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What’s the Exact Definition of a Literary Agent?

We’re still on the topic of the traditional publishing process for today’s writing Definition of the Week (as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page). But now we’re going to talk about literary agents: your “in” to getting a golden-ticket contract to the Big 5’s table.

What’s a literary agent? This is a publishing-world professional who basically serves as a gatekeeper to the big-time traditional publishing world.

Before I go a single step further, I need to stress that you don’t need a literary agent if you’re applying to smaller publishing companies. And, the way I’ve heard it, there are even some factions of larger publishing companies that don’t automatically throw unsolicited letters into the trash.

Don’t ask me who those publishers are. I have absolutely no idea. But I’ve been told they do exist.

Generally though, in order to get a contract with a Big 5 publisher, you’re going to need a literary agent: a knowledgeable industry insider whose job it is to get you past the gated publishing-world front door.

The gated, padlocked, electrified, armed-guard-patrolled front door.

The Big 5 ain’t jokin’, people. So do expect to get shot down if you trample on their territory without the proper permissions, connections or out-of-this world luck.

That’s why they came up with the idea of literary agents: so that they don’t have to deal with us little people unless some other industry insider has deemed us to be potentially promising and profitable.

I’m not saying that to put the Big 5 in a bad light. I mean, let’s face it, if they didn’t do it that way, they’d have to hire hundreds or possibly even thousands of additional employees to sort through the landfills of letters from hopeful authors saying, “Pick me! Pick me!”

So essentially, there’s got to be some kind of a gatekeeper in existence. And it just so happens to be in the form of independent analysts, or literary agents.

Authors fortunate enough to get themselves a literary agent will basically find their manuscripts shopped around to various publishing companies. While I’ve never been privy to a conversation between a literary agent and a publishing company, I imagine it goes something like this:

Literary Agent: “Hey, Big 5 publishing contact I’ve known since college and now work hard to stay in touch with. How are you doing?”

Big 5 Publishing Contact: “Hey, literary agent who I tolerate because you throw me a cash cow every once in a while. Doing good. Whatcha got for me today?”

Literary Agent: “Well, I’ve got this riveting historical fiction manuscript about a Revolutionary War spy. It’s gonna be big. Like absolutely huge! So naturally, you’re the first person I thought of to represent it.”

Now, there are two potential answers that the Big 5 publishing contact can give at this point:

1. "Honestly, we’ve already got a historical fiction manuscript we’re peddling about that time period. So I think I’m going to have to pass. But we need to catch up soon, literary agent. Have your people call my people."


2. "Revolutionary War, huh? There’s a growing market for that subgenre thanks to that 50 Shades of Red, White and Blue novel that came out last month. How about you send it over to me, and I’ll take a look?

For the record, there’s no such thing as 50 Shades of Red, White and Blue. I made that up on the spot. So don’t bother trying to look it up on Amazon or whatnot. Just read the next lines…

If the Big 5 publishing contact goes with option #1, then the literary agent moves on to her next pick – and potentially peddles the same exact line. If it’s #2, she’ll whip up an enthusiastic email, attach the manuscript or some portion of the manuscript, and send it over with crossed fingers.

That’s how a literary agent works for you. If you get one in the first place.

It’s important to understand that getting a literary agent does not mean you’ve got a publishing contract with anyone, much less the Big 5. But it’s a strong first step in getting there that you might want to look into.



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