Have your agent call my agent

Most publishers won't accept unsolicited proposals and manuscripts, and those that do will have your submission evaluated by an overworked junior editor who will super speed-read it. So it's usually best to retain a literary agent to act as your representative with publishers' acquisition editors. Most literary agents are swamped with requests, so they can also be difficult to reach, but they hold the keys to the publishing world.

Since literary agents work on commission—usually 15 percent of the funds their clients receive—they won't waste their time on projects that publishers are not apt to buy. By submitting a proposal or manuscript to an agent, you'll get a mixed bag. Some will give you an expert opinion on the commercial merit of your book. Others may send you a thin letter in the mail stating only that they have decided not to represent you.

If you find an agent willing to take on your project, the best ones will advise you how to shape your proposal or manuscript to make it marketable. They'll also refer you to other resources such as proofreaders, editors, and researchers who can help you smooth rough spots.

Agents know the best potential publishers for your work and how and when to approach them. If a publisher shows interest, they'll negotiate on your behalf. Most agents are skilled negotiators and since they've got a vested interest, they'll fight for a good deal.

The greatest benefit of agents may be their role as advisors. They become your partners and may be the only people you can really talk to about strategy for your book. Agents know the publishing business, the markets, and your contract, and will protect your interests. If your book sales are good, they'll push the publisher for more promotion or perhaps a second book.

For more information about agents, see Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents 2004,3 and Literary Agents, by Michael Larsen.4

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