Does a beginning writer need an agent? (and other questions from authors)
Someone wrote to ask, “In your opinion, does a beginning writer need an agent?”
In my view, it depends on the writer. There are some authors who are well connected in the industry, don’t mind dealing with contracts and negotiations, understand career direction, and can survive without an agent. But in my experience, it’s rare to do those things well while maintaining a writing career. I used to tell people that I’m not an evangelist for agents, and over the past 15 years or so I’ve tried to maintain a balance — I haven’t always believed that every writer needs an agent in order to succeed. But in light of all the changing issues in publishing today, I’m now changing my tune. Most legacy publishers require you to have an agent or they won’t look at your material. And most traditional publishers have moved toward relying on agents to be the first filter in the system, reviewing proposals and weeding out the chaff. Working with an agent professionalizes the relationship — an agent is not as emotionally tied to a work as an author, so he or she can be more dispassionate about discussing a project, and the agent is going to be more familiar with the business of contracts, so ostensibly things will move along better for both sides.
I recognize that some have said the future is in self-publishing, so that means authors won’t need agents. I think that’s completely wrong-headed. If you’re going to be responsible for your book, you might think about working with someone who knows the industry already and can help you. Think of the way realtors have changed the home buying market: You can still sell your home by owner, but it’s gotten considerably more complex to do so. You’ve got to know the market, understand how to show your home, know how to get the word out, feel comfortable negotiating a price, and perhaps most importantly, understand how to fill out the mountain of paperwork that goes along with every home sale. (My wife and I sold three homes on our own, and another five homes through realtors, so I understand the difference a professional can make to a deal.) There are still plenty of small publishing houses that prefer to work directly with the author, but any publisher of size will want to work through an agent. And if you’re going to go indie, an a good agent ought to be able to help with your career, your self-publishing decisions, your marketing, your dramatic rights, and your foreign and other sub rights.
All of that leads to the question, “How will I know I need an agent?”
If you’re a novelist, but you don’t have a completed manuscript yet, you probably do not need an agent. (And, to be completely honest about it, you’d have a tough time landing an agent.) Most fiction writers will need a polished draft of their first manuscript completed before landing an agent. If you’re a nonfiction writer, having a great idea and great writing in a proposal is essential, and bringing some sort of strong platform to the table will help a lot. The bottom line is this: if you have something that is worth selling, then unless you know how to sell it and who to sell it to, you maybe be out of your depth and need an agent. If you have a great book idea and a solid proposal, you probably should at least consider interviewing potential literary agents. Again, you can learn to do some of this on your own, if you want to put the time in.
And that leads to the obvious question, “What should an agent do for me?”
The answer depends on your needs. My relationship with one of my authors (say, bestselling novelist Vince Zandri) is quite different from my relationship with another one of my authors (let’s say a first-time nonfiction writer). Each author is going to have a unique set of needs. But, generally speaking, an agent should help you evaluate ideas and discuss publishing trends and the salability of your manuscript. He or she should help you create a dynamite proposal, tweaking it as necessary and working with you to make the writing as strong as possible. (You get one shot with a publishing house, so don’t turn something in that’s only 80% ready.) A good agent will help you improve your work, understand the industry, suggest editing or writing help if you need it, introduce your work to key acquisition people, and sell your proposal for you. He or she will negotiate a good deal on your behalf, paying special attention to key contract issues, and help you create a partnership with your publisher. The agent should ensure contract compliance, help you maximize your marketing opportunities (something that’s becoming more important in the current marketplace), be a pain when you need someone to kick things into gear, read a royalty statement and spot errors, be your biggest fan and encourager, and work through your marketing plan with you. Most importantly (at least in my view), a good agent should assist you with career planning, champion your projects, and grow with you over time.
So the follow-up question probably needs to be, “What do YOU need in an agent?” Because your needs may be very different from your friend’s needs. And every agent is different. Some are great editors. Others are great contract people. Some are basically sales people. Others are negotiators. And still others are life coaches. If you figure out what you need most from an agent, you’ll be better equipped to find the agent that’s right for you.
I recently had someone send me this question: “I feel stuck — you can’t get an agent unless you’re published, but you can’t get published without an agent. Help! What’s the best way to go about finding an agent?”
You’re right — it’s not fair, and you’re screwed. Sorry! The most important step in finding the literary agent that’s right for you is to make sure you’ve got a great idea, expressed through great writing, and you can back it all up with a strong platform. Those are probably the first things you need to have completed. Once you’re ready to start looking for an agent, you can begin by looking in any of the “find an agent” books that are on the market. Check with Writers Digest books, and look at B&N for a book that lists literary agencies. Next, you can meet agents at writer’s conferences, book shows, or at publishing functions like BEA or ICRS. These are still the best places to get 15 minutes of face-time with an agent. It allows you to get a feel for him or her, and see if you think the two of you might work together. At some writers’ conferences, you can send in your material ahead of time and sign up for an appointment. If you’re going to do that, remember to create a good presentation — after all, you are selling yourself. Put together a cover letter that tells about your life and work. Include your previous writing and book sales. Show the agent a great proposal, and make sure it’s as strong as you can make it. 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 likely to garner interest from a good agent.
Got a question for a literary agent? Send it to Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com and I’ll get you an answer. It may or may not be correct, but at least it will be an answer.
Chip- great info… what about hybrid writers… fiction and non-fiction… and what does the platform have to look like? I recently read that a platform of 150000 only translates to 1500 real potential buyers…. Thoughts?
Happy to address that in a blog post next week, Nick.
Chip, excellent, informative post. I didn’t ask your bold-faced question, but I found myself in a similar situation awhile back. I’d published two books, and was negotiating a contract for my third (I had a major house in hand), but I couldn’t find an agent. I know I would have gotten a much better deal than the publisher’s boiler-plate special, had I had an agent to negotiate for me. Admittedly, I was frustrated. Re: ICRS. . . I went two years ago, and couldn’t believe how much it had dwindled. Do you think it is as viable a place to meet agents, say, as at a premier writers conference, and do you think ICRS will soon become passe?
My guess? ICRS is dying out. Next year is the last one that’s confirmed in a big convention center, Lynn. I bet they move to a much smaller, more workable space. As for meeting agents… ICRS has been a touch place. A writing conference has been more valuable, in my view.
Thanks, Chip. While I did meet my first publisher at (then) CBA when it was a much bigger deal, I’m indebted for meeting my second (actually editor who led to the publisher) at Mt. Hermon. It was life-changing. And I also spoke to an agent there. For your blog (if you have not already or if it has been awhile ago), you might consider addressing the benefits (or maybe also downsides) of writers conferences and recommend the best to your readers….and maybe Allume, as well, for bloggers. I really enjoyed that conference last year and had an agent app’t there. I was surprised that a number of agents were present.