For some types of books, authors often find that it is helpful, if not essential, to retain an agent. An agent typically performs three functions. First, the agent will locate publishers who might be interested in the author's work, and will present the author's work to those publishers. Second, the agent will negotiate the terms of a publishing agreement. Third, the agent will review royalty statements and collect royalties for the author.

Attorneys differ from agents in two respects. Most publishing law attorneys do not "shop" manuscripts or otherwise assist authors in locating publishers. In addition, attorneys are generally compensated on an hourly fee or project fee basis, whereas agents receive a commission on all earnings from a work for the entire life of the work. Authors who already have a publishing contract in hand may find that it is more economical to work with an attorney; authors who need assistance in reaching publishers may prefer to work with an agent.

An author who is retaining an agent should always insist on a written contract.Agent agreements range from formal written contracts to informal engagement letters. In some cases, the only written agreement between an author and an agent will be a clause in a publishing agreement in which the author appoints the agent and authorizes the publisher to pay all royalties directly to the agent. However, regardless of the form that an agent presents as his or her "standard" agreement, an author who is retaining an agent should always insist on a written contract that at least addresses the following issues:

In some areas of the publishing business, having the right agent can mean the difference between success and obscurity. However, before committing to any agent, an author should always research the agent's background and reputation, and should insist on a written agreement that clearly spells out the terms of the agency relationship.