To have an Agent or not to have one, that is the question...

What do you think?

I finished the first draft of my book yesterday; it’s been quite a while coming. I’d like to see this thing published eventually, sooner than later if possible, so I’m stuck wondering: do I really need an agent?

If you are a first-time author, and
If you want a trade publisher, the answer is yes.
Otherwise, you may self-publish to an uncertain end.
Finding an agent may take a long time.
The agent determines if your work is publishable.
He/She may suggest much revision.
If your ego can take that, more time gets spent on the book.
Then the agent tries to find a publisher.
Be prepared for frustration, rejection, more time spent.
If the agent finds a good publisher, he/she has earned the commission.
And you won’t mind the 15%; it’s better than 0% of nothing.
PS: if it’s a first draft, it will need a lot more work.
Try to find readers who give you honest, informed opinions.
I’ve never published anything that didn’t go through 5-10 drafts.

What druid said, with the addition that it may depend on what you’re writing. Non-fiction may not require an agent, depending on what the project is and who the publisher is you’re hoping to use.

But all the non-fiction writers I know who are trying to make a serious career of it have agents. For fiction here in the UK, according to a top agent, for a first-timer an agent increases the chances of publication from 1 in 300 or worse to 1 in 30 or better.


From an SF editor’s post on the publishing process: (part 3, under the numbered list)

I guess if you take the entire slush pile and the number that get selected you could come up with a “one-in-whatever” odds of getting published. But as TNH points out, this isn’t just a game of odds. It’s a game of quality as well.

I’ve also seen reference (years ago, lost the link) that while an agent can help you place your book, getting one is hard so you might as well submit unagented to publishers as well. If a publisher expresses interest, you’ll get an agent very very quickly. The same reference pointed out that you want an agent who knows contracts very well and who will protect you in that area, so “when a publisher expresses interest” is the right time to have one.

(so repeats the unpublished author…) :wink:

If you intend a career as a writer: absolutely yes.

Nothing I wrote was intended to imply anything different.

This I’m more sceptical about. Assuming it’s a good manuscript, what does “expressing an interest” mean? First the publisher will have to care enough to pull the manuscript out of the slush pile. Then the recently-hired assistant given the task of assessing it will have to be brave enough to champion it to his or her boss. Finally that boss, probably more concerned about keeping the firm’s established authors happy, will have to be interested enough to listen to the assistant and then adopt the book as a project. All this in a climate when some publishers have closed the doors to un-agented approaches, at least in fiction. Better surely to focus on attracting the attention of an agent who should do most of the pushing for you - and attempt to sell the book abroad and to other media?

I agree one can over-emphasise the stats. But in the UK mainstream publishers now receive hundreds of manuscripts a week which are unsolicited and which they’re unlikely ever to be able properly to assess; you have to try to improve the odds in your favour.

J.K. Rowling has a lot to answer for…


I’m in a career as a not-a-writer. Yes, I’d like to change that. :smiley:

If your goal is to be published by a legitimate publisher, get paid (maybe even make a career out of it), actually see your book in bookstores, then yes.

You absolutely need an agent.

It can take some time, but don’t let impatience sabotage your long-term goals. And sometimes, it can happen quickly. Make sure you study the submission guidelines and follow them, and do a little research to ensure you are querying the right agents (and beware, there are many scams out there. NEVER submit to an agent who charges a reading fee, or anything like that).

I was pretty lucky, and for me it happened relatively quickly. I started sending out queries in October '05, and had an agent by January '06. Of course, I also collected a big pile of rejections during that time.

Don’t let the rejections get you down; they come with the territory. Remember, it only takes one agent to fall in love with your work.

Best of luck, and congratulations on finishing the manuscript! That already puts you well ahead of most aspiring writers.

Even if a publisher came to you and asked to publish your book (and this actually happened to a friend of mine) you would still want an agent. My agent handles the parts of the publishing process that I am bad at or not interested in. He explains contracts to me in plain English and fights for better terms on them. He helps me though rough spots in the writing process. (Not that you’ll ever have any of those. :slight_smile: ) He is worth much more than I pay him. (Don’t tell him I said that.)

If your book is good enough to land a publisher it is good enough to land an agent. Go get one.

Well… “finishing the manuscript” might be overstating it. I’ve got my first draft, and since the last time I looked at this topic (I’ve really got to get in the habit of selecting “Notify me when a reply is posted.” :unamused: ) I’ve brought the first five chapters to a point where I’m ready for someone else to look at them.

Yes, I would like to see it in the stores and possibly even make a 2nd career out of it. :slight_smile:

I’ve done some research, and the “no reading fee” suggestion you mentioned seems to be one of the cardinal rules of finding an agent… but I’m a little unsure how to proceed. I like this example of how overwhelming it is:

Well, great. Who do you trust?

  1. Agents want mss they can sell. Desperately. Write a two-page cover memo demonstrating that you know the (rapidly changing) field, can pinpoint the competition, can explain in a sound bite why you’re so much better, can specify the audience for your work. Sound humble and grateful. BE humble and grateful. Agented first-novel advances in the UK these days are 500-1000 pounds, maybe; in the US, $2000, maybe.

  2. Keep that day job.

I note that, earlier in this thread, some posters touched on differences in approach for fiction and non-fiction. Without wishing to hijack the thread, I wonder if anyone could offer some further advice on this point?

My situation is that I have a non-fiction book in mind, which I’d intended to submit to a publisher that periodically runs open submissions for an established series of books, and therefore the proposal was fairly specific. As it is, it looks like it may be some time before the publisher re-opens submissions, so I’ve started to think about broadening the scope of the proposed book, such that it would (hopefully) be viable for other publishers.

So, since many publishers don’t take unsolicited submissions, would it be “correct” to get in touch with agents?

The answer–to agent or not to agent–with nonfiction depends on the subject matter. With narrow specialty markets like, say, boating books, or computer how-to, fly-fishing, rock-climbing, stuff like that, you can–repeat, can–get by without an agent. You just have to find a recent book published into your specialty, note the publisher, call them up, speak to the receptionist, and ask which editor acquired that book. Then send her a proposal. But you’ll need to read up on contract terms before signing anything, should you get an offer. The first contract typically sent out will be entirely in the publisher’s favor; you can–are even expected to–negotiate better terms from that starting point. If they want it badly enough.

For broader mass-market nonfiction, you’ll be better off with an agent, in the sense that he will open doors and get you read in places that discourage over-the-transom submissions.

For all serious fiction, you’ll need an agent. I can’t think of a single imprint in the Big Six houses in NYC that will look at unagented works.

Interesting! Thank you.

Someone advised: “while an agent can help you place your book, getting one is hard so you might as well submit unagented to publishers as well.”

No, no, no!

I have a close friend who has been a successful and respected literary agent for twenty years. Think through this scenario: reading through the slush pile, she finds a manuscript she likes. She contacts the author.

Agent: Hi, I like your book. We’ll gladly take you on. I thought of sending it to Faber first, they usually like that kind of work.

Author: Uh… I’m sorry, Faber has already read the thing, and said no.

Agent: (long pause) I see. Well, I though of Pan Macmillan next…

Author: Uh, sorry… they said no, too.

Agent: (long pause). I see. Pan Macmillan have already read the thing, have they? Well, they won’t want to read through it a second time, will they? Okay, Cannongate was third on my list of possible publishers…

Author: Look, I’m sorry, but Cannongate has read it, and they said that while they like it, they’re not in a position to publish it.

Agent: Well, as you seem to be very practised at sending your book out on fruitless errands, maybe you’d like to continue doing that. I have absolutely no chance of interesting any publisher who has already wasted its valuable time reading through your book. They are hardly going to want to do that twice, are they? And now I find that I have wasted my time reading your book. It took the best part of a working day. Good bye! And don’t try to contact us again!