A literary agent is a go-between for writers and the publishing and media industries. They negotiate rates on the part of writers and seek to sell novels, books and screenplays via publishing houses and media production companies.
A literary agent is a publishing (or media) industry professional who is in regular contact with a wealth of publishing houses which seek new and established writers to publish further works. Often, getting an agent is seen as the pivotal step for writers who want to earn money by publishing their written work. Usually, the writer will approach an agent with a specific project they have just completed, for example, a recently finished novel or screenplay ready for production. If the agent wishes to represent the writer, they will then approach publishers on the writer’s behalf and seek to sell the right to publish the work.
Agents usually take a 10% or 15% cut of all of the writer’s earnings (20% overseas). Few writers are reluctant to enter into this agreement because the agent’s work on the part of the writer is time consuming and involves risk; without an agent, it is very unlikely a writer will be able to sign a publishing deal. Should one be offered directly, an agent will normally be brought in to administer the contract, and to manage the writer’s career on an ongoing basis. Most literary agencies in the UK are based in London, and there are many more writers than there are agents, leading to an incredible weight of competition amongst unpublished writers for representation.
New candidates at a literary agency will typically begin as readers. This is a responsible job where the candidate is tasked with reading through endless submissions from writers in the hope they can champion that one special piece worthy of a publishing deal. Salary for this role ranges from £14,000 to £22,000, based on experience.
Agents may work for large established agencies or smaller concerns where they may be a business partner themselves. Indeed, a scan through The Writer’s Yearbook reveals many company names like Edison Pearson, suggesting there are many agencies which run as partnerships. In this instance, the agent’s salary is based on how successful they are at negotiating deals. Those who work for large companies like ICM can expect to earn salaries of around £30,000 per year, subject to sizable bonuses depending on contract completion. Income is mitigated by recent stagnation in the publishing sector, and competition from new on-line self-publishing channels like Amazon’s Createspace.
- Understand the workings of the publishing industry
- Understand what makes for a successful (and marketable) novel or screenplay
- Maintain a significant database of publishing or media industry professionals
- Understand the legal terminology behind the publishing contract
- Be on the look-out for new writing talent, whilst managing a roster of current writers
- Successfully see through the process of taking the unpublished book to a bar-coded retail item in conjunction with the publisher
There are no formal qualifications required to join a literary agency as a reader, although a candidate will be expected to demonstrate an understanding of the publishing industry in some way. It may be that the relationship between agency and reader began with an unsuccessful novel submission from the candidate, which then led to an opportunity to join as a non-writing professional reader. For other young entrants, a good grade at A Level English demonstrates the reader’s ability to interpret a text and develop further literary understanding. There are, of course, no academic requirements for starting one’s own business as a literary agent, although it is almost impossible to do so without a strong collection of industry contacts gained through working in the industry.
- Ability to make fast decisions on whether a work is publishable or not
- Be an effective networker at industry events and launches
- Be able to adopt new methodologies to keep pace with a changing industry
- Must be a fast and accurate skim-reader, with deep analytical ability
- Must have a strong ability in negotiation and contract resolution
Most of the work takes place in the office of the literary agency. Due to the nature of the business, smaller examples of these work environments are very quiet and absorbing places to be, fostering a love of literature and the desire to bring new material to the market. It tends to attract educated people with strong self-motivational characteristics: people who are happy with their own company and who can form their own opinions about a piece of text without having to ask repeatedly for help from colleagues. Although not a particularly highly-stressed work environment, pressure can mount when there is a pile of submissions to process, or where the agent has been unsuccessful in finding a great novel for recommendation for several months. Candidates need to remember that the agent’s income is derived solely from successfully concluded publishing deals.
New entrants often begin in the role of reader, where their fast analytical ability grows quickly, along with the ability to power through several writer submissions per day. Experience gives the budding agent the ability to scan through text quickly and see if it ticks all the boxes; then the text can be forwarded to the agency owner, or it can be reread in detail. Although the publishing industry remains in a state of dilution since the recession of 2008, there is still decent demand for good agents with a proven track record to progress to big agencies across London.
From the entry level reader role, the candidate can progress to become an agent in their own right, even if working at a large agency. The bigger names in the industry have separate teams of agents and solicitors; one is tasked with finding new talent and looking after the existing roster, and the other deals with legal aspects including contract negotiation. Successfully finding a hot new writer who goes on to publish a successful book is the cornerstone for personal career betterment; after this, the agent may go to other agencies to try and improve their prospects based on their past successes in publishing.
Some of the larger and most successful agencies in the UK include Blake Friedmann, Darley Anderson, Strauss, ICM, Adler, Jane Judd and Edison Pearson, some of the most well-established and successful names in the business.
Carole Blake is a founding partner of Blake Friedmann Literary, TV and Film Agency, one of London’s most successful independent literary agencies.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
The agency was created in 1982, although both Julian Friedmann and I started our original literary agencies in the 1970s. Our philosophy has always been that we represent writers rather than one-off projects, planning long-term to build a client's career in as many markets and across as many media as possible.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise'?
We work closely with our clients through the respective editorial, contractual and marketing processes that lead to publication, or broadcast, or cinema release.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
We are a literary, film and TV agency representing a broad range of fiction and non-fiction writers, screenwriters for television and film, and a small number of playwrights, directors and producers.
What do you like most about the job?
We are proud of our record of happy, enduring partnerships between the agency and its clients, and of our dynamic team of long-serving staff. This is why we have been trading successfully for so long. I am incredibly proud of our reputation.
What do you like least about the job?
The fact that we are able to help such a small number of writers each year, and an even smaller number of previously-unpublished writers.
What are the key responsibilities?
I work with my colleagues, Isobel and Oliver, on the book side, which can include any published literary work: fiction, non-fiction, illustrative or how-to. We do not deal with science fiction or children’s books, but apart from that, we receive 6000 unsolicited submissions every year. Julian (Friedmann, co-founder) looks after the film and TV side, and is supported by Conrad and Katie; we have more work on than we can deal with in a given day, so at busy times, we are not able to reply personally to everyone who sends us new material in search of representation.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, e.g. A Levels?
No, although we would require extensive industry experience from anyone who considers joining us. We have a focused and highly experienced team, and with our agency’s good reputation, we are in a covetable position in so much as we would have a choice of applicants. We do not recruit often.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
It varies with experience, and ensuing success once you are in the role. Most of the time, you are looking after a roster of established writers rather than hunting out a series of new writers. It’s too difficult and expensive to launch new writers for the most part, so most of the agency’s revenue is derived from maintaining relationships with existing writers and good publishers, and in marketing published authors.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Begin as a reader with an established agency. This is the ideal route in, and it will give you a way of becoming accustomed to the operations of the publishing industry. There is a lot to learn, and there’s more to the role of reader than just pouring through manuscripts.
Any closing comments or advice?
At the risk of sounding self-serving, my book “FROM PITCH TO PUBLICATION: Everything you need to know to get your novel published” is regarded as the industry standard for training young editors and agents, as well as being a primer for authors.