An agent serves a number of roles, though not all of them are necessarily publishing-related, but I’ll get to that another time. Agents are the bridge between the author and the publisher. From a publisher’s perspective, the literary agent serves as a filter, another set of eyes, quality control. Editors receive thousands of proposals, query letters, and manuscripts every day. The ones that come from an author directly more often than not end up on what’s called The Slush Pile where they sit and sit, unread and unloved, until a college intern or an assistant rather perfunctorily sifts through it looking for addresses to which to send the impersonal rejection letter.
If a proposal or manuscript comes from an agent, however, chances are greater that the editor/publisher is familiar with the agent, and even the project itself, and is more likely to respond with interest or a polite “This just isn’t right for my list at this time.” An agent is also crucial in being able to help you target the right editor or publisher for your submission. I mentioned before the importance of being specific in choosing your target audience. This is also true in targeting the appropriate editor. An agent has the resources to be able to see what subjects certain editors are currently acquiring. This information helps them make sure your proposal is going to the editor most interested in your book’s topic.
Further, an agent is able to help look out for your best interests when it comes to offer and contract negotiations. As with anything legally-oriented, publishing contracts are notorious for being difficult for the average person to understand. As an author, you want to make sure you have someone on your team looking for any loopholes or clauses that might cause confusion or difficulty down the road. A publisher also prefers dealing with the contractual stuff through another publishing professional. It saves them time from having to explain clause-by-clause the various terms of any publishing agreement. That’s the agent’s job.
And finally, an agent handles all of the financial aspects involved in getting your book published: from the advance and subsequent royalty payments to sub-rights and other nontraditional distribution deals. Believe me, you will want an agent to help you make sense of royalty statements.
Like I said at the top of this column, if you intend to launch your career as a published author by self-publishing, an agent isn’t a necessity. However, like the majority of writers out there who dream of big distribution numbers and the prestige of signing with a well-known house, an agent is instrumental in getting you there.