Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension”, part 31: What’s a Literary Agent?

Welcome back! For the rest of this year we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison’s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read and learn from all the fabulous segments from 2013-2015 by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on my drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month thirty-one:


“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 31: What’s a Literary Agent?

You’d be surprised how often I hear that question — from audiences at book presentations, from readers, from new writers, and even from a few long-time writers. So as we tackle the challenge of presenting a book to publishers, let’s start with a post about literary agents. I’ll present this information in a question-and-answer format to make the post more user-friendly.

Q: What does a literary agent do?

A: A literary agent presents his/her clients’ work to companies that might be interested in publishing that work.

Q: Can’t I do that myself?

A: Many small publishers and university presses do accept manuscripts submitted directly from the author. Large commercial publishers do not. They know that literary agents take on only the manuscripts they believe they can sell, so in this way the agent acts as a first reader, weeding out books that are not marketable.

Q: What types of manuscripts do literary agents accept?

A: Most literary agents accept only full-length material. In other words, not poetry, not short stories, and usually not magazine articles.

 Q: How do I find a literary agent?

A: The Internet has become a valuable tool for writers who are seeking representation by a literary agent. Simply do a search for “literary agent” and you will find pages (and pages and pages) of agents. Go to their websites and read their requirements and preferences. Then list those who seem to be interested in the type of book you have written.

Q: How do I know the agencies I’ve selected are reputable?

A: One of the best resources out there for authors is a website called Preditors & Editors at On their home page, click on “Agents & Attorneys,” which will give you a comprehensive list of literary agents, including those who are legitimate and those who are not. The Preditors & Editors website also explains the “rules” of etiquette between agents and clients and potential clients. Just knowing those usually-unwritten rules can tilt the odds in your favor as you try to acquire a literary agent.

 Q: How are literary agents paid?

A: Literary agents take a percentage (usually 15%) of whatever money your work makes once they sell it. If your agent sells rights beyond direct publication — foreign rights, movie rights — they will probably  work with another agency that specializes in these areas. In that case, the usual rate is 10% to each agency, a total of 20%. Do NOT ever pay a literary agent to simply read your work. Most agencies that ask for money up front seldom sell anything. Why would they? They can earn a fine income from writers willing to pay $500 or more to have their work considered.

Q: How does the author get paid?

A: We’ll discuss advances and royalties in the next few months, but just to give you a general idea, most monies are paid directly to the agency. The agency then deducts their percentage and a small amount for expenses (for copies, mailing, long distance phone calls) and sends a check for the remaining funds to the author. Most agencies are very good about forwarding money due their authors within several weeks or less.


Q: Besides sell my book, what else does an agent do for me?

A: I’ve had the privilege of working with three very fine U.S. literary agents (my home country), and each of them helped me in so many ways, including generating enthusiasm among potential acquiring editors; providing information about the publishing world; opening connections to professional writers, editors, and publicists; walking me through the legal complications of contract negotiation; vetting all contracts; and sometimes just providing a kind and encouraging comment in the face of rejection. I also have worked with numerous agents in other countries. They, too, have positively influenced my career. Their services include translating and negotiating contracts, providing information about income taxes in other countries, and sometimes even arranging publicity tours. Once you have an agent, you are part of a team. You’re not facing that large, sometimes vicious, world of publishing on your own, which can make all the difference between failure and success.

Q: How long did it take you to find your first literary agent?

A: Almost five years! Writing books is not a life for the easily discouraged.

Q: Why so long?

A: In those days, prior to the Internet, the querying process took much longer than it does now. Everything had to go through snail mail, and simultaneous submissions to various agencies were discouraged. (Now they are accepted as a part of the “game.”) However, there was a more important reason. My novel, Mother Earth Father Sky, wasn’t yet good enough for publication. Through the suggestions of agents who rejected my queries but were kind enough to explain why (That doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.), I was able to shape Mother Earth Father Sky into the novel that became an international bestseller.

Q: If I decide to self-publish, do I need a literary agent?

A: Not unless you begin to receive offers from other publishing entities: audio, movie, foreign, or large commercial publishers. If you are an experienced contract lawyer, you may not need an agent, but in general a good agent will get you a better contract than you can negotiate for yourself.

Q: If I want to procure an agent to represent my work, what do I do next?

A: It’s all about having a worthy manuscript — no multiple blatant typos, a manuscript formatted according to agency preferences, a strong voice, characters who pull a reader into the story — AND a very good query letter. Next month on Writing The Third Dimension, we’ll discuss query letters.

Do you have other questions about literary agents? I’ll do my best to answer them in the comment section.

Strength to your pen!


 *Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*

Sue HarrisonBestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two bestselling Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy – all of which went digital in May 2013. She also wrote a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.

Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you to come back September 24, 2015, for part 32.



5 responses to “Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension”, part 31: What’s a Literary Agent?

  1. Sue Harrison is a great author and she is an excellent teacher. She is extremely talented and simply marvelous!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I still don’t have an agent yet. Mostly because I haven’t been up to speed with my writing… and I am still a kid. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Erik, I think you are more than up to speed with your writing. You amaze me!!


  4. Tiffanie Q. Thank you so much. Comments like that mean the world to me! And Lynn, thank you, too!!


I look forward to reading your greatly appreciated comments. Thanks for making my day! :)

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