Books·PUBLISHING 101

Ready to publish your first book? Here's how a literary agent can help

Chris Bucci of CookeMcDermid explains the role of a literary agent: how to get one, why you might want one and how they help you throughout your career.
CBC Books' Publishing 101 series will help writers navigate each step of the book publishing process. (Ben Shannon, CBC)

CBC Books's new Publishing 101 series will help emerging writers navigate the publishing industry. We will take you through the whole process — from approaching an agent to getting your work on bookshelves — with answers from Canadian pros.

In this installment, we look at the role of a literary agent: why you might want one and how they help you. Literary agents are experts in the publishing industry and they have a hand in every step of the publishing process to help authors grow their careers.

CBC Books spoke to Chris Bucci, a literary agent and co-owner of CookeMcDermid. He represents bestselling authors such as Bob Rae, Timothy Caulfield, Amy Jones and Kerri Sakamoto.

1. What does an agent do?

Chris Bucci is a literary agent and co-owner of CookeMcDermid. (Darren Goldstein)

Tens of thousands of books are published every year in Canada. Agents use their connections and knowledge of the publishing industry to help get manuscripts into publishing houses and negotiate deals.

Bucci says agents will guide you through the publication process. "We do everything from reading pitches, reading manuscripts and helping to shape those pitches and manuscripts into what we think is a book idea that publishers will be interested in," he said.

And, assuming all goes well negotiating a book deal between the author and the publisher, an agent will run interference when necessary and ensure that you are treated fairly. 

2. How to find the right agent

A strong agent/author relationship is invaluable, so take your time to find one with a proven track record in your area. It should be someone that you're confident will champion your writing. 

You should approach agents with clients whose work is similar to yours and have expertise in the area of publishing your own work fits in.

"There's no point in submitting your adult novel to an agent who does kids books and vice versa, so make sure you have found the right person," Bucci said.

Do some research and find out who the agents are that are representing books in the genre that you're interested in. For example, the acknowledgements section at the end of your favourite book can be a great source of information. 

3. How to pitch an agent

Writing a good pitch is important to set you apart. Most agencies have detailed instructions on their websites, which you should follow exactly. They're typically looking for a query letter with your pitch — a synopsis of what the book is and a bio that gives them a good sense of who you are. 

Bucci says agents want to know why you're the best person to write this particular book. For nonfiction in particular, they want to know why you're the right person to write about a certain subject and if you're an expert in the field.

"Are you on social media? Are you already writing for magazines and newspapers? Are you already speaking on the subject? All those things help bring an audience to the book and help the publishers see if its a book worth publishing," he said.

According to Bucci, those factors are just as relevant if you write fiction. Things like a big social media following and having a number of story publications in bigger literary journals and magazines are all pluses, so be sure to include them.

But it always comes back to writing. "At the most basic level, we want good writing. We want to be swept up in the prose. The book needs to be well written. Of course that's a subjective opinion, but that's the first thing we're looking for," Bucci said.

4. An agent will work with you to improve your manuscript

Bucci says agents don't typically get a book that they can send to a publisher immediately. Initially some time will be spent on editorial discussions and revisions. 

"You can have a good idea and not necessarily be presenting it in what we perceive as the best way. So it starts with editorial work and making sure that we've got the best package going out to publishers," he said.

5. How an agent gets you a book deal

​Agents act as a middle person between authors and publishers. A big part of what they offer is knowing who the people are to go to, having developed those relationships over the years. They will also make sure you get the most number of publishers interested as possible and the best contract possible.

"We make sure when we are getting it out to publishers that we are getting a number of publishers interested. That, of course, will drive up the advance, drive the interest in the industry, in the author and in the book. It will also make sure they get the best deal we can financially," Bucci said.

6. An agent is your advocate

Once the deal has been secured, an agent will continue to oversee the process and they'll act as a liaison and your advocate.

"Throughout the life of the contract, and the life of the book, we make sure that all of the things that are in the contract are lived up to — and have been worked out the best way possible for the author. That includes everything, from the type of marketing and publicity that's done, to making sure they get the right editorial responses and feedback, and to discussing book covers and all those things in the life of the book," Bucci said.

CBC Books' Publishing 101 series features interviews with Canadian publishing professionals to help writers become published authors. Next up: Getting a book deal.​ The first installment was about how you can find a publisher.

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