Many of my clients feel overwhelmed by the prospect of book publishing. How is it possible for an unknown writer to access the big, untouchable editors and publishing houses in New York? They worry that you have to know someone in order to get published. Without good connections, it seems, the process of getting a book contract from an established publisher is unreachable.

That’s where literary agents come in. They are the gatekeepers for publishers. The “Big Five” publishers (Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan, and HarperCollins) in New York do not have time to read unsolicited manuscripts from the tens of thousands of authors (if not hundreds of thousands) who are looking to get published every year. Instead they have relationship with trusted literary agents, who are known for their reputation to find great writers and book projects, and match them up with the perfect editor.

Almost every literary agent (except those who are closed to submissions) is accessible to authors through their submissions policies. Query them via email, and if they are interested, they will write you back and ask to see a sample of your manuscript or a whole manuscript. It’s vitally important that your query letter is professional, follows the format the agent is looking for, and is compelling enough for the agent to want to read more.

If you are lucky enough to get an agent, they may or may not help you to tweak your manuscript to get it ready to submit. Most agents prefer books that are “turn-key” – in other words, that are ready to be turned around and sent out the next day. But some agents think that they can improve the manuscript in some small way, and work with you to make the book more marketable (note, this is rare, and more true in the case of nonfiction). Then they will come up with a submissions list of where they will try to sell your book, pitch your book, and hopefully find a home for your book.In my video about this subject to be posted this week, I’ll be discussing many of the ways literary agents help their clients, what to expect out of the relationship, what not to expect, a typical contract they might ask you to sign, and what to do if the relationship is no longer working.