self-publishing · Writer basics 101

Do you need a literary agent?

2702312059_63159f82b1I had this note from a new blog subscriber.

I’ve just finished my first novel. A most enjoyable experience only tainted by the reaction from the literary agents I have approached so far! Any and all advice and direction will be gratefully received and much appreciated.

Although we’re now used to writers who publish themselves, there is still a sizeable crowd who are set on finding an agent and a traditional publishing deal. Most of my critique clients, for instance. Why?

1 – Kudos and confidence

If you have an agent or a publisher, you have validation. You’re not just a spare-time scribbler, which you have probably been for countless years before. If you get an agent, your friends, family, total strangers – and you yourself – have proof that you made the grade.

This cannot be underestimated. Getting an agent took me years. By the time I did, I’d already got ghosted bestsellers and a track record coaching writers. But I felt I was sneaking under the wire, using the title ‘writer’ on false pretences until an agent signed me for My Memories of a Future Life.

2 – Developmental input

We all need developmental help. If you’re a good fit for an agent, they can give you perceptive, priceless notes on how your book works and guide your revisions.

3 – Long-term career-building

Obviously, an agent helps you find a publisher, usually with a better deal than you could get on your own.

But agents can’t always sell your first book, and often the only choice is to self-publish. Some agents are giving writers a leg-up with showcase imprints of their own – Jason Allen Ashlock at Movable Type Management  set up The Rogue Reader to launch outsider suspense writers. As publishers increasingly opt for ‘safe’ books, we’ll see more agents devising ways to build audiences for their exciting new authors.

So I still think it’s worth looking for an agent. Markets change and new opportunities are opening for writers all the time. If you can, it makes sense to get the support of professionals with more legal and commercial clout than you can muster on your own.

But every silver lining has a cloud. Here are two.

pic by tony hall1 Editorial input: the flipside

If an agent gives you editorial input, they might be steering you to fit a commercially viable genre. That might completely suit you. But it may not if your aim is to pursue a more individual and creative path. You still don’t have to abandon dreams of traditional publication; many small presses will take  submissions directly from authors.

2 Self-publishing

Almost every writer will probably now self-publish at some stage, but not all agents have adjusted to this. I know successful indie authors who have been offered agency deals that claim a percentage of all book earnings – which of course includes royalties from books they published themselves. This was appropriate when all the author’s work came through the agent, but now is plainly unfair. Happily, many agency agreements demand commission only on deals that they have made. If you’re offered a deal that takes a percentage of everything, query it. They might adjust the wording. If not, think hard about whether you want to work with them.

3 The disreputable

Not all agents are reputable. Some ask for money up front to read your manuscript. Even with all the boundaries shifting, an agent should never charge to read your work. Agents earn commission on the back end.

Havisidebarcropng trouble?

So what do we make of our correspondent here, whose quest for an agent is proving a challenge? Why might you have trouble finding an agent?

1 – Your book may not yet be strong enough. It’s so easy to send off our lovely novel too early. If you nearly made the cut, most agents will try to let you know. But if they dismiss you with the equivalent of a compliments slip, you may need to hone your craft.

2 – You might have pitched the wrong agents – either their lists are full, or they don’t take your genre. Check websites before you hit ‘send’ (although agents are often quite bad at updating their requirements).

3 – You might have a great book but a dull pitch. Pitching is an art and you need to know how to make an agent curious.

4 – Your book may not be commercially viable. You might get feedback about genre mixing, undesirable subjects or unfashionable style choices. Your book might still be a good read in spite of this – and if so, agents are usually genuine enough to let you know.

5 – You might need to kiss more frogs. There are thousands of agents, all very oversubscribed, all with different wishlists. With such pressures, rejection is far more likely than acceptance, even for awesome books. Don’t do anything different until you see a reliable pattern emerge.

Thanks for the cafe table pic Tony Hall and the inkpen manuscript pic Songwind

Anyway, I’m hoping this will kick off a discussion. What’s your feeling about agents? What would you advise our friend here?

40 thoughts on “Do you need a literary agent?

  1. And some agents turn out to be…well, not what they seem. I won’t bore you with my experience but I’m deeply jaded now. To land an agent (fishing metaphor..why??) and then realise he’s a flounder or a shark, well, all you keep is the validation.

      1. very little, as it turned out, and after about a year, I went for a meeting and he seemed entirely confused about who I was. After that, he seldom returned my calls or answered letters, when I was trying to clarify whether or not he wished to keep working for me. In the end, I took the hint and stopped bothering. He promised so much and gave so little.

          1. No. He initially muttered something about sending me a contract, to which I’d said great, I’ll get a legal friend to talk me through it, and the contract never appeared. Since the last time I tried to establish communication with him was not long after our last move, I suspect I have long faded from his consciousness once it became clear the book he thought was a clear winner didn’t instantly grab the eye of his contacts. I’m currently very upset as a friend on Twitter has mentioned that Faber are about to publish a novel with the same rather shocking premise/secret that The Bet has.

            1. I can’t remember. I think he saw it, but since he was so woolly and vague and useless at paperwork, I suspect it got dumped. I don’t imagine it went anywhere but the bin. I’m sure he was just incompetent rather than an actual fraud.

  2. Trial and error. That’s all I can say. There are bound to be hiccups until you find what road is to be paved to your desired perfection. There’s no easy answer unfortunately. If you want an agent, go for it, but I say set yourself a time limit. If you haven’t scored by then, try another road, and maybe query something else in the meantime. Nothing stopping us from self-pubbing one thing and querying agents for another.

    1. You’re right, Jessica. It can take a long time to find a good match. That’s good advice to query with a different manuscript if you haven’t had luck with the first.
      And you can’t put your life on hold. Get on with the next project. If you go into traditional publishing you’ll be spending a lot of time waiting around. Publishers take time to make decisions, then their production cycles seem (to the writer) to dawdle like glaciers. Keep creating and learning; don’t dwell on how long it’s taking to get a reply from an agent.

  3. It SHOULD kick off a discussion, Roz! It’s such a thorny problem and a question I’m often asked too. So many writers find it difficult – it can take years – and then they realise that even with an agent, the agent can’t sell what they’ve written and they can waste more years pursuing some elusive ‘breakthrough book’ which always seems to be predicated on last year’s big breakthrough book. For the first time in a long career, I’m without an agent – have been for a couple of years and am not looking for one. But I’m a member of the Society of Authors, and I wouldn’t sign anything without running it past them first. And I don’t think I’d actively discourage anyone from looking for an agent if that’s what they wanted to do. But your points and provisos are well made. I’ve had five agents in thirty five years. My first two agents were for plays and fiction respectively within the same agency. Neither of them had much editorial input. These were high powered agents working in a big agency, they were helpful in general terms, and discussed my overall career with me, but they didn’t consider editing to be their job or only in the most general sense imaginable. I was with them for a long time. This was a while ago and things have changed. They got me some very good deals: plays and novels. Then, after a successful stage play, (and mostly because my agent for plays was more interested in television than I was) I was headhunted by an agent with an interest in theatre who promised me the moon and the stars in terms of career development. I went with her, but none of it, not a single contact, not a single meeting, resulted. Wrong decision. A few years after that, I started writing fiction again and went back to a young agent with my old agency, but by that time everything had changed. ‘Publishers want an oven ready product’ she said. And so they did. So I spent years, literally, writing, rewriting, trying something new, being told that x,y or z wasn’t ‘in fashion’ any more. Shelving projects. Writing something else. It was soul destroying, but it’s also the reason why I have so much pre-written work ready or almost ready to go as the indie writer-as-publisher I’ve now become! For many years I blamed myself for not being able to produce what they wanted. For never being able to settle into any one genre. The quality of the writing wasn’t an issue. There were plenty of rave rejections. Plenty of editors who said they loved the work. But we always fell at the marketing hurdle. Later, I realised that I wasn’t alone. There were a lot of us so called ‘mid-list’ writers, or writers who just couldn’t settle to write in any one genre. And all of us – were finding it very hard to get any kind of publishing deal, with or without agents. I have no firm conclusions. But if a writer is happily working in a particular genre, especially if it’s a popular one – then perhaps he or she should look for an agent. But I live in hope of things changing yet again. Perhaps agents themselves may become business partners with writers who are already finding a multitude of ways of connecting with readers, taking a fair percentage for the work they do. Perhaps we need a bit more realism (and genuine partnership) on both sides of the equation!

    1. Hi Catherine! Thanks for your detailed and comprehensive reply!
      I have a scriptwriter friend with a big agency and they seem to act like career managers. They’re always phoning their contacts and pushing her latest idea, even when it’s no more than a jot on a scrap of paper. Hardly anything gets commissioned, but it’s very different from literary agents, who seem to wait until you have something.
      Your years of rewriting sound utterly gruelling. And at the time there was no other gateway into the published world, so what else were you to do?
      You’re right that agents are going to become more like business partners, especially for writers who have a more entrepreneurial mindset – something that a lot of us have had to develop in recent years.

  4. I’m interested in this because I was committed to the whole validation thing (and haven’t quite been able to let go of it). I grew up on – if your writing’s good enough you’ll get published. Maybe that was once the case but the game has changed.
    After completing an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa, and loads of ‘like it, but no’ from agents, I decided to self-publish my novel ‘Unravelling’ in 2010. I’m glad I did as it got lots of recognition and won three awards. I wouldn’t have known that so many people liked it if I’d left it as a file on the computer, or pages in the drawer. My next novel ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ is being published by Cinnamon Press, so in a way I’ve got my validation.
    But the novel I’m writing now I hope to self-publish early 2014, and I won’t be doing slightly shamed-faced any more. The world has changed since 2010, and indie author – which didn’t really exist then – is now a badge of honour.
    I love reading and want books to survive in any shape or form – and hope that mine might be part of that!

    1. Lindsay, I know exactly what you mean. I also grew up with the belief that the cream rises to the top, as they say. Rubbish, it doesn’t. How could it, with market forces being what they are? Did it ever, in fact – we never know what happened to the people who weren’t discovered.
      Good for you for taking the plunge – and in fact you did it a year before it became a more accepted option, so that’s all the braver. It took me a lot of revving up to decide I could self-publish my novel and not torpedo my credibility, and that was a year later. Like you, nothing but good came of it and I’m so glad I did.
      I’m going to go find your work and download the sample.

  5. As someone who hasn’t published any of her novels yet, I found this post quite informative. The whole traditional publishing route is daunting, however, and makes me feel like I have a very long journey ahead of me if I want to keep in this race. I’m just glad that things have shifted so that indie writers aren’t seen as illegitimate. I might have to go the indie route with my first novel.

  6. The pedigree of the pig fattened for market ( and now nearing his dotage) Agent one read a first person novel about madness. ‘You can’t drag a reader straight into insanity, they need signposts. Re-write in two parts, one to set the scene, two to enjoy the madness’ Agent Two read the first part setting all that was prescribed ‘Yes its very well written, very engaging BUT You are asking the reader to buy one shoe at a time, how long do you expect them to live?…Agent 3 read a work ( still on madness) that afforded signposts ( rich characters offering third person narrative and different characters writing in the clear distinctions evident) ‘This is overwhelmingly philosophical…its not really a novel ( that was true) so now it’s a poetic Odyssey on Science. Anyone else like to track the Odyssey to port? But yes Agents can only make money out of popular books and philosophy doesn’t swing it…nor anything else that takes chances in the belief there are readers looking for something they have never seen before. Neither I nor they know who they are, but if they exist the book must play the pig and dig out truffles…

    1. Hello Philippa! Ah, is this the story of Involution? It began as a novel? About madness? Is this a meta-story in itself?
      And what an ambitious book. There wouldn’t be concrete answers for what to do with it, only suggestions for ways it might work. Any of them could just as easily have steered it wrong.
      ‘Enjoy the madness.’ Put that on a T-shirt for writers.

  7. I’d like to have an agent, but right now I don’t think it’s the right choice for my long-term writing goals because of what Catherine mentioned – writing what *I* want. I’m currently querying a women’s fiction novel with small publishers, but one of my WIP novels is magical realism, and another is steampunk. All three deal with the same theme of putting aside pride to make sacrifices for the ones you love, but in vastly different genres. From a Big 5/6 standpoint, that’s not commercially viable or easily marketed. I understand that agents need to make money off their projects and mine probably won’t very quickly, so I’m not going to waste time – mine or theirs – on querying an agent right now, when I can find small presses that offer both support and freedom.

    Small presses seem to be overlooked, it seems. Writers either try to get an agent, or they self-publish. Depending on what exactly you want (validation, editing and cover design, larger royalties, equal feedback into the publishing process), small presses can provide a happy middle ground.

    1. Hello, ED – thanks for commenting! Yes, you’re not an easy proposition for an agent if you genre hop, but as the indie industry beds down we’ll see more writers flexing their muscles with different kinds of book and finding new places we can persuade our audiences to follow. To an extent, the industry is watching us to see what works – or it should be.
      It’s good that you expanded on small presses. I’d have ended up with a massive post if I’d gone into them, but there are many small and micro-publishers who are able to take a chance on exciting material. The downside is that they are quite oversubscribed.

  8. I did have an agent for a while (the same one as another writer who’s posted here) and I found it to hugely helpful at that stage. I felt a sense of validation, a feeling that i wasn’t completely wasting my time (this was after years and years of writing, but before my first novel had been accepted for publication). The thing was, he started by giving me completely the wrong advice. And of course, I didn’t know it was. He didn’t want to help me with the novel (later, when the book was accepted, he tried to change his mind). He told me I should really be an essay writer. Whenever I met him I had the strange feeling that here was someone who knew less than me and less than he was pretending demanding that I should do as he said, and not for my benefit. He was involved in all kinds of important deals, he said, too many to meet me often or offer more than passing advice. As the recession bit his business sank.I heard on the grapevine that he spoke at meetings in front of professional authors and within a few words was a laughing stock. A year into the ‘working relationship’ I sacked him – you know, a letter, a few courteous words. One of the better things I’d done so far. Yes I want an agent as I need informed friends who know the business, and I want my books to get better known, but someone like him is a millstone. He wore a cravat so I should have known.

    1. Wish I’d sacked mine that way, always better to be the person who takes control. By the way, I used to know a Carol Manderson, who was a reader for one of the Big Six; any connection or just coincidence?

        1. No the stablemate was Catherine Czerkawska – I hope she doesn’t mind me saying. Not you Roz (and btw, I bought Nail Your Novel and found it much more useful than him). One other effect of the digital revolution is that right across the creative industries anybody can call themselves an agent, a director, a producer…It’s knowing the good ones that’s the trick. From now on I use my own instincts!

          1. Glad you like NYN! You touch on another important point here. Anyone can set up as anything. Authors with dreams are such easy prey. We used to be wise to it – a caveat that said ‘never pay an agent or publisher’ was enough. Now, though, we need to hire professionals. So people are setting themselves up as editors, writing coaches, cover designers, marketing experts – and it’s so easy for an unwary writer to be ripped off.

  9. Used to be that the author’s customer was the agent, the agent’s was the publisher, the publisher’s was the bookseller, and only then did we get to the reader. Now some links in that chain are no longer needed – the bookseller is in trouble, publishers would like (finally!) to sell direct to the reader, and authors can leapfrog over most of them. Where does that leave the agent? Well, if you’re writing stories that are ripe for movie or TV adaptation, an agent can really help. But that’s not most of us. For the writer who is producing interesting, non- genre, “midlist” work, I’m not sure that either agent or publisher are that useful any more.

  10. I’ve got a book at home that I really love, and the author not only wrote it but also did all the illustrations, and printed and produced all the first print run himself, and carried out all the marketing and promotion himself too. Sadly he didn’t sell that many initially, but that was no fault of the finished product, which was ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ by William Blake.

  11. I’ve written several books and done the querying rounds a number of times. I would like an agent so I have someone who has more experience with contracts and has more contacts than me. Plus, the validation would be nice. However, for now, I only query agents I really want to work with. It’s more important to get an agent that is a good fit than to get any agent at all.

    For me, I finally have my first novel coming out called RED AND THE WOLF on March 4th. I went with a small publisher, which is working out really well. I got a lot of very useful editing, my cover, which they actually took my input on, and some marketing help. Overall, it’s been a good experience, and for me, it’s a happy medium, especially for a debut novel.

    I’ll keep querying agents with new books I write, but I’m not tying my career to landing an agent. I think the trick is to keep at it and keep trying new approaches toward publishing until things start to click.

    Thanks for the advice, everyone. It’s been extremely helpful.

    1. Thank you for the good wishes. I’m not sad about it any more. I self published, and am seeing moderate success with my novels now, though it’s taken a lot of hard work and persistence. I left my teaching job (part time TEFL) in September, but only just got my P45 yesterday which confirmed what I thought: last year I earned more from writing than from the day job. I was initially dubious about self publishing (lots of reasons) but three years on, I can say the only way I’d consider a traditional offer now would be for the access to bookshops. I’d keep digital rights and management. I’m not making a living, yet, but I am making a good secondary income.
      My experience with both agents and publishers gave me the confidence to know I’m good enough (have a drawer full of letters to that effect) so I don’t regret the time and tears spent on it. I’m just glad something else changed the balance of power and gave writers themselves a taste of it.

  12. Great post! It’s great to have an agent (if you can find one to believe in you) since they have contacts into the industry self-published/indie authors do not. Go for whatever feel right for you. Best wishes to ALL!

    1. Thanks for commenting, MG! I think many writers are getting agents and self-publishing anyway, but find it useful to have the agent in the wings in case. It certainly helps you feel more confident about your book if you can say you’ve got an agent on board. But with the industry contracting so much, it’s now even harder to get representation – especially if agents now know that you may not need them at all. Much is going to change in the next few years.

  13. The only advice I can impart with any sense of weight to it is this, you have to first please yourself, and that will different for everyone.

    Also, don’t let the struggles you have with pitching make you think you’re a hopeless writer. Like Roz said above, pitching is different than writing ACTUAL BOOKS, and why I get frustrated with some people who say “It’s all writing” but that doesn’t mean it’s all the same! As writers we can let what we’re not good at make us doubt our skill entirely, and while , for many of us, it’s still not a viable option from a pure financial standpoint.

    We need to stop confusing “Lack of money” with “Lack of will” to work hard. They’re not the same, damn it! (sorry for the d word, but I have to go there sometimes….)

    Sometimes, as much as we don’t like to admit it, money gets in the way, because there’s a legit difference between procrastinating out of fear versus just being stuck due to limited finances to self-publish in a professional way, and I say that as someone who has a publisher for their debut novel. (and that took nearly 10 YEARS)

    On that note, I’m soon going to embark on crowd-funding to be able to enlist a professional illustrator for my children’s book (my debut novel) and I’m GLAD to do that because my editor “gets” the book and was recommended to me by an author friend of mine that is growing her career.

    My publisher is a small press (which I know that alone has baggage for many) but that’s something I was willing to be open to that in a way I wouldn’t have been before.

    Partly that’s because they’re so hard to find, especially these days…

    Before, I felt the only way to have the career I wanted was to traditionally published, and I still want an agent long-term, but I also know I can do more on my own than I first thought.

    Sometimes, it’s not because the book isn’t good enough, you just haven’t met the right person who “gets” what your book is yet.

    It took me several years just to find people who liked what I primarily wrote and read myself, when you’re niche is as tight as mine,and remember, that was WRITERS at my level or higher (pre and post published), finding agents is even harder.

    1. Thanks for a lengthy and thoughtful answer, Taurean. Yes, it can take a very long time to find professionals who are a good fit for your work – either the kind you have to win against massive competition (like agents and editors) or the kind you hire (like editors). Your dedication shines through in this comment and I wish you all the best.

  14. Good advice! Personally I went down the small press route and, as you said, you often don’t need an agent for those. I have found small press publishers to be welcoming and enthusiastic about what they do, though they are just as likely to reject your work as any other trad publisher you do feel that they give it a fair hearing.

    1. Hi Chris! Yes indeed – small presses are more likely to take notice of writers whose work isn’t traditional mainstream fodder. But as you say, you still have to shine if you’re to impress them.

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