When I first started sending out manuscripts for publication, I submitted directly to publishers. After many, many rejections, I decided I needed an agent. But did I? I hear discussions for and against getting an agent, and both sides have good arguments.
On the “pro” side, the most convincing reason to get an agent is the connections he or she has in the publishing industry. Even if someone is new to agenting, she’s been working in some capacity in publishing for several years, learning about the biz and making contacts. Many publishers are closed to “unsolicited submissions,” meaning they will only accept queries from agents or, in some cases, from writers they meet at conferences.
Agents know the current market and which publishers are looking for what types of books. They’ll be able to get your manuscript into the right hands, not to mention bypass the dreaded slush pile.
Many agents work with you editorially as well, meaning they will help you improve your manuscript before sending it out to publishers.
Agents can also help you with contracts. The contracts can be complicated, especially these days with new electronic and multi-media rights to consider. Agents may be able to negotiate a better deal for you, knowing what to give and take, perhaps getting you a bigger advance, higher royalties and better terms for subsidiary rights (movies, merchandise, etc.).
Agents most likely won’t submit your work to smaller publishers because the advances from those publishers are usually small. (Agents negotiate for large advances because that’s where they’ll make their money if your book doesn’t sell.) But there are more and more small publishers popping up, and they’re hungry for books. I’m actually surprised at how many small publishers I’ve come across in the past two years, considering the slow economy.
(TIP: subscribe to Publishers Marketplace free daily deals newsletter and keep an eye out for new publishers as well as agents who publish or represent your genre. That’s how I found my publisher!)
Another drawback to having an agent is that you have to share your advance and royalties with the agent. The typical rate agents charge is 15% of the advance and print book royalties. The percentage for eBooks and subsidiary rights can vary.
Finding an Agent
So, how do you go about finding an agent? A good place to start is to ask friends who have literary agents. There are also online sources that can help you choose an agent to query. Agent Query is a great website for this. You can search agents by genre, and several agents will be displayed along with what they’re looking for, what books they’ve recently sold and their contact information.
Guide to Literary Agents is another good source. If you sign up for their newsletter (see website), you’ll receive updates for new agents to query. Newer agents are looking to build their lists, so they’re especially good ones to query if you’re just starting out. The newsletter and website is also full of other helpful advice and information for writers.
Writer Beware is a website that warns you who to stay away from and offers information and advice about agents. For instance, you should never, repeat never, work with an agent who requires money from you. No reputable agent will ever ask you to pay for his or her services until your book is sold.
Once you find an agent you’re interested in, do further research online. Searching the agent’s name should bring up such things as interviews that can help you not only learn more about the agent, but the information you find can also help with writing your query letter. (Note: I’ll discuss writing the query letter in a subsequent blog post.)
My Experience with Agents
I’ve had two agents in my writing career. Each one had good contacts in the industry. I signed with the first one many years ago. Of course I was thrilled. But looking back, I’m surprised she took on the manuscript I’d submitted, and realize now that it wasn’t ready for prime time.
My other agent was more recent, and I signed with her for a middle-grade ghost story I’d written. She was a good agent with lots of connections in the publishing industry. She worked with me on the manuscript, and I really think her ideas improved it. She sent it out to most of the major children’s editors and publishing companies. We came close a few times, but never sold it, and eventually parted ways.
I had no agent for the book I recently sold, my young adult historical Call Me Butterfly. I was nervous about doing the contract by myself. I showed it to my critique group and got advice from them. I also bought the book Negotiating a Book Contract A Guide for Authors, Agents and Lawyers by Mark L. Levine. This was an invaluable book and helped me understand the details of the contract. My publisher Pugalicious Press is a relatively new small press and the contract was pretty straight forward. And they were extremely easy and helpful to work with while negotiating the terms.
What have your experiences been with agents? Do you believe writers need an agent, or not? Why or why not?