Hang around with a bunch of writers, and sooner or later the talk will turn to literary agents: who has one, who’s looking for one, who’s thinking of switching, who’s unhappy with theirs.
Of the twelve books I’ve published through traditional channels, none has been placed with the help of an agent. That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to working with agents, nor that I’d not want to work with one at some point in the future. In fact, for nine years I worked as an agent myself—a real estate agent, that is, because the average writer’s royalties don’t do much toward helping her children through college.
A book is not a house, but by working as an agent, I did learn quite a lot about the value of a third party in important transactions. In most cases, I still advise buyers and sellers that they’ll come out ahead if they work with an agent who knows the business.
In the end, it’s an individual decision—whether to seek representation or go it alone, which in the book business could mean either placing your manuscript directly with an editor or bringing it directly to readers. Here are seven things to consider when you’re contemplating a literary agent:
· Your project: Can you convince an agent that your book has real breakout potential? It used to be that agents would sign authors with the idea of developing them over the long haul. But in today’s market, the place of the midlist author is becoming more and more precarious. That’s why you hear so much about platforms—agents prefer authors who bring their own readers. If your project’s worthy but not destined to be a chart-busting success, you might be better off publishing independently, or with a small press where you can submit directly to the acquiring editor. The genre matters, too. In children’s books, for instance, many editors (even at big houses) will consider unagented manuscripts, while in other genres, that’s almost unheard of.
· Your ambitions: Will you still feel like a writer if you don’t have a literary agent? When others are talking about their agents (complaining about them even), will you feel left out? While this may seem trivial, the gravitas that comes with having an agent may signify to you that you’re part of the game. And if only a big New York house will do for your book, you’ll likely need an agent to place it there.
· Your connections: Agents are middlemen. They network. Ironically, it’s the writer who’s been in publishing awhile, someone who has established a few industry relationships on her own, who may be most able to navigate without a literary agent.
· Your skills: Agents know contracts. They’re negotiators. They see the big picture. Many are fine editors, and can help authors fine-tune their manuscripts. Yes, you can hire out some of those services, but in the end, it may be a lot more efficient to work with one person who can do it all, someone who has a vested interest in your success, since commissions are dependent on sales.
· Your expectations: As in any profession, there are good agents and bad agents. There are no licensing requirements for literary agents, so if you pursue one, make sure that person is well-affiliated and well-recommended. Keep in mind, too, that whether you acknowledge it openly or not, one of the reasons you’re drawn to an agency relationship is that you simply want someone to believe in you and your work. The reality, though, is that agents are very busy, and you may get little personal attention. And despite her best efforts, there’s no guarantee that an agent will place your manuscript. On the other hand, if you’re eager to see your book on the shelves in France or on the big screen, you’ll need an agent, as foreign and film rights are notoriously difficult to sell.
· Your options: By signing with a particular agent, are you narrowing your options strictly to the traditional publishing path—a path that’s becoming increasingly narrow and difficult to navigate? Or is yours one of the forward-thinking agents whose services include helping independent authors get noticed? Once you enter into an agency relationship, you’ll have certain legal and ethical commitments to that agent. Yes, agents and clients “break up” all the time, but the understanding is that as the agent invests in your career, you’ll be loyal to your agent.
· Your patience: Good agents have lots of clients. Out of hundreds (if not thousands) of queries a year, they can often take on only a handful of new authors. Much as they may like you and your project, the numbers aren’t in your favor. Do you have the time and patience to keep shopping for an agent in an increasingly tight market?