Literary agents are the folks who try to interest a publisher in an author’s work, and who usually are involved in contract negotiation and the sale of “subsidiary rights” (movies and such). If a deal is made, the agent gets a percentage (typically 15% in the USA) of the author’s income from the deal. The percentage may be higher for foreign rights.
Sometimes, an author can make a deal with a publisher without working with an agent, but this is uncommon with larger publishers. Before I opened my own publishing company I made deals with three “traditional” publishing companies. They approached me, but apparently this is uncommon except for superstars.
Books have been written about finding an agent. (I bought the one shown above before I decided to self-publish.) Most of my knowledge is about self-publishing, but I’ll tell you just a tiny bit about working with an agent here. If you need to know more, read the book shown, Rachelle Gardner’s excellent blog and this Writer’s Digest blog.
Agents tend to specialize in genres such as sci-fi, Christian or chick-lit, or sometimes broad fields like fiction and nonfiction. Don’t waste time submitting a kids’ book about dinosaurs to an agent who specializes in cookbooks or celebrity memoirs.
Some literary agents work solo. Some work in agencies with many agents and a large support staff. Some agents have close ties to the "acquisition editors" at certain publishers based on past successes. A newbie agent may have trouble attracting the interest of a publisher.
Many agents are located in important publishing cities, particularly New York and Los Angeles. You may prefer to find an agent near where you live if you crave frequent in-person meetings. (Agents may crave fewer sessions.)
You can find an agent by asking other authors for recommendations, through discussions and speeches at conventions and trade shows, through Writers Market, and the website of the Association of Authors’ Representatives. AgentQuery is very good, too. News and interviews in Publishers Weekly frequently identify successful agents.
Look in books you own and on the shelves of library and bookstores and in online previews. Very often authors thank their agents in the front of the books.
It can take three to six months—or even longer—to find the “right” agent, and there is no guarantee that even a superb agent will be able to get you a contract from a publisher.
It’s tempting to try to establish a relationship with an agent who represents an author who writes books like your book—but that agent may be reluctant to help a competitor. (That happened to me.)
Although agents may be fiercely competitive, they also cooperate. If an agent turns you down, ask for some recommendations. Most good agents know about other good agents.
Agents are often more than dealmakers. Some will advise changes in your book, recommend an editor or marriage counselor, arrange book tours and other publicity, tell you to forget about becoming an author and let you cry on their shoulders.
Agents succeed or fail based on the sales potential of their writers and connections with publishers. An agent should be able to suggest several publishers who are right for you, and also tell you which ones to forget about. Publishing is very fluid. Companies are bought and sold. Editors and agents move around. Imprints (brands) are established and shut down. It’s important that you find an editor whose knowledge is up-to-date.
Before you “query” an editor, read her or his website and directory listings so you are sure you do things right. Thousands of writers are competing with you, Don’t get shut out because of a silly error. Some editors insist on email. Others want sheets of paper in an envelope.
It's perfectly fine to query multiple agents at one time (probably 5-20, but not 200), but not several agents at the same agency. Don't expect to get a response in a day or a week, or maybe even in a month. Rachel Gardner says: "If we are interested in your project, we will be in contact within 60 days or sooner. If we do not think your project is something we can represent, we may or may not be in contact, depending on current workload. I always try to respond to all queries. But if you don’t hear from us within 60 days, you can assume it’s a pass."
While it's natural to want to confirm that your query has been received, most agents don't want to be reminded or nagged. The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency tells authors not to "Call or email to check on your submission status." However, Manus & Associates says "We do reply to every submission, and we appreciate your patience while we evaluate your material. If we haven’t contacted you within eight weeks, feel free to email or call us."
Beware of editors who advertise for clients—especially if they charge a fee to read your manuscript. Read warnings here.
Some attorneys are also agents. Some agents are also editors. Some agents are also publishers. Some agents are also authors.
(from my upcoming 499 Essential Publishing Tips for a Penny Apiece)