Monday, July 23, 2012

Why do I Need an Agent?

I’ve found this question to be the new hot topic at a lot of conferences lately; it’s right up there with questions on self-publishing and thoughts on ebooks and the effects of digital publishing on the industry.

 My take: really, if your only goal is to be published, the answer is you don’t.

 There are so many small presses popping up these days (but please read this warning on recognizing legit small presses) that accept unagented work that it’s very possible to obtain a contract on your own. Or you can just self-publish. You can even hire a publishing lawyer (BIG emphasis on PUBLISHING lawyer) to look over your contract. You can Google a PR agent or even do marketing on your own.

 But if your goal is to grow a career and explore exciting new options and opportunities…well, you kind of do. 

 An agent can:
-reach publishers you can’t (who often pay more money upfront)
-edit/help polish your work
-negotiate (without getting blue in the face over industry standards no one will ever cave on)
-protect your rights/options (contractually and otherwise)
-sell retained rights (foreign, film, audio, etc)
-offer advice on marketing or PR opportunities (we are usually contacted by bloggers for author recommendations etc)
-offer advice on future projects/career path (making sure a contract leaves your goals in mind for the LONG TERM, such as narrowing an option clause so you can branch out, is something a publishing lawyer on a one-off basis may not do)
-assist with self-publishing (I personally like to do line edits, e-formatting, and cover art, but that’s just me)
-vet manuscripts for editors & get more attention/faster response times (WITH feedback!)

 Guess how much THAT whole kit-n-caboodle can cost you if you just want to hire people to perform the above one-time? Upwards of $2-5,000 (encompassing all of the above; obviously much less if you hire out only one or two things). And we do ALL of it for the bargain price of 15% commission. 

Even where self-publishing is concerned, there is a big difference between hiring freelance editors or formatters who offer a la cart services and having an agent who will offer these services in conjunction with career planning and advising. It would be beneficial to have a hand in more than one method of publication (self, e, and traditional) to balance out and protect both income stream as markets shift and distribution for readers - which an agent can help manage. And just for the sake of sanity I would imagine it gets exhausting to have to be writer and production manager and business manager and marketer all alone; it detracts from the time spent writing to have to be the only one in your corner.

 Not enough? Ok. Here’s a post from an editor on why agents rock.

 Still thinking…yeah, but you’re an agent. Of course you think you’re relevant!

 An editor friend of mine, who was recently asked on a panel: do you think it’s important to have an agent, even though you accept unagented work? Addressed this question quite nicely. She said that she is a publisher; not a hand-holder.

It is incredibly difficult to have to answer basic questions to a client which, quite honestly, she is going to answer in the best interest of her company, not the author. She was from a smaller press, the kind you don’t need an agent for, and she candidly admitted that of course she’s going to want an author to stay with her forever; she’s never going to suggest hey, you’re really good – ever think you should try it with one of the Big 6? Or hey, ever think you should branch off into cookbooks instead of mystery thrillers?!

 Basically, she added a few more bullet points to the list above on what agents can do:
 -answer questions
-advise in your career path’s best interest
-be a go-between

 There are often things that an editor or publishing house will need to say to an author that are not so nice – like, hey, your sales aren’t so great…we’re going to have to drop you, or hey, just so you know, if you get upset and want changes to ONE MORE cover my boss is ready to fish and cut bait. As an agent, I know how to deal with these (and a myriad of other very unpleasant) situations in a way that might offer a compromise, or explain with a ray of hope instead of causing panic and slamming shut a door.

 There are also more positive reasons to have an agent, such as potential work-for-hire, film, foreign and audio possibilities that, due to our contacts, we are presented with. We got the hook ups, baby!

 As an example, recently one of our clients at Bradford Lit was in a precarious position as a published author at a Big 6; her sales were not performing as well as hoped and her editor wasn’t sure they’d be able to do another book despite the fact that the author had talent to spare. The economy can be very cruel. In a trip to NY, the editor met with Laura B and started picking her brain on potential authors for a top-secret-totally-cool project the publisher had just hatched. Laura pitched this client to her, and the deal was born; the project gained incredible press and attention, and her publisher was so thrilled with how cooperative and professionally she had worked, they blindly offered on four more books...for a substantially increased advance. Yowza!

 I do think the question of whether or not to sign with an agent is more common within the romance genre than any other; many authors are obtaining contracts for first novels through e-or-small presses first, and doing quite well that way. But, money isn’t everything; it’s always a dream to try and reach out and be accepted by the publishers an author grew up reading. The big hesitation I’m hearing on actually signing with an agent, however, is: so what if I get an agent…and she can’t sell my next book to anyone but my existing publisher? How is it fair to give her a commission on something I established myself?

 It’s ok to ask to exclude anything in an agreement that could fall into this category; but not all agents will agree to that. Agreements are usually intended to cover representation for an author's published works, however that work becomes published. Publication comes in a lot of forms these days and agreements are evolving with the changes. In which case, the question becomes: do I take a chance and sign, keep searching until I find an agent who agrees to what I want, or continue on my own and hope to gain enough clout to break into the big 6 myself?

 That’s not an easy call to make. Personally, I think it’s worth it to find an agent you click with, who has all the clout and contacts you’re looking for, and dive in. I don’t recommend giving up after only one book, either; sometimes, things just don’t sell. But if, several books down, you’re not seeing any progress with that agent, I think it’s completely fair to part ways and either decide to find a new agent, or continue with the e-or-small press rout.

 Yes, this runs the risk of having some books tied up with an agent you’ll no longer work with, but if you never try…you’ll never know. The agent can also start to withhold rights you may have granted to this smaller press, like film, audio and translation, which you couldn’t do anything with before, but your agent can. I would simply recommend heading into any relationship like this will full clarity and understanding on both sides of expectations and concerns. Keep open communication and an open mind (after all: it’s also not fair to get mad at/dump an agent for not selling books, like homosexual erotic romance, that are so niche they have such a limited chance of selling to New York in the first place) and stay professional, positive, and polite about it all.

 Still not convinced?

 Ok. I recommend not submitting to me. ;)


  1. Thoroughly convinced! I'm a multi-pubbed author who has waffled recently on this subject. Thanks to you, the agent search begins again in earnest as soon as I finish my next book.

  2. I'm convinced! ;) Seriously, though, this post is really helpful in breaking down the hows and whys of having an agent.

  3. I was already convinced I need an agent before I read this, but I enjoyed nodding along at all the points I still wasn't familiar with. Thanks for the informative breakdown of all of the agent's important jobs!

  4. Hi Natalie,

    Thanks for a very balanced and well thought out post. But I wanted to address your comment on production cost associated with self-publishing. $5-8,000 is exceptionally high in regard to these cost. I have a lot of highly successful self-publishing friends, and I've self-published as well and no one I know has spent even close to this. I spent $865 dollars for my first book. ($105 for the cover, $25 for the formatting, $600 for copy/line edits and $135 for proofing.) My self-published titles from here on out will go through a developmental editor which will add another $1000 dollars to my production costs, but $1865 is still a far cry from $5-8,000.

    Least you think my book was unprofessionally produced, this book was the top ranked book for months on the Romantic Suspense lists in the kindle store, has almost 500 reviews with a 4.5 average, has been voted the best romantic suspense by Kindle readers on the top 100 ebooks blog, and was nominated for best action suspense through The Romance Review. Both of these awards included traditionally published authors in the competition. In the past 9.5 months this books has sold 38,000 copies and earned me over $75,000. It was also bought by Montlake Romance, who opted to keep the original cover artist and cover with some minor tweaking.

    So believe me when I say that it's very possible to produce a book indistinguishable from a traditionally published book for less than $2000 and that a lot of authors are doing it for less than $500.

  5. Hi Trish,

    I appreciate the insight; I was basing it off self pub packages which include POD on sites like Lulu or iUniverse and including PR. The last quote I got was nearly $900 just for PR consulting. But of course there are more affordable options and even at no cost (creating your own cover and doing your own formatting and promoting) self pub can be done well.

    I think printing is the most costly aspect of it, but even $500 can be a lot for some people!

    But certainly congrats on your success :)

    1. PS - but I can agree to edit to lower the amount. ;)

    2. Okay, thanks for explaining how you arrived at that figure. I've heard of outrageous pricing through the self-publishing packages. It's such a shame more novice authors don't do their research before falling prey to those packages.

  6. Great post that I wish I could print and hand to everyone who tells me that I don't really need an agent and should just self-publish. So many people don't understand that I want an agent for all of the benefits that you discussed and more. Thanks for putting the smack down :)

  7. You know I never questioned the importance of an agent. Having someone in your corner who believes in you as a writer is worth more than 15%! Throw in all the rest of what an agent knows, achieves, strives to achieve on your behalf, hell we're talking major bargain!
    I can't for the life of me understand where the question is here, but then if we look a little deeper and walk a few steps in the shoes of a writer, it becomes easy to understand. Finding an agent is hard. Finding one that is the right match for your work, that wants to work with you, believes in you, your future, and what you can achieve together, isn't a walk in the park. It takes as much time and commitment as writing does, but I believe whole-heartedly, there isn't one writer that doesn't want an agent. : )

  8. Thanks for this post, Natalie! I find that even as a still-querying novelist, I have to answer this question all the time.

    I think one of the biggies for me, as one who used to work at a small independent house, is the ability of the agent to find deals and publishers and opportunities that the writer wouldn't know about. Agents knew of this small sports and entertainment imprint operating far from NYC, and they subbed their writers' appropriate work to us, and hey--we often bought it. Would the writer have known about us? Maybe, if s/he was super savvy, but probably not.

  9. Natalie,
    It sounds like the best reason to have an agent is to skip the bizarre and labyrinthine learning curve of all the publishing possibilities, as well as gaining access to the opportunities unknown to the clueless.

  10. -assist with self-publishing (I personally like to do line edits, e-formatting, and cover art, but that’s just me)

    This one surprised me. Are there really agents out there who do this? I rather figured they'd encourage their writers to work on a new project for submission rather than assist with self-publishing.

    That's not to be catty at all - it just honestly surprised me. I love agents and think that they're 100% necessary. Authors need advocates who know the inside workings backward and forward, people who can have their backs when the chips are down. :)

  11. As a close friend of one of your clients, I can say without a doubt that I don't just want, but need an agent.

    Her's hoping this next manuscript does the trick. LOL

  12. Very interesting and informative post. To be honest, I haven't really been giving this much thought lately. However, with the amount of information you've put in here, you've convinced me that an agent is definitely something I should get. Thanks!

  13. You are so right, Natalie! And a good agent keeps you motivated, I'd add. This is a tough business, and it's important to have an encouraging ally. Thanks for the great reminders, and best to you~