Literary Agents How Texts Get to Publishers

Literary agents at the Frankfurt Book Fair; © Frankfurter Buchmesse
Literary agents at the Frankfurt Book Fair | © Frankfurter Buchmesse

There is hardly an author who can any longer do without literary agents. Since the mid-1990s, they have been the brokers between writers and publishers.

Katja Buschmann has everything that a literary agency could want: the author, born in 1987, has for many years been writing serious prose and will finish her debut novel in 2014. Educated at the German Literature Institute in Leipzig, her degree programme bears the promising name of “Literary Writing”. For Katja it is clear: “The next step leads to an agency.”

In the 1990s she still would have stood before the question: Which publisher is the right one for my book and how do I manage to prevent my text from ending up unread in the rubbish?

First pass the taste test

The role of the agency is clearly defined: to read and screen manuscripts and, with luck, to hit upon a good text and put its author under contract. If a manuscript makes it into a publisher’s programme, the money is divided: as a rule 15 per cent goes to the agency, the rest to the author.

So as soon as Katja has completed her novel, she will contact an agency by e-mail and attach an excerpt. A short time later, she will perhaps receive an answer: “We really like your text. Please send us the entire novel.” Thus the first hurdle will have been taken. One of the agencies to which Katja turns might be that of Gudrun Hebel. She is one of the most experienced agents in Germany, having founded her agency, Hebel and Bindermann in Berlin, in 1998. Today she represents about 60 German and Scandinavian authors. If Katja’s manuscript lands on Hebel’s desk, the first order of business is to pass the taste test: “The text has to inspire me”, says the agent.

Then things can move very quickly. If Hebel is still keen after reading the whole novel, her real work begins. “While ten years ago brokering manuscripts and negotiating contracts were our main business, we now work more and more as editor, coach and manager for our writers.” The agent puts the “finishing touches” to the text and exposé. She clarifies perhaps the question why the story does not quite gain momentum at the beginning and considers how this problem can be solved. Then she chooses publishers whose programme fit the manuscript.

Publishers rely on pre-selection by agents

“Literary agents are very helpful for us editors because they sift through many manuscripts in advance and have, in the best case, already worked together with the authors”, says Friederike Achilles, editor at Bastei Lübbe, one of the largest trade publishers in Germany. She knows how important agencies have become: “Personally, I can’t even imagine what publishing work would be like now without literary agents. Without them, I think it would particularly be more difficult to discover talented authors from abroad.” It could thus be said that agencies make life easier for publishers – but there is price.

Back to Katja. The agency she has engaged might send the manuscript to a publisher. The publisher says: “Great, we want to print it; we’re willing to offer 1,000 euros.” Not exactly a lot for several years’ work. But the agencies are there to negotiate: they not only broker the manuscript to a publisher but also see to it that it is not sold below its value. Authors like this, publishers less so. Achilles of Bastei Lübbe: “From time to time you suspect in negotiations that you’re being used only a price booster, although it’s already clear which publisher the manuscript will be sold to.” This is part of business, but is fortunately rather the exception.

If authors like Katja want to work together with an agent, Achilles advises them to seek a better-known provider. “You then have a strong, experienced team behind you who accompany the entire process up to publication and who can provide valuable support especially in contract negotiations. Simply sending a manuscript unasked to all publishers is successful only in very rare cases.”