What Is a Literary Agent?

– by Tim Beals, Credo Communications
A good agent is more like a coach or mentor than a leader or manager. They are there to guide and encourage, not command and control. Your agent is your business partner, allowing you to focus on writing your best. An agent knows the market inside and out—including both large and small publishers. They know hundreds of editors, publishers, and other industry professionals and get along well with most of them. Most importantly, they know what kinds of material those publishers appreciate and want to see, and they keep up with changes and developments in the industry—and there are many changes to keep up with these days.
The best agents are good promoters, salespeople, and negotiators. They have extensive experience as an agent and have made many sales, ideally in the same field or genre as your own. The really good ones earn a living almost entirely from commissions, and they charge reasonable commissions (15 percent is the current industry standard). They respond to your work, questions, and phone calls promptly; they are honest, straightforward, and cordial with you at all times.
The right agents are willing to work with you if your material needs some editing or rewriting, and they can provide good suggestions for doing that work because they are avid readers and understand what other thoughtful readers expect. They have a good sense of what each of your projects is worth, who is most likely to be interested in it, and how much to ask for it. They get your work out to editors promptly and follow up on every submission, letting you know which editors have seen and are currently considering your material.
A good agent continues to present your work to editors even after it has received some rejections. They let you know promptly when they have stopped trying to sell a piece that has been repeatedly rejected, and immediately permits you to market or self-publish that piece on your own.
Once your project has been sold, their work continues as they read and negotiate contracts carefully, thoroughly, and shrewdly. They also get you money, royalty statements, and important information promptly, and forward any mail, inquiries, and offers promptly.
Finally, the right agent will support you in your efforts to write what you wish to write, rather than what is popular this month, or what a publisher has most recently asked for. She believes in you and your ability as a communicator, encouraging you to write your best.
She is a cheerleader, an advocate, and your biggest fan.