Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Do I Need a Literary Agent to Get Published?

To most starting writers, and even a few established ones, literary agents are near-mythical champions who swoop in the uplift the talented and the deserving. These men and women stand for writers, opening doors and fighting for better royalties, more earnings, and a bigger advertising budget. In the minds of many, a literary agent isn't just someone who helps you succeed, but rather the reason you succeed in the first place.

Twenty percent royalties, and a Christmas-season release.
Allow me to shatter that image by explaining what these agents actually do, and don't do, for you.

A Literary Agent's Job

The first step is to strip away the mystery behind what a literary agent does. An agent is a professional go-between, who uses his or her connections to act as a middle man between talented writers, and publishers who are looking for talented writers. Many agents had previous lives in the publishing industry as editors, publishers, or even as authors themselves (typically they've done at least two of these three gigs). When they leave the publishing world to become agents, it's kind of like how police officers or military personnel go into the private sector. They aren't in their old world, but they still have all the connections, reputation, and weight they used to, and an agent can use that to your advantage if you are the one being represented.

There are some places, like Random House, Penguin, etc. which require you to have an agent in order to get your manuscript reviewed. Or at least that's what they say on their submissions page.

Do You Need An Agent To Be Successful?

That depends on your definition of successful. If your first novel absolutely must be published by a big name company, then yes, you're going to need an agent to get you through the front door. However, if your definition of success as an author is pretty much anything other than that, you can forego the step of finding an agent without too much worry.

Especially if you can fight your own publishing battles.
You know how I mentioned a little while ago that agents make their contacts by working in the publishing industry? Well, authors do pretty much the same thing, so the usefulness of an agent goes down the more contacts and connections you develop as an author. Every editor you work with, every fellow author you meet, and every panel you're on brings you into contact with more connections. Not only that, but the more work you have on the market, and the more successful you are, the more likely it is that bigger publishers will lift the velvet rope without someone else vouching for you.

If that seems confusing, it shouldn't. Publishers are interested in making money, which is why whether you love them or hate them, authors with big audiences like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Jim Butcher, J.K. Rowling, etc. can pretty much just walk into the VIP entrance and skip all the rigmarole. If they write something, publishers know they'll make bank on the book, even if the book is critically panned. You, Joe or Jill Schmo, they know nothing about. Worse, there are quite literally hundreds of thousands of other authors just like you that they also know nothing about. Big publishers simply do not have the time to waste reading through huge slush piles when they already have a stable of steady earners making them money.

The agent's job is to convince a publisher to take a risk on you, and agents who have picked winners in the past will be trusted by publishers. If, on the other hand, you're already making big waves and your books have become a phenomenon, then bigger houses may try to recruit you. Better contracts, bigger advances, and other benefits are all part of the deal when a publishers wants that half a million books you sold with your last release to be sold through them instead.

Hopefully this clears that up for you. If you've got other curiosities, you might find answers in my blog post Questions Beginning Writers Ask (That Experienced Writers Are Tired of Hearing).

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  1. Evergreen topics are always useful to those of us who are fresh and young and need to know. Thank you. Great article, and very specific. Thanks again... Jade

  2. Evergreen topics are always useful to those of us who are fresh and young and need to know. Thank you. Great article, and very specific. Thanks again... Jade