I plan to offer publishing industry advice every Thursday. As with all advice you get what you pay for. Still, I believe in writers helping writers, lawyers helping writers (though I can’t of course give actual legal advice here), karma, etc.
Before I do that, however, I thought I’d start with some basic background because I get asked this question often: “What does a literary agent actually do?” In short: we act as the liaison between writers and publishing houses. The major publishing houses (Penguin Random House [yes, they are one entity now], HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, etc.) generally will not accept un-agented manuscripts. So if you have a book idea, you find an agent.
That agent will help refine your proposal (for nonfiction) or manuscript (for fiction). This can take a long time. Months, even (ask some of my writers!). Then, your agent will carefully consider the “submission list” — the list of editors to whom he or she will send your proposal. A good agent will have personal relationships with most if not all of the editors on that list. The publishing world is still one of the last relationship-based industries, which is why as a true extrovert I love it so much. I wrote a post here, on my former blog about what I do when I go to New York to meet editors, which I do at least once a month — more if I’m actively pitching and selling a project.
Once an agent sells a book, he or she will negotiate the contract (this is where being a lawyer comes in handy — I love contracts! Really!) Then the agent will act as the liaison between the writer and the editor/publisher during the publication process: reading drafts and edits, consulting on cover choice, and acting as the “bad guy” if there are any issues. Come publication time, the agent turns into the writer’s biggest cheerleader, offering as much support and publicity as possible.
And, then, the agent will start nagging the writer for ideas for the next book… and the process beings again.
Many agents “come up” in the publishing world. They begin their careers in entry-level/assistant jobs either at agencies or in publishing houses. Eventually they start to acquire and sell projects until they have built up their “list” and can make a go on their own. My route in was lateral — I had the editing and writing experience but not yet the inside-industry experience, which was both a benefit but also the steepest part of my learning curve. But, as I zip to New York for coffee and drinks and lunch dates with editors, the most fun.