asked you this question several months ago.)

Anonymous said...

So is it safe to assume that what a new author looses in the agents 15-20% commission they gain (plus possibly more) in the agents expertise (as apposed to going straight to the publishers - assuming one is lucky enough to find a publisher willing to take on a new unsolicited author)?

Gees... I need to work on my sentance structure.

yurmom said...

Hello Nathan!
My Professor in my Publishing Class had posted a link to your blog on her blog, and tada! I discovered you. And boy, I'm glad I did. My career goal is to become a literary agent. I learned somewhat about it as a college freshman. Now that I'm graduating in the Spring (2010), I'm interested in learning more. This article gave me great knowledge, and I will follow your blog from here on out. Thanks for providing the information! Good luckin life.

Shanti said...

I have a question about agent protocol. I am a first time author,in a contract with a literary agent,and I'm experiencing some confusion in regards to my expectations. My agent seems to ignore my questions. Questions like, "Which publishers do you intend to submit to and when? As we move forward in this process, will you let me know when you make a submission, to which publisher, and whether at that point it's the query letter, the book proposal, or the full manuscript? When I ask these sorts of questions through email, he ignores them. If we're on the phone, he is vague. It leaves me feeling pushy or obtrusive, yet I just want to be kept in the loop and know the general timing of things. This seems reasonable to me, but am I missing something? I would truly appreciate your clarity!

Tiger Eyes said...

Will an agent work for more than one author at a time?

Maggie Jaimeson said...

Shanti, fire your agent! An agent should be able to answer those questions and if he/she isn't doing so then something is definitely wrong. Next time, before you sign with an agent, ask those questions up front and set your expectations for communication frequency and content. If the agent doesn't agree with it, then that person is not the right agent for you.

Anonymous said...

Of course with ePublishing, agents are no longer needed and therefor authors can freely and without cost, submit their works.

Better look for work or go back to school.


Anonymous said...

I'm interested in learning more about being an agent. Would love a piece on your blog about your career path, how you got into doing what you're doing currently, what you find most valuable and most frustrating in your work, etc...

Jill Bonnar said...

Thanks so much for this guide. I have just finished editing and revising my book and I've been very nervous about what to do next. This has given me great peace of mind. Very informative, thanks again!

Carolina Savannah said...

Thanks for this, it's just what I was looking for before striking out on my own for an agent. My first book was done through PublishAmerica and it's sitting in the computers of bookstores doing nothing until someone asks specifically for it. From the comments I've been getting on it, I know it deserves better but I'm locked in for another 9 years. The one I'm working on now is similar and I'd like to use an actual agent this time. Problem? I had no idea how to go about the search and your website helps! thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I am curious. My agent, in one of her responses, said to me:

"We are in the middle of negotiations and will get in touch with you as soon as we have news regarding your projects. That can take up to 10 days.

Kind regards


I really would like to know what she meant, whether or not i email her to know about the progress made.

You can reach me via email:

Shawn Oueinsteen said...

Why does someone become and stay an agent? The following is from my blog:

Growing up, I cherished free weekend mornings when I could be in bed with a book on my knees and my head propped up with pillows. In those days, the books were magical, with such things as a wardrobe door to Narnia, a jungle with Mowgli, musketeers, Sherlock Holmes, Gandalf the wizard, the real lives of Houdini and Einstein, and three laws of robotics. My bed, comforter, and pillows were like clouds I floated upon and that gave me warmth and comfort. Who needed cotton candy? This was better.

Most literary agents, no doubt, had similar “who needs cotton candy?” reading experiences when they were children. The memories of such pleasure propelled them into their literary careers. Agents not only hope to find such sense of wonder again, they also dream of developing and helping to publish such gifts to the world, so that others may share that joy.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking for a reputable agent. Is that even possible? I contracted my first book to PublishAmerica and quickly found out that it was a wrong move. Many people have purchased my book, told me it was great and when is the next one coming out! So I quickly realized this book would have faired better with an actual agent. I'm working on a follow up to Moments in Life by Carolina Ciavola Bradford (pardon the sales pitch) and plan to go with an agent. Can you or anyone help this novice? I feel as though I'm wearing a 'kick me' sign! Thanks.

MB Wilmot said...

Thanks for the information!

I've recently had an interesting response from an agent regarding my nonfiction proposal:

"I'll admit I feel pretty terrible for declining but truth is I don't know how I'd get this off the ground for you, and that's obviously what it's all about - sorry"

I've queried with agents who cover the specific genre, formatted my cover letter, and tailored the proposal accordingly. I'm a bit worried that the subject matter (racial and gender discrimination as a female combat veteran), no matter how controversial the content is, might be a turn-off. But how does one find out what the issue truly is in order to proceed?

P.S. Other women who have written about my story have had no issues being published. I'm wondering what the real issue is.

Loraine said...

Can you tell me if the 15% includes all money earned from school visits too?


I have come to the conclusion literary agents are the new cancerous symptom of a diseased corporate-capitalist society where marketing wins over talent, not to mention the fact most literary agent are ex-non-talented writers that turned out to be agents now. They seem to have a sort of magic ball where they can predict a hit and they do this just reading ten to twenty lines of synopsis, sometimes their magic extends to a chapter of a book then by all the power invested in the Shire they actually seem to be able to see literally, the future and be able to predict that a book shall be a total success or just an acceptable sale. In fine, I think that writers are just so desperate that are going along with all this incredible facade and that is exactly why when one goes into a a Barnes and Noble sees the humongous amount of literary trash and verbal garbage that apparently is called ''literature'' by these amazing magical Agents.

dan said...

Thank you Nathan for the information. Good stuff.

Sue said...

Nathan: Something beyond the blog. Maybe. How did you get the left-hand sidebar on your computer screen? I'm trying to do that with my blog but can't seem to get it. Thanks for any help you can give me.

Sue Goldstein

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Greetings, people of 2009! I come from the future (2017 to be exact) to urge you all to read and heed this article and its links and the update in 8 years time. See you in the future!

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