Do I need an agent? This was a question I asked myself for many years, and one that took me over a decade to answer with certainty. I was a struggling writer for nearly ten years and I was frustrated with many of the agents I encountered in that time.
I was a successful self-published author for a few years after that, and I did it all by myself. These days I’m an agented, traditionally published author. I’ve been around the block, it’s fair to say, and I’m in the best position I have ever been.
I have many aspiring authors asking me, Do I need an agent? and each time I tell them the same thing. But what is it that makes life easier when you have an agent, and why is having an agent on your side still essential in this day and age?
Do I Need an Agent – Reason 1: Quality
It’s not a given that you will get a publisher when you have signed with an agent. In my experience, getting an agent is the hard part and getting a publisher is easy. But I had a sellable product, one that had already sold in fact. So it was fairly straightforward.
If you don’t have a sellable product, then that’s the first thing that an agent can help with. Even if you’re a good writer with a good book, you don’t have the experience that an agent has when it comes to creating a solid proposal. They know what editors like and, more importantly, they know what specific editors like. They will have an idea of who they are going to pitch your proposal to, and they will help you to amend the proposal before you send it to them.
They will also know what to say in order to convince that they need to sign you up. And if your book needs some work, they will advise accordingly before sending it off.
Your proposal is an essential part of the process, especially with nonfiction, and this is something an experienced agent should have a firm grasp of, but something that many writers know very little about.
Do I Need an Agent – Reason 2: Guidance
A good agent will understand your strengths and your weaknesses and they can advise on any opportunities that you may have missed.
I began freelancing a few years ago and I did rather well for myself. I had an agent at the time and after we had sold some of my fiction books, he walked me through the process of creating a proposal for The Online Writer’s Companion, which details my experiences as a freelancer and aims to help others achieve the same success.
Agents know the market, they know you and they know the publishers. They can advise on your next book, and on a change in direction if your current one isn’t working out very well.
A good agent will also be there to answer any questions you have about the publishing process, about marketing and about everything else. If you’re anything like me, you will have a lot of questions, so it’s good to have someone on hand. I was actually very lucky to get a fantastic editor who was just as helpful. But it’s not unheard of to get an editor who is overworked, unresponsive and therefore not able to help. And if this happens to you, then your agent will be there to step in.
Do I Need an Agent – Reason 3: Money
Your agent may take a percentage of your earnings, but they’ll earn that fee back tenfold. Your agent will negotiate your initial contract, increasing your advance and your royalties. If your book is a success and you have a number of publishing companies after you, they will look to get you the best deal on any future books.
A literary contract is a complex thing. During my initial negotiation, several of the things that played a big role hadn’t even crossed my mind (including a First Option, which gives the publisher the right to first-refusal on your next project).
As well as the advance, they also need to discuss royalties on ebooks, audiobooks, paperbacks/hardbacks and merchandise. They need to determine who gets what with translation rights, and film rights. They have to determine how much of an author discount you will get on your own books and how many free copies you will receive.
There’s a lot to consider, and while this is all confusing for the average author, it’s standard for the average agent.
When You Don’t Need an Agent
You don’t need an agent if you plan to self-publish. The agent is there to be a bridge between you and a traditional publisher, not to take a chunk of your self-published royalties. You don’t need an agent if you’re only writing poetry or short stories and selling these to magazines/websites.
If you’re writing academic nonfiction and publishing to a university press, an agent will be pretty redundant as well. Although you’ll be hard pressed to find one willing to take you on anyway.
How to Get An Agent
It is true that many publishers accept unsolicited submissions. In theory that means that you can make it without the help of an agent. But not in practice—even if you disregard the benefits listed above.
The truth is, even the publishers that do accept unsolicited submissions will simply not care about your submission if it doesn’t come from an agent. They give priority to the agents they know and the agents they have worked with before. Then they’ll consider the ones they haven’t worked with. At the bottom of that pile are the submissions that don’t come from agents.
So, not only will it take a long time for your submission to be reviewed, but they might be so dismissive that when they finally review it, you’ll barely get a glance. In my experience, it’s best to keep trying to get an agent. It might not happen straight away, but if you’re good enough, it will happen eventually.
In conclusion, the question of Do I need an agent? can be answered with a resounding yes.