While most small and mid-size publishers accept book proposals directly, the largest publishing houses will only work with literary agents. If you want to receive a substantial book advance and get published with a big press (such as Random House), then you will likely need to work with an agent.
A literary agent acts as a liaison between an author and a publishing house. Literary agents take a percentage of the book deals that they make, which typically amounts to around 10% of U.S. rights and 15% if they sell foreign rights (the rights for your book to be published in another country). Many agents also charge back to clients for photo copying and shipping. Reputable agents do not charge fees to read a book proposal or manuscript so beware of any agent that requires a fee upfront.
Once an author signs a contract with an agent, the agent then helps the author fine-tune his proposal and prepare it for submission to publishers. When the proposal is ready, the agent then sends it to her publishing contacts and navigates the negotiation process and contract terms.
The agent and the author share the same goal: to get the largest book advance possible. An advance is what the publisher pays the author in anticipation of book sales. The publisher estimates how much revenue the book sales will generate and bases the advance on that figure.
Authors don’t earn any royalties on book sales until the advance is earned back. Once that happens, royalties are paid to the author based on a percentage agreed to in the author’s publishing contract, with rates ranging from 8-15% of either the wholesale or retail price of the book. For new authors, a book advance can be as low as $2,500. Some well-known authors receive advances well into the six-figures. Celebrities often receive seven-figure advances.
Advances are typically paid in payments, which are made during the course of the agreement. For example, you may be offered 33% up front, 33% upon submission of your completed manuscript, and the remaining balance when the book goes to press.
When working with an agent, royalties are paid to the agent, and then the agent takes his/her cut and sends the remaining payment to the author. Royalty payment schedules are typically slow. Some publishers send payments just once or twice per year.
How to Find an Agent
Each agent has a special interest and focuses on books in certain genres. This usually reflects the agent’s personal reading taste and the contacts he or she has at various publishing houses. It would be a waste of time to send a book proposal for a cookbook to an agent who specializes in children’s books so it’s important to research agents and their specialties before wasting anyone’s time with an inappropriate pitch.
Authors should keep in mind that agents need authors as much as authors need the agents! The agents make their living off their authors, and therefore want to work with authors who they believe have the most potential for sales. Part of this equation is dictated by the publishers. Publishers don’t like to gamble on new authors unless there is a compelling reason to do so.
Most of the larger publishing houses, and therefore agents, seek authors with a built-in platform. A platform is essentially the author’s audience and ability to sell the book. The publisher wants to know that the author is well-known and has an audience of buyers at their disposal. A good author platform means that the author has a national presence through speaking engagements, internet exposure, social media, writing a national column, hosting a popular radio show or having some other kind celebrity status that reaches large numbers of potential readers.
Previous media exposure is also helpful. Has the author been on TV, radio, or in print? Your past experience also counts toward your platform. Publishers and agents don’t want to hear what you will start doing AFTER your book is released (“I will start blogging! I will start speaking!”) They want to know how you are reaching your audience TODAY.
Without a platform, it is far more difficult to convince big publishers to take a chance on a new author, though not impossible. Small and mid-sized publishers, however, may still consider a new author if the book idea is convincing enough.
Most agents and smaller publishing houses detail their submission requirements on their websites so that authors know what to send and how it should be delivered. In most cases, agents want to see a query letter first so they can get an idea of what your book is about and whether it is a good fit for them.
Many agencies accept queries via e-mail, while others require them through postal mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope so they can return a response. A query letter should include a brief synopsis of the book with a solid hook. This is your chance to convince the agent that there is an audience for the book and that you are the person to write about the subject. Include a brief author bio detailing your specific qualifications for writing the book. You don’t necessarily have to be an expert on a subject to write about it, but if you’re not, you should have statistics and interviews from sources who are.
If the agent is intrigued by your query letter, she will request a book proposal and sample chapters. Be sure you have these items ready to go before you send out query letters.
Resources for Finding Agents and Publishers:
- The Association of Authors Representatives is a member-based organization for agents who follow a defined code of conduct: aaronline.org.
- Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino.
- Publisher’s Marketplace offers a directory of agents: http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/.
- Go to the bookstore or library to check out books in your genre. Most authors give a special thanks to their agent or editor in the acknowledgements section.
- If you locate an agent and aren’t sure about his or her reputation, try a Google search. You can also ask for referrals to other authors who have worked with the agent. Remember, the agents need authors as much as we need them and you have every right to do your homework and make sure the agent is a good fit for you.
- Search competing books on Amazon and locate the publishers, then go to each publisher’s website and look for submission guidelines. Many small- to mid-sized presses accept pitches directly (no agent needed). This is an especially good strategy for authors of books on niche topics.
- Here are guidelines for writing a query letter.
- Here are examples of successful query letters.
If you like this blog post, you’ll love our Author Toolkit for traditional publishing. It includes checklists, templates, worksheets and more. Check it out!