(Why) Do You Need a Literary Agent?

Recently, a lot of authors have asked me about the process of finding a literary agent, and whether an agent is “even required,” given the current state of publishing.

Ultimately, the choice to work with a literary agent–or not–is an individual one that each author must make for himself or herself. Neither I, nor anyone else can tell you–or should try to tell you–what’s best for your career. With that in mind, however, I wanted to answer the most popular questions I receive about authors working with literary agents, from a publishing attorney’s point of view.*

Do I NEED a literary agent in order to write and publish novels or nonfiction?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: If you want to publish traditionally, an agent will make your journey easier and probably more profitable (yes, despite the 15% commission). Aside from micro-presses, most traditional publishing houses still prefer to work with agented authors, and many publishers will attempt to take advantage of authors who don’t have an agent (or an attorney) acting as a visible watchdog for the author and his or her rights.

Can I work with an attorney instead of an agent?

You can, but I don’t advise it unless you’re publishing with a very small press, self-publishing, or trying to manage contract rights alone.

Attorneys are helpful when it comes to drafting and negotiating contracts, but a lawyer won’t be an ongoing part of the publishing process. Agents perform a number of important tasks in addition to submitting manuscripts and negotiating deals (more on this in next week’s #PubLaw, but for now, please take my word for it)

Many small presses don’t pay advances, or don’t pay enough to attract an agent’s attention. In those cases, a publishing lawyer can be a great ally. However, a lawyer’s role is more limited, and the attorney won’t be the ongoing advocate and advisor that an agent is.

Can I work with both an agent and a publishing lawyer?

Absolutely, and many of my clients do. In this scenario, the agent typically takes the lead on manuscript submission and contract negotiation. The lawyer reviews the contract and offers advice, normally after the agent has offered input. Some agents are more open to this than others (and some lawyers are better at playing nicely…) but when it works, this can be a great arrangement.

How do I find a literary agent? Can you help me?

Good question–and though I can’t make direct introductions, I do have some tips for finding the best literary agent to match your personal and professional style. As it happens, those tips also tend to make the query process less time-consuming (in the long run, anyway) and more likely to result in “yes.” More on this in a couple of weeks.

Does everyone need a literary agent?

No. Literary agents are excellent business partners for authors who want a career in traditional publishing. They’re also helpful for the traditional side of a hybrid author’s career. However, most agents don’t represent self-published works, because the agent’s primary role is representing the author (and the author’s interests) in negotiations with publishers and during the publishing process. When the author is the publisher, no intermediary is required.

If you plan to self-publish, you don’t need an agent–and though some agencies do offer help for self-published authors, that’s a specialized situation. Before you sign with a literary agent for self-publishing assistance, make sure to get the contract reviewed by a publishing attorney to ensure the help being offered is actually helpful in your situation.

Over the next few weeks, my #Publishing Law posts will take a look at the author-agent relationship, how it works, what agents really do, and how to find the agent that meets your needs.

Have questions? Feel free to ask in the comments or on Twitter using the #PubLaw hashtag.  

*Full disclosure: My book-length fiction and nonfiction is represented by literary agent Sandra Bond. Sandra was, and remains, my first-choice agent, and after four years and two publishers she remains an excellent match for my needs and style. I’ll talk more about that in the weeks to come, but for now, be aware–even though my day job involves writing and negotiating publishing contracts, when it came to my own work, I opted to find an agent. For me, it was and remains the right decision.