What’s the Difference? Literary Agents vs. Acquisitions Editors

In the world of querying, there can be some confusion about the difference between literary agents—and if an agent is necessary—and acquisitions editors. Ultimately, these professionals have completely different roles. Both may receive a query in some form, though the angle with which they approach, consider, and respond to it will be different. And if you’re considering embarking on the query process, or if you’re already on that journey, there are a few things about each professional that can be important to remember, including their unique duties and the things they have in common.

Literary Agents

If your goal is to publish traditionally through a larger publishing house, you may need to contact a literary agent first as many of the larger publishing houses will only accept submissions from an agent. You can find a literary agent through sites like Reedsy, or occasionally on Twitter if you’re active in the #WritingCommunity, as well as by attending book or publishing conventions.

But what does a literary agent do?

Literary agents work sort of like talent agents do in showbusiness. If you’re an aspiring actor, a talent agent will help you find auditions by contacting people they know in the industry, seeing if you may be a good fit for any available roles, and communicating that information to you. Then, when you arrive for your audition, whether or not you are offered the role is based on both your audition performance and the performances of others. In the world of showbusiness, even if your audition is incredible, if the casting team also sees another incredible audition and the performer does even one thing slightly better or differently in a way the team feels may be more beneficial to the production, that other person may advance to the next round while you don’t. This doesn’t mean one is a better performer than the other, necessarily, but that they may be the preferred choice for the production. Additionally, a performer not being cast doesn’t mean the talent agent failed to do their job; after all, they secured an audition for a performer. What happens at that audition is out of the agent’s control—all the agent can do is make informed recommendations to the performer for auditions.

Similarly, in writing, literary agents represent an author and their manuscript. A literary agent will find publishers who they believe may be most interested in the manuscript, then work as an intermediary between the author and the publisher to usher the manuscript toward publication. Of course, an agent sending a manuscript to a publishing house isn’t a guarantee that they’ll publish the manuscript; however, an agent is able to make informed choices on who they send the manuscript to based on their knowledge of the industry, their professional connections, and their experience regarding the quality of the manuscript and what makes it unique. In a sense, literary agents work as matchmakers, trying to find the best fit for both the author and publishing house if their common interest is the manuscript.

When seeking a literary agent, it’s crucial to verify that they work with a reputable agency, represent manuscripts in your genre, and will provide a contract that protects your interests, your manuscript, and themselves, as well as details compensation information should your manuscript eventually be published. Whether or not you need an agent is something only you can decide, based on your publishing aspirations.

Additionally, it’s important to be aware that you shouldn’t pay an agent out of your pocket. While exact contracts may vary, typically, an agent receives compensation only after a book is contracted—either a percentage of either your advance (if you receive one) or from the book’s royalties after it’s published.

Acquisitions Editors

An acquisitions editor is someone who works for a publisher and evaluates queries—or unsolicited manuscripts—and solicits manuscripts, negotiates contracts between the author (and possibly their agent) and the publishing house, and develops a plan to produce new and revised titles. (If you are querying publishing houses without a literary agent, these editors should only be contacted after a manuscript has been thoroughly edited.)

If you are working with a literary agent, after your agent submits your manuscript to a publishing house, one of the acquisitions editors will be the person who evaluates your manuscript and makes a decision about whether or not to progress in the process to publication, such as by creating a contractual offer. Your agent has no control over what the acquisitions editor decides to do, though your agent should only be submitting your manuscript to acquisitions editors who they believe will be excited about your manuscript and advocate for it within the publishing house they work for.

If, however, you are not working with a literary agent, after you follow the submissions guidelines on a publisher’s website, the acquisitions editor will be the one who evaluates it and decides on next steps. It’s important to note, though, that acquisitions editors receive hundreds of queries/submissions each day, and if you’re not already a well-known public figure or author, they may not have time to evaluate your manuscript or respond if they aren’t interested in publishing it. This is where working with an agent can be helpful—the agent’s networking within the industry and their relationships with specific acquisitions editors can sometimes provide you an “in” with acquisitions editors so that your manuscript takes a slightly-higher priority to evaluate, though that still isn’t a guarantee.

As an author, you should never have to pay an acquisitions editor a single cent for them to review your manuscript, whether or not you work with a literary agent. Acquisitions editors are paid by the publishers they work for, and if they ask for compensation from you directly, you should check out the publisher they purport to work for and see if they’re a vanity press, which is not a legitimate publisher. If you find that they work for a hybrid publisher, it’s important to check their business rating and reviews from authors they’ve previously worked with, because some hybrid publishers also implement questionable practices.

In other words, a literary agent’s primary goal is to advocate for your manuscript, whereas an acquisitions editor is focused on evaluating your manuscript.

Nonetheless, a literary agent and an acquisitions editor should each be able to advocate for your manuscript in an excited way; they’re the ones who are working to usher it toward publication. They should believe in your project, support you as an author with honesty and integrity, and most of all, be able to tell you why your manuscript matters to them. If they are not invested in the project in some way, you may want to take your manuscript elsewhere. After all, your manuscript is the product of your creativity and hard work, and likely something you’ve financially invested in to edit, so it’s important that your team see your efforts and aim to honor the goals and reasons why you wrote it in the first place.

Josha Publishing, LLC is a woman-founded, woman-owned, and woman-run company that is passionate about booksstories, and the power of words to change lives. Learn more about us here and remember to sign up for our newsletter to find out about new content, new books, and submissions update.