A writer new to the world of book publishing asked me the other day if an agent does anything beyond finding a publisher for an author-client's book. Even I was surprisecd when I stopped to think about my answser. Here's what I said.
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You mean as if that weren't enough? Actually, a literary agent does quite a bit beyond matching her clients with appropriate publishers. An agent will advise her clients against accepting offers from publishers who are "suspect." That means publishers with a bad reputation or who have created bad experiences for at least some of the authors they sign on. You don't need those types of publishers in your corner. Believe me!
Also, an agent will negotiate with reputable, conventional publishers for various contractual rights and percentages. If a publisher initially offers a standard contract at a 12% royalty rate with a $3,000 advance and 25% of all subsidiary rights, a savvy agent may come back and get that boosted to 15% royalties with a $5,000 advance (or more) and 50% of all subsidiary rights. We're talking here about seasoned, ethical, professional agents, not those who shoot from the hip just to make a quick buck. A reputable agent has done her homework, seen what the publisher has offered to other writers, and knows the bargaining power she has. She also knows when and how to use it.
In addition, an agent knows what to look for in a publishing contract and what to avoid. She'll point out objectionable clauses that can hurt her author-clients (and herself) and negotiate with the publisher to revise or eliminate those clauses. It's a delicate dance. An agent must lead but never force the steps.
Finally, an agent handles all financial responsibilities involved with the book sale, including receipt of all funds due the author/agent, evaluation of all figures on the royalty statements issued monthly, quarterly, or semi-annually, and handle the bookkeeping. And, of course, she continues to act as liaison with the publisher whenever necessary--including long after a book's initial publication. That all happens before the agent sends on a check to the author for the amounts payable minus the agent's standard fee (usually 15%).
So, does an agent really help you with anything beyond getting your book published? Well, you tell me! And, while you're thinking about it ...
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.