Literary agents can be very helpful for selling a book to a traditional trade publisher but engaging one is not necessary to get your work in front of a university press acquisitions editor, even for poetry and fiction. University press editors are happy to talk directly with you about your work, resulting in fewer barriers for you to navigate.
However, literary agents can be helpful in some cases. They can advise authors on the best publishers to approach for their book; they often know editors at those presses to approach on the author’s behalf; and they can help negotiate the best deal possible for an author when they do find a press that wants to publish the book. In this regard, agents are often “gatekeepers” for big publishing houses. They weed through potential submissions and match projects with publishers who are likely to take them. In many cases, acquisitions editors at traditional trade publishers work largely with agents whom they know and trust. In exchange for this service, the agents take a percentage of an author’s earnings from that book for the life of the book.
University presses also publish trade books, meaning books meant for a general audience—from fiction or nonfiction of a regional nature to nonfiction books on popular topics that might appeal to a wide range of readers. And although they love to hear directly from authors about their books, sometimes the acquisitions editors at university presses work with authors who have retained literary agents. If your book is for a more general audience, you may be one of those authors for whom a literary agent makes sense.
A scholar publishing their own research, or a book of edited chapters written by other scholars, doesn’t need a literary agent to help publish their book. In this case, the Association of University Presses subject area grid can help an author of scholarly work find the university presses that publish in their discipline, and they can look up the contact information of the correct acquisitions editor in that area on a specific university press website. University press editors regularly receive submissions from scholars directly.
However, for work that is scholarly in nature or origin yet about a popular topic, it may be hard for an author to determine whether an agent would be beneficial. There are several things to consider about your work if it falls into this category. First, how big is the audience for your work? If you are writing about Bruce Springsteen, for example, you can count on a large level of initial interest from potential buyers of the book. There is a built-in audience for the book. A built-in audience is something an author is going to have to prove to an agent, because the agent will then have to prove it to the acquisitions editor. If you have a large social media following or another platform on which you can sell the book, that is something to highlight as well. Next, how readable is your book? Does it use a new theory that relies on jargon from your field to explain it? Just because people in your field are excited about the book, it doesn’t mean the book will sell outside of that field. Would your cousin be able to pick up the book and enjoy the read, or would they find it difficult? When you explain what the book is about, do people seem eager to hear more? If you can’t answer the latter questions and don’t have the built-in audience or platform of the first point, then a university press may be able to still increase the sales of your book by marketing it both as an academic and a trade book, but you don’t categorically need an agent for that type of book.
If you are a scholar who can write at a level that engages nonspecialist and enthusiastic readers, have a popular or timely topic, and have the clout to market the book on your platform, then you should consider hiring a literary agent. There are many resources online for how to choose a literary agent, but as in choosing a publisher, choosing an agent is an important step and an author would be wise to do their homework, since this person will be the one representing the book to a publisher. You want to choose an agent who has a good understanding of your book’s argument and what is important to you about it, and a good network of contacts in the publishing industry to help you place the book with a press that is a good fit for your work.
—Rutgers University Press, September 2022
There are advantages to having an agent—agents have extensive contacts with editors already, they will handle the financial aspects of a prospective deal, and they will be able to negotiate potentially confusing contractual terms such as subsidiary rights. The thing is, for most academic books, including those intended for a broad audience, you are going to be able to negotiate the terms that are most important to you directly with your editor. Our contracts are fairly standard across the board, and they are intended to share your book’s success with you in every way and to protect both parties throughout the process. Editors are also very well versed in the language of their contracts and will gladly explain anything confusing. In the majority of cases, you should be able to find a good home for your manuscript and agree on the contract on your own. Ask your published peers working in the same subject area about their experiences and pay attention to your rapport with the editors you are in touch with. Pick the best publisher for your book based on its strength in your field, your relationship with the editor, and the strength of its offer.