Literary Agents: Who are They?

Although separate entities from both publishing houses and authors, literary agents are extremely important to the publishing process as a whole. Although not often talked about in major news regarding publishing and the operation of large publishing houses, a Q&A published by Independent Publisher revealed that “the larger publishing houses will only accept submissions through agents, so authors should try to get an agent if they know they want a big-to-midsize publisher.” For those who wish to strike a deal with one of the Big 5 publishing houses, an agent might be an author’s only chance at getting in.

Much like the rest of the publishing industry, however, the responsibilities and roles of literary agents are slowly starting to shift with the advent of new technology and the push to go digital. Now more than ever, agents are beginning to pick up more public image and public relations responsibilities. Much of this is due to the fact that online reviews and feedback from the audience are more available than ever on the internet. As a result of more potential for author/audience interaction, many agents must make more calls on what reviews or comments are worth responding to, and which are not. In this sense, many of their responsibilities begin to overlap with the responsibilities of publicity and marketing teams within the publishing houses themselves.

Furthermore, literary agents must polish and edit the material before submitting it to the publishing house. Due to the fact that agents are paid on commission, only getting paid if the author is published, agents are very concerned with the content that is presented to the publishing house. Larger houses that have extensive teams that all work together are generally “looking for the whole package when acquiring a book: well-written, well-executed plot, commercial hook, possible platform to build-on or create based on the project/author,” etc. So, in a sense, literary agents act more as a buffer or a channel for communication and negotiation between the publishing house and the author.

With the advent of start-ups like Blurb (mentioned in a previous post), however, literary agents might soon become a relic of the past. When asked a similar question, Sandra Bond, stated that she doesn’t “think the big publishing houses are going anywhere soon, so agents will [continue to] play a role in submitting what they think is the best work to them.” As platforms like Blurb begin to grow and become more popular, however, how the role of literary agents changes or adapts will be an interesting aspect of the industry to track.