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Everything You Need to Know about Literary Agents

By October 7, 2020No Comments

ultimate guide to literary agents

Literary agents represent writers in order to help facilitate meetings, sell manuscripts and screenplays, get writers staffed, and negotiate contracts. A strong relationship with a literary agent can open doors for writers and gain representation, which is a huge milestone in most professional writing careers.

I spoke with Louisa Minghella, an agent in the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency to discuss what a literary agent does, and how agents work with writers. Learn everything you need to know about literary agents including when a writer is ready for representation, what agents expect from their clients, and how much writers pay their agents.

Louisa is a juror for the WeScreenplay Diverse Voices 2021 Screenwriting Lab.

What do literary agents do?

First and foremost, literary agents read scripts and watch shows and films. A good agent knows the business well and stays up-to-date on current trends. They work with their clients to provide script feedback and get clear understandings about mutual goals. Agents also work to sell their clients’ scripts, whether by sending material to buyers or by meeting with producers. Once a deal is made, agents help edit contracts and negotiate terms.

Related: Three tips for screenwriters from Zero Gravity Management’s Jermaine Johnson

How much do literary agents get paid?

Agents get paid when writers get paid (beware of anyone who tells you otherwise!). The industry-standard in the United States for a literary agent is a 10% commission. In the United Kingdom (where Louisa works) writers pay a 15% commission.

“The higher commission rate here allows us to have fewer clients and work more closely with them, so we tend to have a longer development process before we take work out to producers. Writers here are also less likely to have managers and lawyers, though it certainly is a possibility,” Louisa explained.

When should a writer seek representation?

“A writer is ‘ready’ for representation when they start gaining momentum as a writer,” Louisa said. It might sound like a Catch-22, but the truth is that screenwriting is a competitive industry, so writers should build their skills and writing portfolio while developing their personal style before seeking a professional partnership. 

“Many people think they need to have rep first, but as agents, we can’t easily figure out who to represent until we see what they have achieved in the field,” she added. “Moreover, the jump from writing on your own to writing for a production is such a huge factor that forms your voice as a writer. It’s completely vital that a writer has had a taste of that world before they can find representation that is going to be right for them.”

Also read: 3 Critical Tips for Writing the Perfect Query Letter

What kind of writing samples should TV and Film writers have?

Louisa likes to see a treatment and a sample script from potential television writers. “I don’t mind if someone sends an hour or a half-hour script, but it should always capture their voice and what they’re interested in. I don’t want someone to give me a comedy script if they’re predominantly a drama writer! It’s all about it being appropriate to you.”

For feature writers, Louisa prefers a sample script as well. Most literary agents will ask for more if they like what they see, so writers should always lead with their best samples. But have more ready to go on request!

What do literary agents look for in writers?

It’s all about relationships. The writing has to be creative and strong, but agents consistently communicate that they are looking for someone to work with.

“I already usually have a pretty solid idea of whether I want to take a writer on by the time I meet them, but it’s always making sure that the final creative chemistry is there that’s so important. Sometimes I talk to people who are fantastic at writing and not bad to work with, but I can tell that we wouldn’t be a good fit for each other, so I don’t offer representation.” 

If you’re seeking representation, be open to criticism and guidance while maintaining your enthusiasm for storytelling and drive to keep writing. Writers can often be under the misconception that once they sign with an agent, all they have to do is sit back and wait for their rep to bring in the cash, but the truth is that it’s a working relationship. 

“I expect my writers to take their own initiative, to find meetings and try to get into rooms independently, and to keep developing their work. Anyone who’s written for a deadline knows that writing professionally involves a huge amount of speed and efficiency, so keeping that up as a client, even when doing your work on spec, is important. Writing, in a way, is like being an athlete – you need to be trained and ready to start performing even in your downtime,” Louisa observed.

What is something that might surprise a writer about gaining representation?

“Many new writers who model themselves after some of the great creators of right now forget that you have to do the kids shows and the radio plays and the soap operas before you can just jump in with your own work,” Louisa explained. “A lot of writers cut themselves off before they can get going because they refuse to do that work or think it’s beneath them when really it’s valuable experience and it’s paid work!”

Remember, agents don’t get paid until their writers do, which means communication needs to be clear between both parties about their goals and expectations. 

How should writers submit to agents for representation?

Writers should only submit to agents for representation after researching the company and agents they want to work with. If agencies are seeking submissions, they will most likely include submission instructions on their website.

For example, at Blake Friedmann where Louisa works, their website indicates the kinds of writers they are looking for. They even list the script content they’re accepting and what they want to be included in a submission. To submit to literary agents for representation you need a:

  • Query letter (also referred to as a cover letter)
  • Resume (or writing CV)
  • Sample script of a feature-length film or TV episode
  • Short synopsis of the script

Other companies might specifically state that they cannot accept scripts with a submission, but instead request only loglines or synopses. Literary agents will request a writing sample if they’re interested. This is why it’s important for a writer to show their professionalism and do research about the partnership they are seeking. 

Want an opportunity for Louisa to read your work? Submit to our WeScreenplay Diverse Voices Lab now! 

guide to literary agents

Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!

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