Chip MacGregor

April 18, 2016

Ask the Agent: How important is it to have an agent today?


We’re doing a full month of “Ask the Agent,” where writers get to ask anything of a literary agent, and we’ll try to discuss it. Last week someone asked, “In today’s world of publishing, how important is it to have an agent?”

That’s a very fair question. With things changing so much in the world of publishing, I think most authors may want to consider that and some related questions: Do you need an agent? If so, why? If not, why not? How will you know if you need an agent? What should an agent do for you? And what will an agent NOT do for you? How do you go about finding an agent? What questions should you ask if you run into one in the wild?

Here are my agenty thoughts…

1. Do you need an agent? That depends. I suppose I’m not an agent evangelist, though most legacy publishers have moved toward relying on agents more and more. If you’re not a proven writer, or if you don’t have a completed novel manuscript, you may not need an agent, since you may not be READY for an agent. If you don’t allow others to critique your work or you can’t take rejection, you definitely don’t need an agent. If you understand and enjoy both negotiations and the inner workings of publishing contracts, you may not need an agent. (I’m not being facetious…some people like that stuff. They’re probably off their medication.) If you’re sure you can write, post, market and sell your works and maximize their value without any experienced help, you might not need an agent. If you feel like you are “losing” fifteen per cent of your writing income, rather than investing it for help with ideas, writing, editing, proposals, negotiations, and ensuring contract compliance, then you aren’t ready for an agent. And, of course, if you feel you can be successful indie publishing and can handle sub rights and foreign rights and film rights and marketing, you may not need an agent. But if you plan to take the business of writing book seriously, and to make either a part-time or full-time living at it, and you feel you need some help either connecting with traditional publishers or with special rights, then yeah, you probably need an agent.

2. How will I know I need an agent? Most likely the agent fairy will arrive and sprinkle publishing fairy dust on you while you sleep. Or, if you have a dynamite idea and proposal, that may help, too. If you’re talking with people in the industry already, and they’re encouraging you to seek publication, you may find it helpful to talk with an agent. And if you don’t have any connections at all in publishing, you’ll probably have to work with an agent to get your foot in the door. You may want to ask around and talk to experienced authors at conferences and publishing events. Again, I recognize there are some authors who can indie publish successfully, know how to market and sell their books, and treat the whole process as a business. Some of them still need help with things like foreign right, movie rights, and specialty markets. Others feel they don’t. I’m fine with that — I’ve never felt there was a right and wrong answer to this question.

3. What should an agent do for me? An agent should help you evaluate ideas, including following publishing trends. He or she should help you create great proposals. Help you know the industry. Tell you the truth. Get you editing or writing help if you need it. Introduce your work to key acquisition people. Sell your proposal. Negotiate a good deal for you, paying special attention to key contract issues. Help you create a partnership with your publisher. Ensure contract compliance. Be a pain when you need someone to kick you in the rear. Take your part when there is a disagreement with the publisher. Read a royalty statement and spot errors (most royalty statements were created by lawyers — they are considered “successful” only when they are totally indecipherable). Be conversant with marketing/publicist types, and assist in some areas of your marketing. Be your biggest fan and encourager. Assist you with career planning. Champion your projects. Help you indie public your backlist. Grow with you over time.

4. What should an agent NOT do for me? Write your books. Handle your personal finances. Be your mom. Vacuum. Understand that there’s not really ONE author/agent relationship. Some authors want to talk over ideas, others don’t care one bit what an agent thinks of their ideas. Some want the agent to completely handle the contract, others want to be part of the entire contract negotiation. If you figure out what you need, working with an agent will be easier.

5. How do I go about finding an agent? You can look in any of the “find an agent” books that are on the market (check out Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents). You can meet agents at writer’s conferences. You can meet them at BEA or at publishing functions like a writing conference or RWA or ACFW or an editor’s conference. You can send in your stuff, or stop by and introduce yourself. But the key thought is that you should create a good presentation — after all, when you talk to an agent, you are selling yourself. So put together a cover letter that tells does a good job of describing you and your books. Include your previous writing and book sales, if you have any. Show the agent a great proposal — in fact, have it ready to show to publishers. And be ready to talk about yourself, your books, your ideas, and your platform. An author who shows huge potential for the future is much more apt to link up with an agent.

6. What questions should I ask if I run into one? I was once on an agent panel at a writer’s conference in which everybody was asking all the wrong questions. One person who had, like, two weeks experience as an agent, was blabbering away as though he was Mr. Experience. Um…having done this job for several years, it’s my view that it takes somebody at least a year to figure out what a good agent is and does. So, while I know I’ve mentioned this before, some questions to ask the next time you spot an agent in the wild might include:

-How long have you been doing this?

-How many contracts have you negotiated for authors?

-Who do you represent?

-Which imprints and editorial personnel have you done deals with?

-What sort of authors and projects do you represent?

-What do you like to read? (Ask for titles.)

-Can you give me a book title you sold that you loved?

-Can you give me a book idea you generated that you loved?

-What would you say are your best skills?

-What’s unique about your agency?

-What percentage do you earn on a book deal?

-Are there any hidden fees or charges? Any up-front costs? Do you charge back your expenses?

-Have you ever worked in publishing or done any editing or writing? (If the answer is “no,” ask yourself if this agent can give you what you need.)

-How do you approach career planning?

-Do you work by yourself?

-Are you full time?

That should get you started. Just so you know, there are some WONDERFUL agents out there — people I really respect and admire; people who I wouldn’t mind asking to represent ME. And then there are… um… some not-quite-so great agents. People who I wouldn’t have represent me. Or you. Or my dog, should he decide to start writing.

Look, I apologize if this comes across as self-serving, since I make my living as an agent. I readily admit to being biased. But I just received a bunch of questions on this topic and I knew this would prove helpful to some of you who are in the market and trying to make wise choices. Let me know if this helps.

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  • Angela K Couch says:

    Great list of questions and things to consider. Thanks again!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Angela. Ask them of agents when you run into them at a conference this summer!

  • Kristi Woods says:

    Chip, your posts are valuable. I love the dry humor, writing dogs and all. It’s easy to “walk away” a bit wiser about the writing industry, especially for those of us who are newer, after reading one of your posts. This candid conversation about agents is worthwhile. I’m tucking this information away for a time in the near future. Thank you!

  • Linore Burkard says:

    Good, balanced response, Chip, with your signature touch of humor. Only, I thought I could ask you to vacuum. Bummer!

  • Barbara says:

    There are not many agents in Canada. And, the stats I’m seeing are that about 70% of books published in Canada are not agent-assisted. What issues are there (if any) for a Canadian writer to search for an agent in the US or UK?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ve not seen that figure, Barbara, and I don’t know the source, so I’m maybe a bit skeptical… but I’d guess that the response is probably to ask, “Do you know what you need?” I mean, who are you trying to reach? Where are you trying to publish? What are your expectations? Can you accomplish what you want on your own, or would you be helped by someone assisting in the process? (This is why I’m not an agent-evangelist, by the way. I think there are times an author may feel he or she can do the job successfully without assistance.)

  • Jackie Layton says:

    I would love to have an agent. There’s so much to learn to be a better writer, and we’re supposed to work on a platform, and most of us who are not published have other jobs. Juggling all this keeps me plenty busy. You have connections and knowledge. You get paid to get authors good book contracts, and you deserve your fifteen per cent.

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