Until the middle of the twentieth century, literary agents were barely a blip on the literary horizon and even then there were only a handful of agents spending their days having lunches and drinks with editors. Most authors found their own editors and publishing houses and were likely to remain with them throughout their career.
However, in the past several decades everything has changed. Most large publishers will only consider work submitted by an agent; editors and authors move from publisher to publisher with the same frequency one may buy new shoes; and contracts are convoluted with negotiations sometimes conducted like a game of hardball. As a result, if you are in search of a publisher for your book, your first step is to try to obtain a literary agent.
Literary agents represent book projects exclusively, although some agents may handle nonbook projects for their existing clients. Many literary agents will limit their efforts to large publishing houses and will not contact midsize or small publishers, which an author can generally approach without an agent.
Finding an Agent
Almost all agents are listed along with editors and publishers in Literary Marketplace, a multivolume text available in libraries that contains basic information. If you want to know more about an agent, you should review books like Writer's Market and Literary Agents that are available in the publishing section of bookstores.
There are also several websites you can examine to find an agent. Many agents are members of the Association of Author's Representatives and you can learn about them at
Literary agents sometimes attend writers' conferences where you might have an opportunity to discuss your project. If you know someone who has a literary agent, ask if you can drop her name to make contact.
Choosing an Agent
Other than associations such as the Association of Author's Representatives, there is no formal code of professional conduct to which agents must comply. Anyone can be an agent, so you must be careful in selecting one. Of course, keep in mind that agents reject approximately 99 percent of the queries and unsolicited manuscripts they receive, so be grateful to have an agent take interest in your work.
The most common mistake writers make submitting to agents is to send work in which the agent has no interest. This is a sure way to guarantee a rejection. Do not send your nonfiction proposal to an agent who handles children's books exclusively or send your memoir to an agent who only represents authors of general nonfiction.
However, once an agent does express interest, learn more about him. Visit the agent's website or read his listing at other websites or in reference books. Determine how many sales the agent made in the previous year or two. Find out what the commission will be; it is usually 15 percent but can be between 10 and 20 percent. Ask whether you have to pay copying costs and other charges. Finally, determine whether the agent charges a fee to read your work before offering representation. Most agents do not charge a reading fee.