Keller Media Blog

Ready to Sell Your Book to a Publisher? You’ll Need a Literary Agent

Most people sit down to write a book and only later do they start to think about how to get it published. The dream is to find a publisher who will pay you a lot of money for the joy of printing and distributing your book. Then thousands of people will buy it, you’ll be famous and you’ll be able to quit your job and write full time.

I’ve heard versions of that fantasy tens of thousands of times in my 26+ years as a literary agent.

But how does this all work, anyway? If you do want that dream, where do you start?Well, as it turns out, you start by attracting someone just like me.

Literary agents are the “gatekeepers” of the publishing industry.  (Note: I mean “publishing” as in traditional publishers like Penguin Random House and HarperCollins, not as in self-publishing where you pay someone to create your book for you.)

The literary agent’s role – from the author’s perspective – is to take their book, offer some editorial suggestions (in most cases) and then present it to the editors who work for the publishers. Then, the editors get excited, offer you money in a conversation with your agent, the agent negotiates the contract and voila!  You get a publishing contract, or a “deal” as we call it.  You’re in!

The literary agent’s role – from the publisher’s perspective – is different.  An editor expects the agent to know not just the genre of books they acquire (e.g. business books, self-help, personal finance, humor, etc.) but also the style of book/author they prefer to work with (e.g., academic, research-based, light and cheery, appealing to the masses or to the intelligentsia, etc.).

Then, they expect the agent to show them only works that match their preferences – projects that are well-prepared and which come with qualified authors attached.  (This information is curated by agents who work for years in the business.)  They want the agent to be reasonable about how much money the author gets, and to help the relationship between them and the author to be a smooth, pleasant and efficient one.

So how do you get an agent to represent your book to the publishers?

1. First, you look online for lists of agents who have a history of selling books in the same genre as yours.  That means those agents know the preferences of editors who buy books like yours – which comes in handy!

2. Note how the agents want to be pitched on your book. My agency and my colleagues’ get offered thousands of projects every year, so the easiest answer for our staff is “No.”  To stand out, approach in the way requested. For instance, to reach my agency, start here.

3. Follow up in two weeks with anyone who has requested your proposal (nonfiction) or manuscript (fiction).

If 30 agents have been offered your material and still no one wants to help you, find out what’s wrong – because 30 rejections DOES mean something is grievously wrong. Literary agents make their money by selling books to those publishers.  We all get 15% commission in the USA.  If we see something we think we can make money on, we’re like barracudas – we fight for the chance to represent it.

If that’s not the response you’re getting, it’s time to rethink your project, or the way you’re pitching it (or it may be that you skipped Step 1 above!  That’s pretty common.).

Because it’s a straight commission job, you don’t “hire” an agent and the agent is not paid by you at any time. The money comes from the publisher.  The agent opts to work with you – for free – while you begin your career as an author.  Your agent can become your coach, consultant, best ally in the process of publishing.  Even if this is your first book, it is not the agent’s.  For instance, my clients laud me for helping them craft marketing strategies to help them sell their books once published.  Other agents might excel at editorial development.  Your agent can guide you toward certain publishers and away from others.

Finding an agent who believes your work will sell is a major milestone in any author’s life.  Good luck finding yours!

Want to get a great agent who will love you to bits and help you enormously?  Click here.

  1. I have had a dozen beta readers finish my book and they are raving. My hired (aka not a friend or parent who thinks everything I create is AMAZING ;-\ ) editor thought the book was fantastic and would be picked up quickly. Yet I am 10 rejections in and I am starting to think my query letter and synopsis are subpar. Are there people who will read your book and write a synopsis and/or a query letter for you? I’m not lazy, but I feel I’m not hitting the right buzz words.

    • Hello Randi,

      Many agencies only accept online queries these days, and few will accept a synopsis. There’s an old book by Lisa Collier Cool that you may find helpful. You can probably hire an editor to help you correct it, or you can arrange a talk with Wendy about your book as a whole: It’s less likely to be your query and more likely to be a lack of platform, but I cannot be certain.

      Best of luck!
      Elise Howard
      Query Manager, Keller Media

  2. Im trying to finalize my book but what people would I need to hire for edi
    ting,publishing and those types of things? I am trying to publish my first book.

    • Wendy Keller says:

      Hi Yoleth,

      Wendy is a literary agent. She sells books to reputable traditional publishers who will handle all those things on behalf of the author once they acquire/pay the author for the right to publish the book. Since you said that you are trying to publish your first book, you will want to go to one of the many firms that handle self-published books and they can help you. We recommend Greenleaf Book Group. You will pay them to help you create your book. Best wishes.

  3. I had a book published by a POD publisher in December 2012. They did a great job, but that was it. All they wanted to do was sell me marketing programs, which I naively bought into for several thousand’s of dollars. However, I could never pinpoint one sale to any of the programs. I have since dropped them as my publisher and am in control of the electronic files. Although published in 2012, the book is timeless. Titled “We’ll All Die as Marines – One Marine’s Journey from Private to Colonel,” it has garnered numerous reviews on Amazon. I am now researching the possibility of having it printed and sold by a traditional publisher, perhaps one who publishes military non-fiction books. I would like to hire a literally agent, but haven’t the slightest tidbit of knowledge as to how to do that. Any suggestions you may have would be highly welcomed. Semper Fi, Jim Bathurst

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