So you’ve chosen the time-consuming, time-honored path of trade publishing. Now what? In a world where thousands of writers vie for attention, how do you get noticed? Which company should you submit to? What makes a fair publishing contract? And how do you protect your rights?
If you’re worried about these questions, you might benefit greatly from having a literary agent who can answer them.
What Is a Literary Agent?
A literary agent is a professional representative who acts as a go-between for you and the publishing houses. The agent's job is to pitch your work to different publishing houses, find the right one for you, assist with contract negotiations, and generally help you in all your dealings with the chosen publisher.
Why You Should Consider an Agent
- Professional Expertise. Agents have their fingertips on the market’s pulse. They know what’s selling. They’ve spent decades building relationships with various editors across the country. An agent worth his salt will know a particular editor’s taste in fiction and how to pitch your novel the right way to get them interested.
- Access to the Big Five. The big and prestigious publishers (Random House, Penguin Group, etc.) won’t consider your work unless you have an agent. Do they miss out on some shining new talent? Sure. Do they care? Not so much. If you want a chance with them, find a serious agent.
- Contract Negotiation. Agents are responsible for negotiating a contract between you and the publisher. They will work to secure you a larger advance and more royalties, better terms for film and foreign rights sales, and more. What might mean gibberish to you in the contract makes sense to them, and they’ll get the best deal for you.
- Career Guidance. An experienced agent can offer advice on how to make your work better, advise you on what book to write next, and how to broaden your audience.
- No Fees. The vast majority of literary agents belong to the Association of Author Representatives (AAR), and do not charge fees to read your work, even if they reject you or can’t sell your novels. No agent should ever charge you for anything. Period.
- Quality Assurance. Having an agent, especially one that's well-known, will make your work stand out to editors. They'll consider it higher-quality because that agent agreed to take you on as a client.
Why You Should Consider Working Without an Agent
- Long Line. Statistics show that eighty percent of all books published in the United States are represented by agents. Their skills and experience make them highly desirable, and the average agent gets about ten thousand queries a year. In a good year, they might take on two new clients. With so many people clamoring to be noticed, your novel will have to be exceptional to merit a second glance. They're not just looking at the quality of one submission. They have to judge whether or not signing you will benefit their business in the long run.
- No Promises. Having an agent increases your chances of being published by leaps and bounds, but it does not guarantee it. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by twelve publishers even after Rowling partnered with Christopher Little, one of the best agents in the United Kingdom.
- Cost in Royalties. The agent is paid on commission––a percentage of every royalty check that’s generated from book sales (usually fifteen percent of domestic sales and twenty percent from translation, audiobook, and film rights).
- They’re Human Too. Agents do a lot of good work, but they’re not perfect. They make mistakes. Sometimes they can’t sell a book no matter how hard they try. They retire. Many writers have known the terror of being “orphaned” and having to start all over again. Is it likely? Maybe not, but it is possible.
- You Might Get Scammed. Shady agents wreak havoc in a lot of authors' lives. On top of charging you fees and giving little (if any) service in return, they might lock you into a contract that's impossible to get out of. Some may just take your money. Others might persuade you to unknowingly sign over the rights to your work. Be vigilant!
Is it Right for You?
If you want your novel to reach the big New York publishers, if you want a seasoned expert guiding your moves in a crazy ever-changing business, and if you want to safeguard the fruits of your labor, a literary agent can be invaluable. Be careful when you shop for one!
On the other hand, if you’re confident enough in your skills, and if your idea for success doesn’t involve third parties, going solo might be preferable.