By: Jeff Herman
Literary agents are like stockbrokers and real estate agents. They bring buyers and sellers together, help formulate successful deals, and receive a piece of the action (against the seller’s end) for facilitating the partnership.
Specifically, literary agents look for talented writers, unearth marketable nonfiction book concepts, and discover superior fiction manuscripts to represent. Simultaneously, agents cultivate their relationships with publishers.
When an agent detects material she thinks she can sell to a publisher, she signs the writer as a client, perhaps works on the material with the writer to maximize its chances of selling, and then submits it to one or more appropriate editorial contacts.
A dynamic agent achieves the maximum exposure possible for the writer’s material, which greatly enhances the odds that the material will be published.
Having an agent gives the writer’s material the type of access to the powers that be that it might otherwise never obtain. Publishers assume that material submitted by an agent has been screened and is much more likely to fit their needs than the random material swimming in the slush pile.
If and when a publisher makes an offer to publish the material, the agent acts on the author’s behalf and negotiates the advance (the money paid up front), royalties, control of subsidiary rights, and many other important and marginal contract clauses that may prove to be important down the line. The agent acts as the writer’s advocate with the publisher for as long as the book remains in print or licensing opportunities exist.
The agent knows the most effective methods for negotiating the best advance and other contract terms and is likely to have more leverage with the publisher than an unagented writer does.
There’s more to a book contract than the advance-and-royalty schedule. There are several key clauses that you, the writer, may know little or nothing about, but would accept with a cursory perusal in order to expedite the deal. Striving to close any kind of agreement can be intimidating if you don’t know much about the territory; ignorance is a great disadvantage during a negotiation. An agent understands every detail of the contract and knows where and how it should be modified or expanded in your favor.
Where appropriate, an agent acts to sell subsidiary rights after the book is sold to a publisher. These rights can include serial rights, foreign rights, dramatic and movie rights, audio and video rights, and a range of syndication and licensing possibilities.
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