I was on a panel about cookbook writing at the recent BlogHer Food conference in San Francisco where the topic of literary agents came up. Many editors and writers (myself included) think that having a literary agent is a good idea. But, as I pointed out, it’s actually not easy to find literary representation. In fact, it may be harder to find a good literary agent than an editor or publisher for your beloved work in progress!
The key reason—which may sound crass but is merely a business reality—is that most reputable literary agents (as opposed to scammers) only make money when they sell manuscripts. They get paid a percentage—usually 15 percent—of whatever their author gets paid. If they pluck a promising query package from the ever-expanding submissions pile, then spend months (or years) helping the author polish it, but never sell it to a publisher, they go completely uncompensated for their time.
They may end up with a grateful writer, but that pays no bills. And according to a former agent (now retired) who is also a friend, the “reward” is sometimes blame that the manuscript didn’t sell. Little wonder that many agents are quite cautious about unknown quantities and queries that come in unrequested, or “over the transom” as the lingo goes. I would be, too.
Having a published writer who likes your work introduce you to an agent can be very helpful in getting at least a foot in the door. And, any published writing you have already or evidence of a significant media platform will help show a literary agent you are worthy of at least a preliminary look.
Considering that literary agents earn 15 percent of whatever their author’s book earns, why do I and others suggest having literary representation? Most authors I know feel that unless they are unusually astute business people, it’s comforting (or most comfortable) to have a knowledgeable representative looking out for their interests and negotiating their contracts. The agent can deal with the money matters and any strife (publishing waters aren’t smooth these days), and they and the editor can maintain a cordial working relationship and focus on producing their book.
Although literary agents (unlike writing coaches, editorial consultants, and manuscript doctors) normally don’t charge to review manuscripts or otherwise assist their clients in readying material for submission, be aware that this is changing. Lately, some legitimate agents have muddied the waters by instituting introductory handling or service fees. See the excellent site AgentQuery for lots of additional info as well to find a vetted lists of agents.
I should emphasize here that manuscript doctors and editorial consultants perform perfectly legal and IMHO very valuable services. In fact, on occasion, I have taken on consulting jobs to assist cookbook writers or evaluate their manuscripts or proposals myself. But, while I try to share what I think agents and editors are looking for, I never suggest I have the contacts and expertise to place clients’ manuscripts with publishers. Finding a publisher is the job of literary agents.
Some day I’ll post a set of basic dos and don’t on how to obtain a literary agent. If you have specific questions, leave them here in the comments section and I’ll try to answer them. (For starters, never attempt to stand out in the slush pile with “humorous” lines like, “Don’t skip this one–I know where you live!” You may suffer the same fate as Justice Thomas’s wife when she recently tried to contact Dr. Anita Hill. Dr. Hill called the FBI!) But to get started on the details of how you should submit your material to agents check out this article.