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Relationship between Publishers and Agents


The Relationship between Publishers and Agents

Chris Holifield 2017

Publishers have been around for very much longer than literary agents. The oldest publisher in the UK is generally agreed to be Oxford University Press, dating from 1586. The earliest established still-existing literary agency seems to be London’s A P WattClick for AP Watt Ltd Agents References listing , which was founded in 1875. To this day this agency makes a substantial part of its revenue from the estates it controls, but with a roster of bestselling authors it is also in the forefront as regards contemporary authors. In December 2012 A P Watt joined the United AgentsClick for United Agents Agents References listing Partnership, part of the consolidation of agencies which has been going on in the US and the UK for some time.

Who are agents for?

Why do publishers need agents? Actually they don’t need them, although they have come to rely on them. In many ways publishers would prefer to deal direct with unagented authors. It's authors who need agents. Writers need someone to sell their work and then to look after their relationship with their publishers.

Agents take on more

Over the years agents have extended their range of activities at both ends of the submission process.

  • Many agents now edit their clients’ work before submitting it, in order to improve its chances. It helps that many of the newer agents previously worked as editors in publishing houses, but a small number of agencies also have editorial specialists.
  • Agents have also tended to become more like business managers. A large part of their role is managing their clients’ careers and keeping publishers up to the mark on the marketing and selling of their clients’ work.

Agents as a ‘filter’

Agents have become more powerful over the years as publishers have become more dependent on them. If you’ve been trying to get your submission read by a publisher, especially in the US and the by the larger publishing houses, you won’t be surprised to discover the sad truth - that the ‘slush-pile’ is often not read at all.

Publishers have decided that it is easier only to consider submissions coming from agents, which have been ‘filtered’ by them. That way the publishers can focus on the strongest possibilities. They may well have to pay more and get less in the way of subsidiary rights on the titles they buy through agents than they would if acquiring direct from  the author, but many regard those disadvantages as a price worth paying.

Publishers fight for market share

The key to understanding this is the battle for market share, with publishers desperate to make sure that their company acquires – and ties up in a multi-book contract – the next potentially mega-selling author. To sift through a giant slush-pile is not seen as cost-effective any more. The 'midlist' has withered away and publishers are desperate for the next big thing.

Why writers need agents

What all this means for those writing for general publishing is that you need to find an agent before you can find a publisher, making the whole process a tricky two-step activity. But once you do have an agent, they will have to sell your work before they make any money. So - and this is a crucial thing to understand - an agent will only take you on if they think they can sell your work. If an agent ever tries to make you pay a fee of any kind, do not proceed with them.

Your agent will charge you between 10% and 15% (mostly the higher figure) on what they sell for you, with more for translation rights. The upside is that an agent, particularly a good and established one, will have far better access to publishers than you do.

Chris Holifield


Our 19 part Inside Publishing series

Our  Michael Legat Factsheet on Literary Agents gives more background.  See also the information on  his book An Author's Guide to Literary Agents.

See also our UK and US agents' lists, which you can check out directly on our site. Always check the agents' own sites for the latest submission requirements.