12/14/2011 10:54 am ET | Updated Dec 14, 2011

Writer Wednesday: Surprising Things Literary Agents Can Do For You

In the old days of publishing, literary agents had a clear and pretty much singular function: to advocate on behalf of their clients by liaising with publishing houses.

But now—look out! The publishing industry is upside down. The economy has affected books sales and advances. And literary agents have started to create additional revenue streams and added new services to their workloads, in part to pad their bottom lines (and let’s face it, some bottoms could use a little padding).

Here’s what you should know about what some literary agents have added to their bag of tricks:

Literary agents as educators
It’s nothing new that a literary agent would teach at a conference or school. But Curtis Brown, that super-famed literary agency based in London, recently opened an unaccredited school for creative writers. Aspiring authors can take classes that are backed by the reputable brand that is Curtis Brown. And, as per their website, if the folks at the literary agency happen to notice that a particular writer’s revisions are leading to a strong book, there is always the chance that the author will be offered representation. But there’s no guarantee.

Literary agents as publishers
Some literary agents are creating self-publishing divisions. For example, one writer that we know of (who has been published with a major house) was recently disappointed when her literary agency failed to sell her next book. But the agency in question offered to turn her manuscript into an e-book and sell it in all of the usual online bookstores (for fifteen percent of the royalties).

Some people say agents who offer publishing arms have a conflict of interests. In the past, an agent’s job was to look out for authors who are dealing with publishers. But if the agent is the publisher, who looks out for the writer then?

Other people predict a future in which all literary agencies will offer self-publishing assistance; career writers who don’t want to take on the burden of self-publishing their own out-of-print books might benefit from foisting that task on an agent who has experience in the self-publishing field. But until that day, there are no standards in place and writers need to proceed with caution.

Literary agents as editors
As you may know, an agent is not obligated to offer manuscript critique and editorial suggestion to a client. But most agents DO offer “free” feedback just because it’s good business to do so. In theory, the literary agent would be reimbursed for his/her feedback when a book deal comes through.

That said, some literary agents offer paid editorial services to non-clients. This isn’t unheard of. The ethical agents have a caveat that says something like “a paid critique does not guarantee an offer of representation.” But when an offer of representation does follow a paid critique, is the fee for said critique reimbursed (since most agents critique their clients for free)? It’s a smart question to ask before agreeing to pay for an agent critique.

Literary agents as writers
Over the years, we’ve read conflicting opinions about whether or not it’s a good idea to sign with a literary agent who is also a “career” writer (a writer who does more than write a book here and there). Some people say it’s only natural that an agent would write books (most agents love them, after all). Others say that when an agent is a writer, there’s a bit of competition between the agents and clients (we’re not so sure about this). Still others say that there’s a danger in working with an agent who is a writer because that agent might quit one day in order to write full-time (we have seen this happen, but there are many reasons agents quit that have nothing to do with writing books).

The bottom line
This has been a short overview and doesn’t address all the many questions that arise from the (side)business models above. So here’s the key to making sense of these issues: It’s always been important for writers to ask MANY questions before signing a literary agency contract. But now, the questions are changing.

At one point in time, discussions might have focused on author representation in the strict, traditional sense. But now, if a literary agent offers to represent your work, you may want to ask about any other services like those we list above. A side business might not be a deal breaker, but knowing about it will help you make an informed decision so you won’t be surprised later on down the line.

Learn more about Writer’s Relief, a service helping authors submit their work since 1994.