Do You Need a Literary Agent?

Do You Need a Literary Agent? December 9, 2014

I routinely get asked about using a literary agent in securing book contracts. Is this something that authors, academic or non-academic, should consider?

It depends on what type of publishing you wish to do. For most academic publishing, you don’t need a literary agent, because academic publishers are not generally engaged in “trade” publishing, meaning the kinds of books that end up on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. Strictly academic publishing is largely directed toward an academic audience of other scholars in the field, or perhaps graduate or even undergraduate students. Many academic books are priced in such a way ($50+) that the publisher plans to sell relatively few copies, maybe a couple hundred, to academic libraries and a handful of specialists.   

For trade publishing, however, you generally do need a literary agent. The large, New York-based trade publishers prefer not to interact with authors directly about contracts, not even established trade authors. For these publishing houses, literary agents are gatekeepers and filters – they let the agents go find and develop promising projects, and trusted agents can typically secure contracts for most of the projects they propose. (I actually don’t know how common it is for Christian trade publishers to work with agents, since most of my publishing has been with academic and secular presses. I’d love for people to weigh in on this in the comments.)

I began working with an agent for my 2010 book God of Liberty, the first of two books I published with Basic Books. (I have had an excellent experience working with the Anderson Literary Agency.) I have also worked with my agent on recent contracts with Yale and Oxford University presses, large academic presses which also have “trade divisions.”

Established agents can afford to be pretty picky about the sorts of projects and authors they will represent, as they are asking exactly the same kinds of questions that the presses will ask about the proposed book. Can it reach a broader audience? What kind of platform (about which I have written before) does this author have? Are they able to write accessible, jargon-free work for non-specialist readers? I’m afraid that many authors are not especially good at evaluating these questions for themselves.

If you don’t have an obvious platform from which you’re writing, you may well find it difficult to get an established agent to work with you. Like the presses, they do care about the sheer merit of the book project, but that is only part of the story. Authors with few relevant credentials, a sparse publishing record, and/or little popular reach, are going to have a rough time breaking into the trade market.

If you do think your project has broader potential and are interested in trying to secure an agent, one of the best ways to start is to ask people whom you know personally who already work with an agent about their experience. Even if you do have the kinds of credentials that agents are looking for in an author, you may find that you have to pitch your proposal to several agents before you get someone to represent you. (Some agents could be interested but are not taking new clients, for instance.)

Once you secure an agent, they will help you to better frame your book proposal in an appealing way for the trade publishing market. They’ll also know what presses might be especially interested in your project, and what terms they can reasonably ask for in the contract. Authors are typically ignorant and sometimes touchy about negotiating their own contracts, which is another reason the trade publishers would prefer to work with agents instead.

Purely academic publishing is a noble thing, but at some point certain professors and other authors might think of wanting to reach a broader public audience. Making this happen will often require the assistance of a literary agent.

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  • georgeyancey

    Having published both academic books and books by Christian presses I can tell you that if you have not published with Christian presses before then you will probably need an agent. I can get a book to a Christian press because I am a known entity. But they get so many submissions that if you are not going through the subsidy publishing method then it will be hard, and almost impossible to get a major Christian press to look at your prospectus on your own.