What Is a Literary Agent?

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When most people hear the term "agent," they immediately think of Hollywood. Agents are known for representing actors. They are the wheeler-dealers who live in L.A. and negotiate good deals for their clients in Beverly Hills. What probably comes to mind is Ari Gold, the upbeat, aggressive agent (played by Jeremy Piven) on the HBO smash hit "Entourage." Well, agents don’t only represent actors. Agents represent a whole host of creative types, including writers. In the book publishing world literary agents, much like agents in Hollywood, sell proposals, but literary agents sell proposals to book editors, not studio heads. Literary agents find literary talent and then package that talent because most authors can’t get a book deal without a literary agent. In other words, a writer needs representation.

How Do You Become a Literary Agent?

Everyone’s heard tales about Hollywood moguls who started in the mailroom at William Morris. Well, thankfully, you don’t need to work in the mail room if you want to be a book agent, but you need to start somewhere, and often, that somewhere is in the role of assistant at a literary agency. (For this scenario think Ryan Reynolds in the blockbuster hit "The Proposal.") Most of the literary agencies are in New York City, although there are some elsewhere in the country; in particular, there a few in San Francisco. Also, at ICM and William Morris, which are the two biggest talent agencies, there are some literary agents based in Los Angeles.

Where Does an Agent Work?

For the most part, literary agents work at talent agencies. There are bigger and smaller agencies and some agents, after years of experience, become entrepreneurial and go off and start their own agencies. Whether you work at a large agency, a small one or are hankering to start your own agency, in terms of geography, most agents end up working in Manhattan. That's because the major publishers are in New York City and, to do the job you need direct access to the editors at the big houses.

Exactly What Do They Do?

In some respects, agents act as a line of defense for editors. They read manuscripts and then sign authors who they believe can sell books. Agents get a percentage of the money made in the sale of a book - what is called "the advance" in industry terms - and therefore it behooves them to sign authors that they think will be of interest to the general public. In this respect, an agent needs to get a pulse on what the public wants.

Agents must also have a good understanding of the publishing business. They need to know the right people at the right houses to make deals as well as an understanding of the individual houses and the kinds of books they publish. That said, for works that attract multiple editors, auctions are often arranged allowing many editors to bid on a manuscript. Auctions, by the way, often result in higher advances.