The Literary Agent: How Does This Work?

While literary agents have been part of the publishing eco-system for decades, it wasn’t too many years ago agents in the Christian publishing market were rare.

Fast forward to today when most of the larger Christian publishers require an author have an agent before they will consider publishing them.

Before agents became part of the publishing landscape, authors would often hire attorneys to review contracts and alert them to potential problems. As author contracts evolved over the last fifty years from a couple pages to a couple dozen pages, much more specialized professional advisors became necessary.

Enter the literary agent.

The Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) began in 1991 as a professional organization representing literary agents, mostly in the broader general publishing world. Their Canon of Ethics are a solid foundation for anyone in the profession.

So, why are agents needed?

For authors, an agent is the professional voice of experience and insight on everything from the contract to the relationship with a publisher. Without agents, authors need to depend on their own knowledge and experience, which for many is limited, but not an issue for others who know how things work.

For publishers, agents perform a valuable service.

First, agents curate proposals from thousands of aspiring authors, locating those who have the best chance for success and present them to appropriate editors. This saves the publisher time and money.

Second, agents are a good liaison between the author and publisher, often handling difficult issues and serving as mediator between them. Publishers’ staff might say something to an agent they wouldn’t say to an author.

How are agents paid?

Agents are paid when an author is paid and for nothing else. They are not employed by an individual or group of publishers.

The AAR Canon of Ethics discusses the problems with agents charging for proposal review or other fees. It would be widely agreed in the agent community that agents would only be paid their commission (usually 15%) whenever the author is paid.

This is why agents are less likely to be interested in an author who is “more interested in getting a book published than making money.” You need to forgive the agent community if we lose interest in representation when you declare your disdain for earning money from publishing. It is how we earn a living and we won’t apologize for it.

However, if your only motivation is money, I can suggest a wide variety of professions and positions which earn far more than book-writing for a large percentage of authors.

It’s all about balance and respect for what each party brings to the table.

What do agents do for an author?

  • Find a path for an author with a greater chance to be published “well.” Believe it or not, there is a difference between being “published” and “published well.”
  • Make sure an author is treated fairly in the contracting process and they are aware of potential difficult issues with it.
  • Give authors advice regarding the business and emotion of publishing. Believe it or not, publishing is an emotional business.
  • Give a perspective on the industry. An agent should know how things work.
  • Communicate good and bad news with perspective. Good things and not-so-good things happen to authors in the past and they survived. It might be nice to know how others handled the same situation.
  • Translate negatives into positive action. While I’ve know some people to translate positives into some kind of negative, agents know how to make lemonade from lemons and turn what might be a discouragement into a series of positive experiences.

So, there you have it. Nothing too mysterious to this agent thing. People working with people.

19 Responses to The Literary Agent: How Does This Work?

  1. Tisha Martin July 31, 2018 at 3:27 am #

    Dan, great points; thanks for sharing. On the idea that publishing is an emotional business, you said a mouthful.

    For a writer, from those late-night hours typing (or praying or crying—not saying I’ve ever done that), trying to get the words written to sitting in front of an agent, ready to pitch that close-to-the-heart story for the first time, to finally staring at a published galleys full of editor’s marks, publishing is indeed an emotional adventure.

    For an editor, I’m sure those same feelings are there, only it’s praying to keep the author’s message as it is intended while helping to enhance the manuscript, keeping eyes peeled for any deviation to CMoS, Merriam-Webster, CWMS, or any other style guide appropriate for the manuscript at hand; and sometimes, having to graciously point out potential theological issues that may or may not be challenging to follow through.

    And . . . God bless the agents who must graciously encourage the writers, carefully read/evaluate manuscripts, and attend/mingle at what must seem like a hundred writer’s conferences a year; oh, and read/respond to just as many emails per day. That must be exhausting sometimes, and that can be emotional too. You all deserve an award! And a vacation!

    Funny wonder why we do it all over again the next day. 🙂

  2. Brenda July 31, 2018 at 4:29 am #

    Thank you Dan. Your articles always bring perspective and peace.

  3. Shirlee Abbott July 31, 2018 at 4:47 am #

    “Translate negatives into positive action.” That’s such a God-thing.

    “God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:30).

  4. Nancy Massand July 31, 2018 at 5:54 am #

    Thank you for the enlightening perspective, Dan, and you as well, Tisha, for the thoughtful additions. I’m still researching the market, and this entry was so helpful. An agent does indeed serve a dual purpose for the writer and publisher in finding the best fit for our best work. And as a writer, I truly appreciate the agents who give invaluable feedback on why something may NOT be a good fit for a given market. I know you folks occasionally endure resentment from writers who are hurting from a rejection, but we do appreciate your work. And the fact that your agency takes the time to educate your writers and facilitate a discussion speaks volumes about your commitment. Thank you!

  5. Loretta Eidson July 31, 2018 at 5:58 am #

    Thank you for this article, Dan. I cannot imagine entering into a publishing contract without an agent, someone who’s got my back. I am thankful for The Steve Laube Agency and my amazing agent, Tamela Hancock Murry.

  6. Jennifer Henn July 31, 2018 at 7:20 am #

    I’ve heard it a hundred times, “Why don’t you self-publish?” Maybe I’ll refer kind advisers to this blog post.

    I know myself, I won’t be my best if left to myself. I do better with a team.

  7. Lauricia Matuska July 31, 2018 at 8:03 am #

    My agent is a God-send. I cannot imagine navigating the industry without her. She’s a great moderator, provides valuable insight, and helps me keep things in perspective.

  8. Roberta Sarver July 31, 2018 at 8:35 am #


    Thanks for the great insights. If a person didn’t think he needed an agent before, he should after reading your post.

    You all deserve kudos for attending tiresome writers’ conferences and being polite when you probably feel like yawning and taking a nap.

    Thanks for your valuable input.

  9. Pat Iacuzzi July 31, 2018 at 8:35 am #

    “This is why agents are less likely to be interested in an author who is “more interested in getting a book published than making money.”
    Upon recently retiring from my teaching, I learned–by state law–that I can’t earn more than 20,000 or forfeit my pension. How would this impact my getting an agent? Thanks, Dan for this very informative post.

    • Dan Balow July 31, 2018 at 9:05 am #


      You would need to hope none of your books sells really well! (Joking just a bit, but that’s the truth)

      There’s no way to limit your income from publishing. While making $20,000 a year as an author is relatively rare, you could be in a position where a book sells too well and then you are penalized.

      I’ll hand it to you…this is a new one for me!

      • Shirlee Abbott July 31, 2018 at 1:07 pm #

        Is it possible to set things up that the book income goes directly to a charitable organization?

        • Pat Iacuzzi July 31, 2018 at 4:47 pm #

          That sounds like a plan, Shirlee–Thanks!

  10. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D July 31, 2018 at 9:34 am #

    Thanks, Dan. I believe that agents are God’s gift to authors so that they don’t hurt themselves.

  11. Elisabeth Warner July 31, 2018 at 10:13 am #

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks again to you and your agency for providing such great resources! The only thing I’ve found “mysterious” about literary agents is that they all seem to have different criteria of how to submit a book. Then again, after looking back at my manuscript, I’ve found that the query letter wasn’t the problem; it was the weaknesses in my novel that I’ve now (thanks to you all) have sought to improve as a result of rejection. Thank you for showing me a different perspective on how literary agents work, and how I can help them to represent my novel well!

  12. Jennifer Mugrage July 31, 2018 at 10:20 am #

    Come on, agents. Don’t panic when you hear an author say “I don’t care about making money on this book, I just want to get it published.”

    Here is what they may mean …

    “I don’t care about making money” means

    I’ve spent two years writing, revising, and sending the book through trusted beta readers. I’m on my second year of looking for an agent. Once I find one, I am aware that my book may spend several MORE years on submission. Even when it is published, I am humble enough to realize that I will not be the next J.K. Rowling. Therefore, though I hope to make some money from this book some day, I am aware that it is not going to pay any bills this month or this year. It is not my financial Plan A. Furthermore, although I am willing to promote my book(s), I realize that I may never be able to support myself just by writing.

    “I just want to get it published” means

    I want people to read my book. I want them to get excited about it and develop a fandom. That can’t happen unless it’s published. I myself find most of my favorite authors by checking books out of the library. I also pass on to others books that I have loved. While these things do lead to sales, my main concern isn’t sales, it’s that people read and love and are changed by my book.

    That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

    I now know not to say this infamous line, because I have seen agents note that it repels them. But in a business where it takes years to make any money at all, and where the main motivation is passion, it shouldn’t be off-putting when an author says “I don’t care that much about making money.” It just means they’ve adjusted to the conditions.

    • Elisabeth Warner July 31, 2018 at 10:23 am #

      I could not have summarized that more accurately! Thank you for bringing up those points, Jennifer.

  13. claire o'sullivan July 31, 2018 at 12:20 pm #

    Hi Dan,

    Good points. I am navigating the waters of agents currently. Only one, that is.

    After the years of writing the first draft until around 2015, I pitched to publishing houses and some (really good) agents. I received a lot of ‘no, thank you.’

    I learned. A lot. But this is concise. I didn’t know how this worked. After the manuscript is edited according to the agent’s , did that mean I would have a contract? Still not a 1000% sure on that, but I may err on the side of a resounding, ‘no,’ until I hear differently.

    Emotional– oh, yes. Get a wonderful email at midnight and go wake up husband! Sleep? Fer-gettaboud-it.

    Do I want to get paid? Of course, I would be lying if I wasn’t honest. But I believed I had something to say. I wanted my message, one that would reach the choir and those who eschew Christianity. The agent was great because the information I received has helped me get over the too much Christianese.

    I’d never heard that before. So, I like it. I still wonder if I took too much of the message out or not. I leave that to the agent.

    With the advice of the agent, I believe that I’ve been saved from the waters of the ‘C’ word book. Yes, I have heard people say that. I have been plucked from the waters of SP and the perils. -Don’t get me wrong, I have a favorite author, a Christian who writes exceptionally and self-publishes with editing and proofing that is great. But he is among the few.

    Going it alone is scary, the agent calms my nerves (and points out more darlings to kill). I want a relationship there that will result in the ability to put a the message of the Gospel out there for those who are Christians, backsliding Christians, and non-Christians. The agent gets that, not just ‘gets it,’ but helps me in every way.

    Can I get an amen?

  14. Melissa Henderson July 31, 2018 at 4:12 pm #

    Thank you for these wise words.

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