Your novel is completed, edited to perfection, and your beta readers love it. Now what? You’ve heard the next step is to approach a literary agent, but do you really need one?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is: it depends.
For some writers, having a literary agent on your side could make the difference between a successful book launch and a total flop.
What does a literary agent do?
Many traditional career authors would tell you they couldn’t manage without an agent to look after their business affairs. But what do agents do?
- An agent sends your manuscript to potential publishers. An agent can be a foot-in-the-door for an emerging writer. Unlike the writer, good agents are a known quantity. Publishers are aware of the agent’s track record for promoting talented authors.
- An agent stays on top of publishing trends. Media is in a constant state of flux and cultural shift, and an agent worth their commission knows what publishers want and what’s likely to be around the corner. They can guide the author through industry changes.
- An agent is the business face of an author’s brand. When handling media deals, public appearances, interview requests and so on, an agent is crucial. She makes sure the author is represented consistently, professionally, and in a way that projects a successful public image.
Benefits of a literary agent
The most tangible benefit is that you stand a better chance of being published with an agent on your side. Publishers are seeking commercial success, and it can be difficult for an untested writer to ascend the slush pile. A publisher is more likely to have an existing relationship with, or knowledge of, a reputable agent. Some of the major trade publishers, including the Big 5 in the US, will only accept submissions from agents.
An agent will also have publishing industry connections. You’ve written a young adult urban fantasy manuscript? He knows the perfect fit for that.
Agents also look after your business interests because, at the same time, they’re protecting their own. A good agent will make sure any publishing contract you sign is sound. She’ll take a slice of whatever you earn (the amount varies, but 15% is a standard commission), so she wants to make sure you get a fair deal.
A positive agent-author relationship is beneficial for a writer and can lessen the frustration of a challenging career. Your agent is someone who is enthusiastic about your writing and has your best interests at heart.
Who doesn’t need a literary agent?
Most agents work in fiction, general non-fiction, or children’s books. Many specialize and are not interested in areas outside their chosen genre. If you write outside of these fields you may find it impossible to find an agent who will agree to represent you.
This is especially true if you’re looking to publish:
- Short stories
- Educational non-fiction
- Scientific/medical/legal non-fiction
For these genres, the better option is to select and send your manuscript direct to publishers you think might be interested. Agents (unless you are already a household name), generally speaking, will not work with you.
Literary agent alternatives
Around the world, there are various author societies. These help their members by scrutinizing publishing and media contracts in detail (often without extra charge) and suggest realistic improvements that you could propose to your publisher.
Here are two popular author societies:
Agents have their own distinct, and important, role to play in the affairs of a career author – but another alternative is to fully commit to the solo self-publishing route and be your own agent.
But that is a topic for another day…
What do you think about literary agents? Have you worked with some, and what have your experiences been like? If you’ve published both with and without an agent, which path would you recommend? Let’s talk in the comments below!