What is a literary agent? On its website, the Association of Scottish Literary Agents sums it up:
‘Literary agents are a vital bridge between writers, illustrators and publishers. They present submissions on their clients’ behalf to publishers and to other media including film and TV, broadcast media and electronic platforms, and offer support and guidance to their clients relating to all their creative work. Literary Agents work on a commission basis – so they take on only those writers and illustrators for whom they are confident of securing a publisher’s support. They may offer some editorial guidance to their clients – but rarely otherwise.’
Not all authors have an agent and some deal direct with the publisher of their book. Also not all publishers deal direct with authors. Some of the big publishers (eg Hachette) will only accept book submissions through literary agents.
Agents often attend the big book trade fairs such as London and Frankfurt where they have their own rights centres separate from the publishers.