What Literary Agents Do
When most people hear the term agent, they think Hollywood. Agents are known for representing actors. They’re known as the people who wheel and deal in L.A. for their clients, a la Ari Gold. Well agents don’t just represent actors. Agents represent a whole host of creative types, including writers. In the book publishing business literary agents, much like agents in Hollywood, sell proposals to book editors. Literary agents find literary talent and then package that talent. Most authors can’t get a book deal without a literary agent, either.
How Do You Become a Literary Agent?
Everyone’s heard tales about Hollywood moguls who started in the mail room at William Morris. Well, thankfully, you probably don’t need to work the mail room if you want to be a book agent, but you will likely need to start, perhaps as an assistant, at a literary agency. Most of the literary agencies are in New York City, though there are some elsewhere in the country. (One or two in San Francisco and, at ICM and William Morris -- the two biggest agencies -- there are some lit agents based in Los Angeles.)
Where Do Literary Agents Work?
For the most part agents work at agencies. There are bigger and smaller agencies and some, after years of experience, start their own agencies. And, speaking to geography, agents usually work in Manhattan. This is because the major publishers are in New York and, in order to do the job, you need access to the editors at the big houses.
What Do Literary Agents Actually 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 they think can get book deals and, in the long run, sell books.
Beyond reading material and identifying potential literary talent, similar to an editor, agents really need to understand the publishing business. They need to know the right people at the right houses in order to make deals as well as the houses themselves. If an agent has a great manuscript, that agent needs to know what editor is going to be right to publish it. (That said, for works that attract multiple editors, auctions are often arranged so editors can bid on a work. Auctions often result in higher advances.)