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Do You Need a Literary Agent?

Agent and author reading a contract

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.

RELATED: Advice for Finding An Agent from Nicholas Sparks

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:

  • Poetry
  • Short stories
  • Memoirs
  • 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!


Join the Discussion on “Do You Need a Literary Agent?”

  1. I made the mistake of trying an agent early in my writing career. she was a con artist. She wanted money from me up front and I was a rube who didn’t know any better. Stupid me, I gave her the money, and later found out that she was under investigation by the FBI for securities fraud and a slew of other things. That will never happen again. I will never go willingly to another agent EVER again. My eyes were opened, and I will now go it alone. If I ever get published by the main stream, then so be it, if not. Well then at least I will have tried and made my own way in the world. I write for the enjoyment of others. It is as necessary as breathing to me. Playing political games is not.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      So sorry to hear that happened to you, Tami. There are a lot of predators out there when it comes to writers who are eager to get into print. It’s always good advice to do your homework and investigate before signing on with an agent. No agent should require an up-front fee. We’ll add an article about how to spot a bad literary agent to our blog calendar. Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. Lisa Brooks says:

    It seems to be a vicious cycle. Publishers don’t want unsolicited manuscripts and agents don’t want to represent unpublished authors.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Getting traditionally published sure isn’t easy! Writers Digest does a great series called How I Got My Agent. Have you seen it, Lisa? It could be helpful.

  3. Mark Troy says:

    I’ve been very fortunate to have an agent who is knowledgeable about the business and the craft. She has provided me with a lot of editing on the current manuscript she represents plus suggestions for future directions for my series. My manuscript had been through professional editing and extensive autocriting before she offered representation, but she still saw areas for improvement. Having gone through an extensive search for an agent (85+ Queries) During which I wrote multiple drafts, and then working with this agent through another draft, I believe I have a much better product than if i’d Gone the indie route. I have a lot more confidence in the success of this project.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      That’s a great origin story, Mark!

  4. L. Thomas says:

    A good query letter is essential. A good manuscript even more so. The only advice I can give which is advice I have been given and that is this: Your manuscript is technically flawless but do you have a story to go along with the excellently written words on paper?

    Often we get so caught up in the perfect sentence structure and not using too many thats or careful consideration of adverbs in our manuscript we forget to include a story.

    Secondly Its crucial that your story hook someone the first few pages and first chapter. Anyone who picks up the typical romance novel can see what I mean. The technical writing is suspect at best but the story hooks you because the reader who picks up a romance novel is in the mood so to speak for romance.

    Your story is fantasy or zombies or space travel then you need to be sure its not a repeat of a thousand other stories just like it the difference being its written by you. Agents are looking for that next great American novel. The one true piece of advice I can give anyone is make sure there is a story within that technically flawless writing which would make your college English professor proud.

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