5 Things Literary Agents Do For Authors

In these times when anyone can publish a book with the click of a mouse, finding a literary agent is too often an afterthought, or no thought at all. Just as most of us wouldn’t go to court without a lawyer, however, we shouldn’t enter into publishing without an agent. Because, in an industry where writers are “content providers” making money for others , an agent is still, too often, an author’s only advocate.

That’s what four other authors and I told our audience recently at the Romance Writers of America Conference in Atlanta. In “My Agent Saved My Life: What a Good Literary Agent Can Do for You,” romance authors Mia Marlowe, Mary Connealy, Zuri Day, Vanessa Miller and I talked about five ways our agent, Natasha Kern, went to bat for us and got us out of some very dire — even nightmarish — situations.

Indeed, we might have titled the panel, “My Literary Agent Saved My Ass.” 😉

Literary agent Natasha Kern (second from right) with authors, from left, Mary Connealy, Vanessa Miller, and Zuri Day, also known as Lutisha Lovely. Our panel was "My Agent Saved My Life: What A Good Literary Agent Can Do For You."
Literary agent Natasha Kern (second from right) with authors, from left, Mary Connealy, Vanessa Miller, and Zuri Day, also known as Lutisha Lovely. Our panel was “My Agent Saved My Life: What A Good Literary Agent Can Do For You.”

Here, inspired by Kern’s own blog post for Seekerville, are five things a good literary agent can do for authors:

1. Negotiate your contract. The publisher’s job — via an editor, or directly — is to get the very best deal for the company, be it Amazon, a small indie,  or a big publishing house. Make no mistake: if they could pay you no royalties at all, or keep the rights to your books forever, they would do so. Some even try: Connealy told of a contract she’d signed under a different literary agent — one that, unbeknown to her, gave her publisher perpetual rights to all her future books. These kinds of stories are all too common. Kern stepped in and negotiated hard with the publisher to change the terms which, she said, were illegal. That’s what a good agent will do.

2. Manage your career. How many lists have I sent my agent of historical fiction book ideas? She reads them and tells me which ones sound like great ideas, which ones are just so-s0, and which ones I should NOT write.

To some authors, an agent’s giving advice on what editors will want sounds like a suppression of creative expression. For authors wanting to make a career out of writing novels, however, it’s so helpful to have an agent to offer an informed opinion about what works in the market at any given time, and what does not.

An agent can also help an author to switch to another genre, as Kern did for Zuri Day. She’d written several contemporary novels before her editor asked her to try romance. She sent her first romance to Kern, then sat back and waited for the accolades. Instead, Kern told her she’d gotten it all wrong.

“This is not a romance,” Kern said. “What you have is another contemporary novel.” A good literary agent has the courage to tell an author the truth about her work.

3. Plan for the termination of rights.

The publishing industry has never been more volatile than it is now, with big houses gobbling up other big houses — Random House acquiring Penguin, for instance — and smaller houses closing their doors, as Dorchester did in 2012, leaving Mia Marlowe with a backlist of titles owned by a company that could not longer publish them. Kern got her those rights back and helped her self-publish those books.

A good agent will also make sure an author’s contract has a termination clause, reverting publishing rights to the author after a certain amount of time. What if your publisher buys all rights, but doesn’t use them, as Beaufort Books did with THE JEWEL OF MEDINA and THE SWORD OF MEDINA? Published in 2008 and 2009, they’re out in hardback and ebook only — no paperback and no audiobooks. Kern has asked Beaufort’s publisher to revert those rights to me but he declined, not because he plans to use them but because, as he told me, he’s hoping someone will buy them from him. He even offered to sell them to me! Because I have a great agent, though, all rights automatically revert to me seven years after publication, at which point I’ll either find a new publisher to bring them out properly or do it myself.

4. Plan for career growth and development.

Already a successful romance author, Vanessa Miller wanted to write Christian romance, but publishers weren’t buying hers. Kern, however, dogged them until someone took on her Christian-themed books, getting her a three-book deal with a six-figure advance. Today, she’s the winner of several writing awards and an established author in her chosen genre. Helping an author to live her dreams is what a good literary agent can do.

Want to hire a publicist? An agent can help you find a good one. Looking for a great website designer, or book cover designer? Ditto. Want to see your book published in foreign countries? My agent has landed me book deals in 19 languages.

5. Stand by the author.

When Ballantine Books decided to “indefinitely postpone” publication of THE JEWEL OF MEDINA and THE SWORD OF MEDINA, Kern supported my decision to terminate our contract. She negotiated an agreement that got the rest of the advance Ballantine owed me (thanks to some brilliant language she’d written into my contract with them) as well as the publication rights to my books.

Then, when the media got the story and ran with it, my agent helped me do interviews. That’s right: I was so overwhelmed that she actually did some interviews for me. When my British publisher’s home office was attacked, she stepped in again and helped me deal with the flood of media requests that came our way. All along, she encouraged, supported, and praised me. No matter how busy she was with all her many other clients, she always made time for me when I called. Her support helped me deal with a devastating disappointment, death threats, broken promises, and betrayal — and she reminded me many times that my books had the potential to make a difference in the world.

My agent: I could not, and would not, do this without her. Just as no one would try to sail a ship without a captain, no author should try to navigate the treacherous waters of the publishing world without a good literary agent. A quality agent is an author’s best friend.

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Sherry Jones is an internationally best-selling author of biographical and historical fiction, including THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, THE SWORD OF MEDINA, FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, and WHITE HEART.