Chip MacGregor

December 17, 2012

Is it worth approaching a literary agent?



Someone wrote to ask this: “I read that new authors should not bother submitting to agents. One famous author’s blog claims that a beginning writer doesn’t really want an agent, since most (if not all) of the money paid on a book will go to the agent. Would you say that is true or false?”


False. Unquestionably false. Most new authors don’t have the experience or the relationships to get their work in front of editors, so they have a hard time selling their words. Most will find that a good agent will help you get your work ready to show, then get it in front of the right people (and if it doesn’t sell, offer advice on how to self-publish it successfully). And an agent is going to be paid 15% of the deal — the other 85% is going to be paid to the author. That should always be true. I’m thinking you might have misunderstood what that famous author was saying on his or her blog.

One note: There are some fake “book doctors/agents” who charge fees to offer editorial assistance, ask for a check to have a career planning meeting, even charge something extra to take your proposal out to publishers. (I know of one author who spent $35,000 for this sort of “help.”) If the agent is charging you fees, chances are it’s a scam. Walk away.

Someone else asked, “Are agents willing to look at manuscripts if they come recommended by authors they already represent?”

Almost every agent is willing to look at the manuscripts that come recommended by current clients. Just make sure the established author has really read your work and is willing to say, “I genuinely think this new writer has talent.” All of us get some projects sent to us from people who are owed a favor. And I’m always ready to look at friends of my current authors… though that’s not a guarantee that I’m going to say “yes.” The friend can get you in the door — but it will have to be your writing that will get me to agree to represent you.

Another wrote to say, “I just finished a manuscript set in 12th Century Europe. I had it edited, and have query letters created, but some other writers told me submitting letters to agents is a waste of time. Do you agree?”

Absolutely not. I mean, I haven’t read your manuscript, so if other writers are saying it’s bad or needs work, then yes, sending out query letters for an underdone project is probably a waste of time. However, the general process of sending out query letters is still one potential means of landing an agent. You first write a great manuscript, then you write a great query letter, then you send it to an agent who seems a likely fit.

That said, let me offer some advice: Do your research. Try to make a connection with a good agent. If at all possible, try to meet the agent. Use your resources to see if you have a relationship that can help you. Printing off 100 query letters and sending them blindly to agents isn’t a very effective method — just like printing off 100 resumes and sending them off to businesses isn’t a terribly good system for finding a job. But making a connection somewhere is probably going to help you down the road. 

And one writer noted, “A literary agency just contacted me to offer their services. They said they would send out a press release to their data base for a reasonable fee. I checked them out and they seem legit, but I’m wondering if this is the sort of thing my publicist could be doing. Thoughts?”

My thought is that it sounds like a scam. A reputable literary agent isn’t trying to sell you other fees. He or she is not going to say to you, “Hey, this is pretty good… It’s not quite ready, but let me introduce you to our editor, who can help you get this in shape for $500.” Real agents aren’t cross-selling products or services to you. We are paid by the publishers, not by our authors. So an agent who approaches you with a fee-for-service like this is probably not legit.

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