The Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) began in 1991 as a professional organization representing literary agents, mostly in the broader general publishing world. Their Canon of Ethics are a solid foundation for anyone in the profession.
So, why are agents needed?
For authors, an agent is the professional voice of experience and insight on everything from the contract to the relationship with a publisher. Without agents, authors need to depend on their own knowledge and experience, which for many is limited, but not an issue for others who know how things work.
For publishers, agents perform a valuable service.
First, agents curate proposals from thousands of aspiring authors, locating those who have the best chance for success and present them to appropriate editors. This saves the publisher time and money.
Second, agents are a good liaison between the author and publisher, often handling difficult issues and serving as mediator between them. Publishers’ staff might say something to an agent they wouldn’t say to an author.
How are agents paid?
Agents are paid when an author is paid and for nothing else. They are not employed by an individual or group of publishers.
The AAR Canon of Ethics discusses the problems with agents charging for proposal review or other fees. It would be widely agreed in the agent community that agents would only be paid their commission (usually 15%) whenever the author is paid.
This is why agents are less likely to be interested in an author who is “more interested in getting a book published than making money.” You need to forgive the agent community if we lose interest in representation when you declare your disdain for earning money from publishing. It is how we earn a living and we won’t apologize for it.
However, if your only motivation is money, I can suggest a wide variety of professions and positions which earn far more than book-writing for a large percentage of authors.
It’s all about balance and respect for what each party brings to the table.
What do agents do for an author?
- Find a path for an author with a greater chance to be published “well.” Believe it or not, there is a difference between being “published” and “published well.”
- Make sure an author is treated fairly in the contracting process and they are aware of potential difficult issues with it.
- Give authors advice regarding the business and emotion of publishing. Believe it or not, publishing is an emotional business.
- Give a perspective on the industry. An agent should know how things work.
- Communicate good and bad news with perspective. Good things and not-so-good things happen to authors in the past, and they survived. It might be nice to know how others handled the same situation.
- Translate negatives into positive action. While I’ve know some people to translate positives into some kind of negative, agents know how to make lemonade from lemons and turn what might be a discouragement into a series of positive experiences.