Your questions answered
What does a literary agent do and do you need to have a literary agent to get published?
A literary agent is the individual responsible for managing an author’s career, including helping them to develop their work and selling their book to publishers by negotiating the best deal.
Agents also facilitate the initial relationship between an author and their editor. In return, agents take a percentage of an author’s advance and royalties.
Not all of the authors we publish have literary agents, but the vast majority do – especially for fiction, young adult and children’s books. Most publishers, including Penguin Random House, do not accept unsolicited submissions directly from writers, and so the best way to get published as a debut author is to approach literary agents.
How should writers submit their manuscript to an agent, and how do they know which agent to approach?
The typical way to approach a literary agent for representation is to send a covering letter or email explaining what your book is about, who you are, and why the literary agent should represent you – together with the first few chapters of your book. Some literary agents also request a synopsis, and some literary agents may prefer that you send your full manuscript. Usually any specific requirements are detailed on the relevant agent’s website.
It can often be tricky to navigate the large number of literary agents in the UK and to know which literary agent would be most interested in your book. Researching which literary agents represent authors writing similar books to you can be a helpful place to start. You can get a full list of literary agents from the Writers & Artists Yearbook, which is published annually.
Who reads the submissions that publishers get from agents?
It depends. Often literary agents will send manuscripts to specific editors they know might be interested in a particular book. Editorial assistants in our publishing houses will typically read a lot of these submissions initially before passing them on to more senior editors if they think there is potential for us to acquire the book.
Before a book is acquired a number of people within the publishing team, including other editors and our Sales teams, will read the book to give their thoughts.
What should you do if you get rejected by an agent?
Keep going! Many established and successful authors weren’t successful in seeking representation at first.
If you have been rejected by a number of different agents it might be helpful to think about what else you can do to make your book as good as it can possibly be. This might include seeking support and advice from a local writer development organisation, networking with other writers, or asking people you know to read your work and give you feedback.
How can you earn a living as a writer?
Authors are paid in two ways – through an advance, which is a sum of money paid upfront when you sign a contract with a publisher, and through royalties. Royalties are the amount of money paid to an author for each book sold, which will usually be a percentage of the book’s sale price.
Most authors will need to ‘earn out’ their advance before they start receiving royalties directly from book sales. This means that the payments they would have received from sales of their book (royalties) are equal to their advance, before they start directly receiving rolyalties.
The advance and royalty payments differ significantly from book to book but are ultimately based on how many copies we believe we can sell based on different factors, including the wider book market.
There are many other ways for authors to make a living in addition to the advance and royalties they receive from their publisher. This can include selling the rights for your book to be made into a TV programme or film, selling the rights for it to be translated into other languages, making school visits, appearing at literary festivals and events, and tutoring or mentoring other writers. Many published authors also have additional careers and income streams in other industries alongside their writing.
What does an editor do?
An editor is an author's biggest champion. They work with teams across the business to manage the publication of your book, from initially pitching to buy (or "acquire") your book, to working with publicity and marketing teams to develop a clear and compelling vision for your book.
They will also work closely with you to hone your manuscript, giving you feedback on how to make your book the best it can be. This could be detailed guidance on specific chapters, pages or even sentences – or more general feedback on things like developing your characters, plot and pace.
They will make sure that your book gets into the hands of as many readers as possible, and will act as the main point of contact between you and your wider publishing team.
What different genres are there and how do you know which genre your book falls into?
Broadly, all books fall into three genres – fiction, non-fiction or children’s/young adult books. Within these three genres, there are a number of sub-genres - we estimate over 2,700! To pinpoint exactly which genre your book falls into, it can be helpful to look at how online retailers categorise similar books to yours. Many of them will categorise a book by several sub-genres (e.g. John Grisham's Rogue Lawyer is classed as 'Political', 'Legal' and 'Thrillers' by one website).
How long does the process take from acquisition to publication?
It entirely depends on the book. The editor, with input from the author and their agent, will decide the best publication date for the book to make sure that it has the greatest chance of selling well.
Often it can take around 12 months for a book to be published, once it has been acquired.
Who creates the book cover and who decides on the final version?
The majority of our book covers, or "jackets", are created in-house by our teams of expert designers. Our designers are initially briefed by our editors and they then create a series of initial options for feedback.
Once the editor, with input from our Sales, Marketing and Publicity teams, has a cover which they are happy with, they will share it with the author and their agent for their views before a final cover is chosen.
What happens next once a book has been acquired?
After a book has been acquired, the author works closely with their editor, using their advice and feedback to finish the book.
When the book is nearly finished, your editor will start working closely with other teams across our company to start bringing your book to life for readers. This will include briefing our designers on how the front cover or "jacket" should look; working with our Production team to determine what size the book should be and the kind of paper and typeface we will use, and working with our e-book publication teams to create a digital version of your book, which can be sold through online retailers such as Kindle.
At the same time, your editor will work with our Marketing & Publicity teams to start building a buzz around your book. This will include creating a short and snappy pitch for our Sales teams to use, identifying press and media opportunities, and sending your manuscript to book reviewers and book bloggers and vloggers.
Our Sales teams will then start talking to our customers about your book, encouraging them to order copies. These customers could be more traditional booksellers like Waterstones, online customers like Amazon, supermarkets like Tesco and Asda, or alternative retailers like Oliver Bonas. Our UK teams will also work with their counterparts around the world to sell copies to customers overseas.
Before the book is printed, a copy editor will look through your completed manuscript to correct any errors or typos. You’ll have the chance to review the final version before it’s sent to print.