A Bookish Partnership: What the Heck Is a Literary Agent?

a photo of two people's hands over a blank page, overlayed with the words "A Bookish Partnership: Literary Agents"

This post is a part of our services overview series, “What the Heck Do We Do?”.


Have you ever looked at the Acknowledgements section in the back of a book, curious as to who was involved in that story landing in your lap? Usually the author includes a list of people who helped them along their arduous — or at least unspeakably long — publishing journey: editors, fellow authors, family members, and the package delivery person who kept them well-stocked with artisanal coffee and scented candles while drafting. If the author didn’t self-publish and had to leap through the hoops of traditional publishing to get their books onto shelves, they’d likely thank their literary agent as well. 

You may be wondering, “What’s a literary agent? Like, a bookish secret service operative? One who wields literature for defence instead of sophisticated spy weapons à la James Bond?” 

Erm…kinda. (But not really.)



Many authors have literary agents, but few outside the industry understand exactly what their role entails, and why authors need them. In a nutshell, literary agents sell books to publishers. And most traditional publishers (and even some smaller presses) will not accept unagented book submissions. Literary agents pitch manuscripts to editors on behalf of their author clients, advocating for their best interests through contract negotiation, licensing deals, and ensuring all parties get paid. (Note: agents typically work solely on commission, earning roughly 15% from every book sale — so they don’t get paid if they don’t sell your book.)

Literary agents don’t all operate the same way, so it’s important to read the bios on their agency websites, as well as their Manuscript Wish List page (if they have one), to get a sense of what they’re looking for before querying them. If they end up offering to represent you and your manuscript (HOORAY! Please know that’s a big deal!), you will then set up “The Call” (cue magical twinkling lights and bell chimes). This is where you’ll get to know each other better; the call will hopefully help you determine if the partnership is a good fit, both professionally and personality-wise. 

Pro tip: if and when you find yourself on that exciting offer call, it’s important to prepare questions. Here’s a comprehensive list of relevant goodies from a prominent literary agent to give you an idea of what you should be covering.

Some agents describe themselves as editorial, which means they will help you whip your manuscript into submission shape, providing developmental notes and suggestions. It’s key that your vision aligns with theirs, which is why this should be discussed during the initial call. If they want you to add talking dragons to your romcom and that doesn’t jive with you, chances are this won’t be a match made in literary heaven. 

Another way your agent dreams can fizzle like a defective firework? If you have the misfortune of signing with what is known in the industry as a “schmagent.” This is best described as a literary agent who doesn’t know what the heck they’re doing, who may end up wasting your time and, even worse, sabotage your book’s chances with publishers. A reliable resource you can use to research who’s on the do-not-query list can be found here. However, this doesn’t cover everything. Publishing is, unfortunately, a vault — most insider knowledge isn’t common, nor is it easy to find online. Which is where we come in. 



As a hearty crew of writers and editors, Writer’s Block Solutions has navigated the query trenches to hell and back, so we have a solid idea of what you’ll need to know while searching for an agent. From polishing submission materials to knowing who should be on your query list (and who shouldn’t), we’ll prepare you for what may be one of the most gruelling battles of your author life. (Not to be dramatic, or anything…)

Querying strategy is somewhat of an artform, or at the very least a learned skill, and often only comes with practice. Which is totally fine, unless that results in a shelved book during the learning process. There’s absolutely no shame in shelving a book if querying doesn’t result in an offer, but it’s a heartbreaking reality to contend with. Try to think of it as putting it on the shelf for later, not forever. It’s actually quite common for authors not to find literary representation on book one, or even book two. But there are lots of tactics you can use to put yourself in the best possible position to succeed.

Simple, right? As you may have guessed, there’s more to the story, but for now we’d like you to know: you got this, and we got you!



We can help you take the smoothest route to publishing possible, guiding you and making sure you put your best foot forward in your intrepid search for a literary agent. Invite us in, and you’ll be armed with all the tools you need to slay your goals — as well as any talking dragons that sneak into your stories. En garde!

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