Do writers need a literary agent?

I’ve been working in and around publishing for a while now, and the question ‘do I need a literary agent?’ comes up again and again.

It’s easy to see why. Many authors spend years seeking representation for their work. After a certain amount of rejections, it’s only natural to wonder if efforts are better spent elsewhere.

So are they? Why shouldn’t you go direct to a publisher? What does an agent even do, anyway?

What does an agent do, anyway?

In a nutshell, a literary agent should use their connections and knowledge of the publishing industry to carve a lucrative writing career for you. What that involves will often vary from agent to agent, but most good agents will do the following:

  • Work with you to make your work publishable and commercial – They might offer editorial assistance, or recommend an editor to you. This could cover anything from massive plot changes to proofreading – whatever they believe will help them sell your book to a publisher.
  • Use their contacts to get your manuscript in front of publishers – Your agent should know editors from multiple publishing houses, and how to submit a manuscript to them for review.
  • Negotiate the right publishing deal for you – This might be an auction between multiple publishers, or just working on securing rights and royalties for one publisher. This is perhaps the most important time to have an expert on your side. Contracts are tricky things, and a good agent will be able to negotiate the best deal for you. 
  • Help you secure further career opportunities – If readings, festivals and tours are of interest to you, then an agent can offer all-important advice and contacts to help you on your way.
  • Negotiate TV, film, foreign language and other publishing rights – Again, this is an area better left to the experts. It involves complex contract negotiation and intense networking.

This will probably sound pretty good for a new author, but remember that literary agents are business people, and don’t do this for free. Their standard fee is usually a 15% commission (more about agent fees can be found here.)

Why shouldn’t you go direct to a publisher?

In many cases, there’s actually no reason why you shouldn’t go direct to a publisher. More and more publishers are opening their doors to submissions directly from authors (although many still require the author to have an agent, so check the publisher’s website before sending). Of course, the rejection rate here is as high as it is with literary agents, but that’s no reason why you shouldn’t try, should the opportunity come along.

The real issue comes further down the line – once the publisher has expressed interest in your work and they give you a publishing contract to sign. Unless you have experience with legal documents, you might miss out on the best deal. Equally, you are likely to miss out on other deals such as foreign publishing and language rights. A huge shame, both as an opportunity to reach more readers and to earn more money!

So, do you need an agent?

With all things considered, most new authors will require an agent – yes. It can be incredibly useful to utilise their knowledge of the industry, their negotiation skills and – if nothing else – to have someone fighting in your corner.

There are times however, when you do NOT need an agent. These are:

  • When you are self-publishing
  • When you write poetry
  • If you are a journalist
  • If you write stand-alone short stories (ie: not a collection)
  • If you are writing a book for a very niche readership (ie: local non-fiction)

In these cases, self-publishing, online publishing or using a very small, niche press will often be the best option for your work and your writing career. Not only might you struggle to get representation for the above, but an agent wouldn’t be able to add much to the deal.

Of course, this is a contentious issue, and I’m sure there will be many writers who would disagree. Some mainstream writers have had great success without an agent, although these are perhaps the exception rather than the rule. Below, I’ve included links to useful articles on both sides of the argument.

So what do you think? To seek representation, or not to seek representation? Please share!

Useful links

Sarah Juckes is a project manager and freelance blogger for the literary sector. After working in self-publishing for over five years, she now divides her time between the Creative Future Literary Awards for under-represented writers, and AgentHunter – the online database of UK literary agents and publishers. She is also a YA novelist, and can be found @sarahannjuckes.

Photo by Eelke under creative commons license.

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