Writers often ask me if it’s “really” worth the trouble to query, research, and find an agent, especially with the ongoing changes in the publishing world. Many people seem surprised to learn that I have an agent–even though I write and negotiate publishing contracts all the time. The truth is, my agent is an invaluable business partner, and far more involved in my career than people often suspect.
What many authors don’t realize is that an agent is more than a contract-obtainer-and-negotiator (though they definitely fill that crucial role). Not every author needs an agent, but every author needs to understand what agents really do, in order to evaluate whether or not an agent would help the author’s career.
Key to evaluating the need for an agent is understanding what you as an author want from your publishing career. If you want to publish with a large, or top-tier, traditional house, you’re going to need an agent. Most of those houses don’t take submissions directly from unrepresented authors, and their contracts are complex enough that you really do need a lawyer or an agent negotiating on your behalf.
However, agents aren’t only for Big-5 authors, and they do far more than simply pitching projects and negotiating an author’s contract. Here are some examples of the other roles a good agent fills in an author’s publishing career:
1. “Good cop/bad cop.” If the author disagrees with something the publisher does, or would like to request a change to jacket copy, cover art, or a deadline, it’s the agent’s job to deliver that news. Good news comes from the author, and the agent handles the disagreements or dissatisfaction, thereby preserving the author’s relationship with the editor. This can be helpful regardless of the size of the press that publishes the author’s work.
2. Critique and comment on the author’s manuscript. Not all agents are “editorial” (meaning they don’t all offer in-depth critique) but any good agent will give the author feedback on finished manuscripts. I prefer working with an editorial agent, and my agent’s feedback often points out issues that neither I nor my critique partners noticed. Since she reads with a different point of view, she’s able to bring a fresh perspective to my finished work.
3. A sounding board for new ideas. At least once a year, I meet with my agent in person, by phone, or by email to discuss my writing plans and future projects. Good agents help authors choose which ideas to develop, and how to approach them in effective, salable ways. The agent’s enthusiasm for a project can also spark the author’s creativity, inspiring an even better approach to the work.
4. Sub-rights management and sales. Even if an author “can” submit a work to a publishing house, it’s harder for authors to sell subsidiary rights (for example, translation, foreign sales, and movie rights). Literary agents have more experience in this area, and can work with specialist agencies to manage these specialized rights.
Some agencies have also started helping hybrid authors with self-publishing, for example, by connecting authors with experienced printers, cover artists, and copy editors. Not all agents offer this service, which is yet another reason to research prospective agents carefully before you query.
As I mentioned before, not everyone needs an agent, and not every agent is a good match for every author’s business style and needs. However, for those who want a business partner to help with the issues I mentioned above–as well as with pitching projects to publishers and negotiating deals–an agent can be an invaluable part of an author’s career.
And that is why I, at least, do need a literary agent.