Chip MacGregor

May 17, 2013

When does an author need an agent?


Someone sent this to me: “To get a book published, do I need an agent or do any publishers still take authors without agents? If I feel like I need an agent, don’t I need to have a publishing record to catch an agent’s attention? What I’m really asking, I guess, is when does an author NEED an agent and when does an author NOT need an agent?”

WARNING: This answer is coming from an agent. Discount all numbers by half and throw out the rest. He is totally biased and opinionated. And make sure you’ve got your pipe and slippers, ‘cause this guy goes on and on and on…

I’m a literary agent. I’ve been in the publishing business in one role or another for decades now, a full time agent for the last 15, and started my own agency about seven years ago. I made my living as an author and, later, as an editor and publisher before I fell away from the Lord and became an agent. I’m pretty successful at what I do, in a business where many people call themselves “agent” but don’t know what they’re doing (and, consequently, don’t last very long), I’m fairly well known in the industry and, by and large, have developed a pretty good reputation for the business (more evidence of the mercy of God, no doubt). Feel free to ask around and see what others say. Most people who know me will tell you that I’m not an “agent evangelist.” I’ll be the first one to tell you that not everybody needs an agent. And I’m fairly safe in talking about this stuff because I’m fairly full-up with clients. That is, I’m not looking to add a bunch of authors (however, if James Patterson is reading this, FEEL FREE TO CALL). With that said, I’m going to give this one man’s opinion…

Agents are more important than ever

There has been this mood around some people on the writing side that, with the advent of ebooks and the ability to self-post anything you create, agents are no longer needed. My response: rot. There are more book publishing opportunities than ever before, more contracts and legal issues, more choices to make, and more need for experienced advice than ever. Sure, you can post your book on Amazon, and maybe it’ll break out — I think that’s a good thing. But who is going to help an author make good choices if they have some success? Haven’t you noticed that all those authors who had their self-published books break out then found themselves turning to an experienced agent to help them manage it all? I frequently get people bringing up THE SHACK, and how the authors of that multi-million selling self-published novel did it all without an agent, and bragged about how the whole thing was done on a handshake. Yeah, that’s true… and then, when they had success, they had nobody to bring any experience to the process. So they all ended up arguing among themselves, slinging accusations, suing each other, and having the whole ugly thing wind up in court. Maybe if they’d had an agent put a bit of time in on it, they’d have saved themselves some grief. (And, oh yeah… now that it’s all resolved, they got agents.) I realize this is a selfish argument, but I’m tired of hearing people who don’t know much about the industry expound as though they were experts. Sure, there are plenty of self-pubbed authors who have sold some copies. Good for them. If they want to move on and have actual careers, most of them will get agents.

With that in mind, let me offer some tips for you, as you think through your own situation…

When NOT to get an agent:

When you don’t have either a full manuscript (if it’s fiction) or a dynamite proposal and sample chapters (if it’s non-fiction). Without those, you’re simply not ready.

When you’re not a proven writer. By that I mean, have you proven you can do this writing stuff? In general, publishers are looking for great ideas, expressed through great writing, and offered by a person with a great platform. Sometimes they get all three, sometimes they settle for two of three. I’ve taken on some unproven writers because I liked an idea or their writing, but understand that I work MUCH harder for an unknown author (and get less return) than I do for a proven author… and THAT’S why agents prefer to work with proven authors. If you’re not a proven writer, you may not need an agent. 

When you won’t let others critique your work. Criticism is how we get better. Why is it the worst writers seem the least ready to listen? Maybe because in their hearts they know they aren’t that good, and admitting that would hurt their self-esteem… or maybe I’m guilty of psychologizing. 

When you’re not ready for rejection. This is a tough business. Do you have any idea how many times I hear the word “NO” in a week? If you can’t take “no,” or if you can’t take criticism, or if you can’t take direction, go back to the dry-cleaning business. You obviously aren’t tough enough for the writing biz yet. 

When you have too much time on your hands (right… Like THAT’S going to happen).

When you feel like you’re “giving away” 15% of your income. I don’t think any of the authors I work with resent my percentage…they know I help them earn more than they’d get on their own.

When you enjoy selling books and negotiating contracts. I think there are some authors who really enjoy creating proposals on their own, who have the contacts to get their manuscripts in front of editors, and who can manage the contract process themselves. But the truth is, all of those aspects of publishing require some special knowledge. So while it happens, it isn’t common. Again, I’m not an agent evangelist, trying to tell every writer they need an agent. If you can manage all of that yourself, perhaps you’re one of those who don’t need an agent. 

 When TO get an agent:

When you have a dynamite proposal that a publisher will fall in love with (and the agent should maximize the deal).

When you don’t know who to go to. The agent should have strong relationships in publishing… ALWAYS ask a prospective agent who he/she represents, ask to talk with some of his/her authors, and ask what deals he/she has done lately. If an agent doesn’t really represent anybody, or hasn’t really done any deals, you have to wonder if they’re really an agent or just play acting. An agent lives or dies on his/her relationships, so make sure you pick somebody who is good at those.

When you don’t know about contracts (they are legal documents that can impact your life for years). Remember that a contract is a legal document that will govern your book for as long as it’s in print. Before you sign one, make sure you have someone with some experience do adequate review of the document. On a related note, I would argue “When you don’t know what a good deal or a bad deal is,” you probably need an agent. The fact is, the information can be hard to find by outsiders, so the majority of authors are going on hearsay. Working with an agent who knows what to look for and what the current market will bear (in terms of money, deal points, and rights) is important.

When you don’t know how to read a royalty statement. If you can’t (and sometimes I swear publishers make them as obtuse as possible, to keep authors from understanding what’s going on with their books), you may need some help. 

-When you don’t know how to market your book. More and more of my life these days goes toward helping with marketing — a significant change, when you consider fifteen years ago that was a very small portion of my day. Again, you can get glean great information from books and seminars, but my guess is you’ll find it extremely helpful to have a good agent to talk through the publication, marketing, and sales processes. 

-When you don’t have time on your hands and don’t want to negotiate with the publisher yourself. Which is, essentially, everyone. Okay, that’s just a quick list to consider, but I hope it answers your basic question. 


Share :


  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Thanks, Chip. I’m almost ready.

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    Thank you. This is quite helpful, without the necessity of sarcasm and inciting no acrimonious opinion.

  • Christine Irvin says:

    Great article, Chip. Now, would you like to be MY agent!?!

  • Becky Doughty says:

    And The MacGregor strikes again! Great post, Chip, even though you had to fall away from the Lord to write it…. My mindset is that it’s not AGENTS who are becoming more expendable in this shifting industry, but the big-name publishing houses. I’m probably one of those “experts who don’t know much about the industry,” but with all the merging and down-sizing, etc., I’m seeing great opportunities for smaller presses, international publishing houses, and self-publishing. But these changes shouldn’t mean compromised quality, and that’s where agents become even more valuable – with so many options available, we authors need agents who will help us develop our careers, not just place our books.

    In other words, I agree. I didn’t even break out my pipe for this one.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      We are certainly seeing a plethora of opportunities for newer, smaller publishers, Becky. I don’t know if that means legacy publishers will break up, but they’ll certainly change.

  • Judith Robl says:

    Chip, I did the contract for “As Grandma Says” with Harvest House – without an agent. Harvest House is a great publishing house to work with, and I’m perfectly satisfied with this particular effort and product.

    That said, I will NEVER work again without an agent. Not be cause “they done me wrong” or anything like it, but because I’m such a rank amateur with the contracting, negotiating, and staying on top of the business, that I NEED an agent — or will as soon as this blessed novel is finished.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I appreciate you coming on to say something, Judith. See? You CAN get published without an agent!

  • Wow, this is a great post to share! Thanks 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.