Does a Writer Need an Agent?

Does a writer need an agent?

Absolutely yes.

Or maybe.

Or, quite possibly, no.

There seems to be no real consensus out there about whether a writer needs an agent to break in as a first-time novelist or not. In my opinion that’s because it really depends upon who is asking the question.

So, who does not need an agent? You don’t need an agent if you write poetry. Or at least I don’t think you do. I’m not equipped to talk about that. You don’t need an agent if you intend to go to an e-book or POD (print-on-demand) publisher, but you MUST be aware of contract details, do research on the e-book or POD publisher you’re thinking of signing with, and even contact other authors. Be aware of your rights and be sure of what you’re signing. There are lots of horror stories out there about writers who ended up scr*wed by unscrupulous publishing companies, or those that went under.

You probably don’t need an agent to submit to the larger publishing houses if you’re approaching the imprints that say they take unagented manuscripts, and there are still some of those left. Often when a publisher introduces a new line they open up submissions to unagented writers because they’re looking for something fresh, vibrant new voices. That’s your best bet as an unpublished writer.

Now… who definitely DOES need an agent?

You need an agent if:

1 – You intend to make writing your living, or your living from writing,

and

2 – You would rather concentrate on the creative aspects of coming up with more proposals and manuscripts.

Plus,

3 – You’re not savvy about the business aspect of publishing anyway,

and

4 – You’re not terribly aggressive when it comes to marketing yourself to publishers.

The benefits of having a literary agent are many.

1 – He or she will likely be situated in New York (meaning Manhattan) or close by, and can do things like go to lunch with editors, visit publishers, etcetera, that you likely wouldn’t be able to do even if your WERE in New York.

2 – He or she can, in my own agent’s words ‘brag about you’, or present your accomplishments and talk you up in a way that you never would be able to do for yourself in any believable fashion.

3 – He or she… darn. I’m tired of all this ‘he or she’ stuff. I’m going to stick with the non-PC ‘he’ simply because my own agent is a guy. He – an agent – has his finger on the pulse of the market and will be more aware of industry chatter about trends, new lines, new opportunities, and can give you advice in those areas.

4 – He understands contract lingo and is likely to get you a better deal than you ever would yourself.

5 – He is less attached to your work, and can tell you if it is below par.

Now, all of the above is what you can expect from a GOOD agent. There is lots of info out there on the ‘net about what separates the good from the bad from the stellar agents, and I advise you to read it all before deciding what you need.

I had a crummy agent before my current one. Loooong before, I have to say; this was several years ago. That crummy agent tried to market a manuscript of mine to one publisher – ONE!!! – and when they said no, she QUIT! And I don’t mean just quit me, she quit being an agent. Which was likely the best thing for everyone, because she was awful at it.

Anyway, I ended up selling a Regency manuscript to that same publisher, and signed the contract that was given to me, and it all turned out all right because the publisher was legitimate and trustworthy (Kensington), the contract very fair, and the money about all a first time author could expect, given that the novel was a Regency.

So why did I go ahead and get an agent, if my publisher was so great? (And they were; I have nothing but praise for how Kensington deals with authors.) I had written quite a few books for Kensington but knew I needed an agent if I wanted to move forward; I wanted to write longer historicals. So, I made the right move at the right moment, and found the right agent.

Now, how did I find an agent?

Well, that first time around was difficult. I took the first agent who offered, and she turned out to be lousy. After a gap of some years and about 15 or so novels with Kensington, I turned to the internet and did some research, finding several agencies I was interested in. I followed their directions scrupulously in submitting my work, but quite frankly, even though I had a string of published novels, most of those agents didn’t even answer me. My current agent did, and we’ve been together ever since.

But… here’s the thing. I’ve always said it’s harder to get an agent than a publisher, and I still feel that’s the truth, with one amendment… it’s harder to get a GOOD agent than a publisher. It’s easy to get a crummy agent, and let me tell you, a bad agent is worse – far worse – than no agent at all.

Why? Because if you’re working for yourself, at least you can keep track of your submissions, bug editors after an appropriate amount of time, and know what is being done. A lousy agent will hold on to your work, not tell you what they’re doing, not submit, and not really know what’s going on in the publishing industry. He or she will virtually tie you up with no hope for a legitimate contract.

Why would they do that? Sheer incompetence, or their own lack of established credit in the field. Editors are extremely busy people, which is why they count on agents doing a lot of the screening work for them. A good agent will only take a chance on a writer who they think shows the promise of being able to sell a manuscript in a reasonable length of time. But an agent with no credibility in the industry? I would imagine they probably spend a lot of the time listening to dial tones and checking an empty e-mail box.

So, ’nuff said for now. Please know that this is all just from my own experience and research. The single most important thing you can do in thinking about and/or looking for an agent is to do your homework. Exhaustively.

And please, be careful what you sign.

Drop me a line if you have any questions!

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3 Comments

Filed under How to Get Published, Writing

3 responses to “Does a Writer Need an Agent?

  1. I’ve heard that agents are harder to get than book contracts. The one agent offer I had was for manuscript at a time. Not a “lets build a career together” type agreement by any means.

    My mucho published friend says she wishes she had that kind of contract. I don’t get it. It would be a real a pain to have to deal with the agent hunt and publisher hunt for every book.

    I’ve heard there are many great agents out there who aren’t in NYC. Not having had an agent of any kind–good or bad–I don’t really know.

    Susan Shay
    http://www.susanshay.net

  2. Hi Susan,

    Thanks for the response!

    Don’t dismiss the ‘one manuscript at a time’ agreement. That doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t build a career with the agent, and it doesn’t mean the agent isn’t serious. Nor does it mean that the agent is anything but extremely scrupulous and cautious, both good attributes.

    Actually, that is how my agent and I work, and we’ve been together four years and five books, and he has, indeed, been responsible for helping me build my career. He’s worked his tail off, even on proposals that didn’t work out.

    So consider the offer, if it’s still open!

    Donna

  3. Pingback: Post Story Slowdown « "Scrap", a book in progress by Kevin Wilson

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