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Literary Agents

The Job

Most agents can be divided into two broad groups: those who represent clients on a case-by-case basis and those who have intensive, ongoing partnerships with clients. Literary agents typically do not have long-term relationships with clients except for established authors. They may work with writers just one time, electing to represent them only after reading manuscripts and determining their viability. Literary agents market their clients' manuscripts to editors, publishers, and television and movie producers, among other buyers. Many of the most prestigious magazines and newspapers will not consider material unless an agent submits it. Busy editors rely on agents to screen manuscripts so that only the best, most professional product reaches them. Sometimes editors go directly to agents with editorial assignments, knowing that the agents will be able to find the best writer for the job.

After taking on a project, such as a book proposal, play, magazine article, or screenplay, agents approach publishers and producers in writing, by phone, via e-mail, or in person and try to convince these decisionmakers to use their clients' work. When a publisher or other producer accepts a proposal, agents may negotiate contracts and rights, such as translation and excerpt rights, on behalf of their clients. Rather than pay authors directly, publishers pay their agents, who deduct their commission (anywhere from 4 to 20 percent of the total amount) and return the rest to the author.

Agents who represent established writers perform additional duties for their clients, such as directing them to useful resources, evaluating drafts and offering guidance, speaking for them in matters that must be decided in their absence, and in some instances serving as arbiters between coauthors. Also, to ensure that writers devote as much time as possible to their creative work, agents take care of such business as bookkeeping, processing income checks, and preparing tax forms.

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