Wait, Do I Really Need a Literary Agent?

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I wrote a book. Do I really need to find a literary agent?

The short answer is: Yes.

It’s almost impossible to be published by a major publisher, or even a small press, without a literary agent to champion your work. Some, but very few, small presses accept un-agented submissions. So to understand why you need an agent, you have to understand why you want your book to be published by a traditional publisher (as opposed to self-publishing).

A literary agent gives access to publishers like Random House (or even a smaller press like Melville House ) who will pay you in advance (no take backs if the book doesn’t sell well). A publisher handles all of your book’s publicity, marketing, cover art, layout, and their sales reps can speak on your behalf to Amazon and regional bookstores. Your publisher will handle distribution, warehousing, and countless other unseen aspects of book production and sales.

If don’t find an agent and self-publish instead, a freelance publicist alone could charge up to $15k to get the word out about your book (and they’ll only work on it a few months). But you must print your own “advance reader copies” (there’s another few thousand dollars out the door), and of course your book will never be sold in Elliott Bay or any of the other thousands of bookstores in our country. Even with a freelance publicist, major reviewing outlets – such as the Washington Post – will almost never review a self-published book. A handful of reviewers will cover a self-published book, for a fee – but those reviews are for trade publications and aren’t often seen by everyday readers.

A few exceptions: Few poets have agents, and it can be difficult to get agents for short story collections, but there are lots of contests for story collections (winner gets a little money + publication). Some so-called “hard genres,” such as fantasy and science fiction, are suited to self-publishing because the readers already have a strong dedicated community that thrives on word-of-mouth. But the author is expected to be already invested in that community, not waltzing in with a novel.

So for most adult fiction, YA, or memoir – traditional publishing with an agent’s assistance is the best option, and you should exhaust all of your options in that direction before going your own way.

Why You Need a Literary Agent

A literary agent is your representative in the publishing world, and good agents open doors otherwise inaccessible to you. Agents have personal relationships with decision makers within the publishing houses – after all, they attend the same parties and have lunch together.

In fact, a good literary agent knows specific editors at specific publishers that your book would appeal to. If an editor’s recently adopted a dog … and is now crazy about dogs – your book about a dog is a perfect fit for that editor.

A literary agent will be able to help you edit your work and ready it for submission – then help you articulate what’s appealing and valuable about your novel, in a way that “sells” the book to publishers, who want to make money from your book.  A literary agent is able to get the attention of publishers in a way that you, as a stranger, would never be able to do.

Real literary agents only take 15% of the proceeds from the sale of your writing. They don’t get paid in advance, and they don’t ask for money from their authors. If an agent asks for money from you, run.

Ultimately, agents need to pay their New York City rents, so they need to sell books and make a fair amount of money doing so. They must be savvy and selective, which means sometimes rejecting a book they enjoy on a personal basis – but isn’t commercially viable.

Writers of memoir, fiction, novels and other genres do need a literary agent.

Once you have an agent, be respectful and professional, and understand that they’re drowning in e-mail every day. You want to keep your correspondence brief and infrequent, unless you’re in the midst of a book launch.  As a general rule, literary agents are very busy people.

Literary Agents Negotiate On Your Behalf

Bad cover art. A poor advance. Missing royalty checks. A literary agent not only sells your writing to publisher, but they also negotiate on your behalf, because you’re a writer, not a contract expert, and it behooves you to remain on good terms with your publisher. They have all the uncomfortable conversations, so you don’t have to.  

With regards to film rights and foreign market rights, your agent has co-agents around the world and colleagues in Hollywood specializing in book-to-film adaptation sales. With these film deals, your agent usually gets 10%, while the film agent gets 10% -- but Hollywood film deals are so spectacularly complicated that many film agents also have legal backgrounds.

When selecting a literary agent, there’s a trade off between those agents who have a lot of clout and can sell books for serious amounts of money to senior publishing folks – but they tend to have less time for their clients/authors, and it’s harder to get their attention. More junior agents may be less solid with publishing houses, but they’re also hungrier and enthusiastic, willing to work with you until a deal is done. As well, there are agents who are older and still newer to the agent side, but may have worked as an editor at Doubleday for 20 years. Janet Silver and Tina Pohlman are two examples – and Janet Silver’s first author after switching? A woman by the name of Cheryl Strayed.

NOTE: this Sunday (June 2, 2019) I’m teaching a Publishing Intensive at Hugo House with Karen Finneyfrock and Theo Nestor, find out more here: https://hugohouse.org/store/class/publishing-intensive-karen-finneyfrock-peter-mountford-theo-nestor-2/