Today literary agents are a must for any self-respecting author. Although some adventurous souls prefer doing everything themselves, most writers delegate the business side of writing to a professional — someone who knows how to find an editor, negotiate an advance, Literary Agent Maxwell Perkins and hammer out the best contract terms. If you think you can do all that yourself, maybe you have another career ahead of you as a literary agent. Even though I’m an attorney and rather well-versed in copyright law, I still like to have a seasoned literary agent’s opinion on book contracts I sign. In every single case there have been details the literary agent noticed that slipped by me. It’s not because I’m slow-witted; it’s because they have the experience in dealing with book contracts that I don’t. They deal with them every day, they read about book contracts, they talk shop with other agents about book contracts, they even dream about book contracts — big book contracts, contracts the likes of which we’re going to try to get for your first nonfiction blockbuster.

Bottom line: A person who represents himself has a fool for a client. Get yourself a literary agent and get serious about your writing career. The small fee they charge (usually 15 percent these days) is well worth it because they’ll usually get you a bigger advance and better contract terms than you could have negotiated for yourself.

Here’s why a literary agent is a must:

  • They know many more editors than you do.
  • They live, breathe, and dream book contracts.
  • They’ll get you a bigger advance.
  • They’ll get you better contract terms.

When I think of literary agents, two immediately come to mind. The legendary Maxwell Perkins, who helped F. Scott Fitzgerald throughout his life as a writer. Perkins was also the agent and editor responsible for Thomas Wolfe’s success as a novelist. The other is Audrey Wood, the agent for Tennessee Williams throughout most of his career. She was always professional and polite, even when the eccentric Williams wasn't. (Maxwell Perkins photo by Al Ravenna.)

Here are some suggestions for finding a literary agent:

  • Search online.
  • Look in books that list literary agents.
  • Ask writer friends for recommendations.
  • Look in the acknowledgments sections of books.
  • Book dedications sometimes mention literary agents.
  • Read industry magazines such as Publishers Weekly.
  • Contact the Association of Authors' Representatives for a list.