When someone inquired online as to where to find a low-cost or free reputable literary agent, I had just the right response. Here's what I said.
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Let me set the record straight here. No reputable, honest, and effective literary agent represents an author for free, and no one does it at a "low cost." All legitimate agents charge a flat 15% fee taken from the sale of a book to a publisher made during that agent's contractual lifetime with his or her client/author. The fee is deducted from the advance (if any) and the royalties (also if any) paid by the publisher for as long as the book remains in print. The agent takes 15% for all income generated by the book. That's one of the reasons literary agents are hard to find and even harder to land. Writers don't hire them; they sign writers, albeit an extremely limited number of them. If a writer's work fails to generate sales, the agent can go hungry or terminate that writer's contract with the agent and find another writer whose work is more marketable. In that respect, being an agent is somewhat of a crap shoot. And not at all as easy or capricious as many writers seem to think.
A legitimate agent is like a salesman in that he earns his keep from selling. No sale, no commission. To procure a sale for an author, the represented work must appeal to a publisher. And, of course, the agent must do all the legwork—from the final formatting of the manuscript to getting it into presentable condition, matching the work to the appropriate publisher, negotiating contractual details, securing an advance, reviewing and evaluating the finalized contract, and keeping the lines of communication open between the publisher, the agent, and the author. The agent is also responsible for receiving all payments from the publisher, deducting the fifteen percent agency fee, and forwarding a check for the balance to the author.
As for one commenter's suggestion that the agent doesn't do anything that a writer can't do himself merely by expending a little elbow grease, ridiculous! No writer has the time or the know-how to write and market his books himself. Period. Any writer who thinks he can has never enjoyed the value of having a good agent on his side. In addition to all the above, an agent also functions as a gatekeeper for many conventional publishers, screening out bad works and submitting only those that the agent feels are worthy of that publisher's time and efforts. Many conventional houses today won't even accept submissions from unagented authors. So, an agent is considerably more than a luxury these days.
As for my personal experience with literary agents, I've had six of them in my half-century of writing. I buried the first two. I should have buried the next three (they were God-awful), and I finally found the agent of my dreams in the sixth. I've been with her for more than twenty years through lean times and lucrative, and she's never wavered in her support for my work or varied in her professional approach to her job.
Everything considered, if you can land a reputable literary agent who is also knowledgeable and hard-working, do so. You won't regret it.
If an agent approaches you with a request for money in order to represent you, say "No thanks," because that agent is a quack.
And if you haven't learned that much from this column, you'd might as well just go somewhere and ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.