This section should really start off with the sub-heading: “Dodgy Agents”.
Well, firstly, I want to state that you should never part with any cash. There are some
scumbags people in this industry that want to prey on aspiring writers. They say, “Yeah, I’ll represent you. Oh, there’s just this processing fee” and away they go, conning you out of your cash. Or even stating that they charge a reading fee. You should never part with any money up front.
A literary agent hopes to take a percentage of your earnings from novel advances and royalties, around 10-20%. That way, there’s faith in your ability to sell. They’re experienced and knowledgeable. And friendly! They have to feel that you will succeed for them to want to represent you. You become a team. Anything else, well, they’re just exploiting your desires to get published.
Do a bit of research on the matter. See what books the agent represents. See what sales they’ve made recently. Look at their client list. Hit Google. Or check out links like this forum.
Okay, so if you find a good agent who wants to represent you, what happens next? It’s pretty simple. You sign a contract that says, quite clearly, they take the 10-20% cut of any earnings you make through them. Nowhere should it say that you’re parting with cash up-front. Once that’s all signed—and it really is that simple—then the agent will begin to approach publishers on your behalf. (Again, the vast majority of publishers only accept submissions via agents.) Sometimes, your agent will submit to several publishers at the same time, if they’ve got something very commercial. Even so, they may think specific books are more appropriate for certain publishers, and submit to just the one.
If it’s a no, then at least through the agent you should get a fairly decent reason why your book wasn’t taken on. If a yes, then hurrah, the agent begins to negotiate the advance*, royalties etc. If submitted to many publishers, and more than one wants the book, the agent will then phone around to try and get an auction going for it, in order to drive up the advance.
Once that’s all done, the agent then begins the process of combing through the contracts to make sure everything is wonderful, that the percentages of foreign rights are good, for example, or that certain things are or aren’t included—such as media rights. They then pass the contract on to you, you sign, return to publisher, and the publisher pays the agent, who then takes their cut, and then pays you. Voila.
Simple, isn’t it?
*A note on novel advances: this is quite simply, an advance against royalties. It can vary greatly from a few hundred notes, to thousands. So your book has to sell x-thousand copies, earning out the advance, before it makes money for you again. Some deals are royalty only, so you begin making a percentage of the book’s price from the first sale.