I try not to give writing advice. I strongly feel that there is no “right” way to proceed in this profession, and I am all too keenly aware of how precarious my own position as a professional is. I have 6 books under contract, and that is absolutely no guarantee I’ll be able to sell any more. Once you “make it” as a writer, the real work begins as you fight like a mad dog to hold onto the ground you’ve gained and, if you can, expand it.
But here I am, posting my second writing advice blog post in a row.
Part of this is good, old-fashioned MY GOD SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET self-indulgence, but part of it comes from a better place. There’s a lot of questionable advice floating around out there, and I don’t want aspiring pros to be taken in by it. Or, at least, I want an alternative perspective to be presented. It’s my clumsy way of trying to pay it forward.
So, here it is: Some folks are advising writers that they don’t need an agent. I guess it’s true. If you live in rural Montana, you don’t NEED a car. You can walk the 30 miles to the nearest grocery store to get your food. It’ll, you know, take a while, but you can do it.
I won’t say that you MUST HAVE an agent, but I will say that it’s really, really, really smart to have one.
Now, let’s get all the standard caveats out of the way: You need a real agent. Not a scam agent. Not a “business card” agent. You need an agent who actually has some wasta as we say in Arabic. How do you identify such an agent? You look at their client list. If they are representing clients whose careers are where you’d like yours to be, that’s a pretty good indicator. You also need an agent with whom you have a good relationship (responsive, communicative, willing to work with you on issues, prompt with payments, etc . . .)
All the things that make an agent “good” could be the topic of another blog post, but assuming that you can get a good, real agent, let’s look at why you are better off with one than without:
1.) They have, not just contacts, but a TRACK RECORD WITH THOSE CONTACTS in the publishing industry. Maybe you’re some kind of super-powered schmoozer who has hit all the right cons and made all the right moves at each one. But, assuming that you’re like the rest of us, your agent has contacts that you need. Most importantly, good agents have a track record of selling manuscripts to their contacts that make those publishers money. It’s not just your reputation, it’s your agent’s reputation that helps sell your book. If your agent has sold books by 10 different authors to a publisher that all turned out to be commercially successful, and then decides to champion yours, that publisher is far more likely to sit up and take notice. Because this agent has a track record of MAKING THEM MONEY. Which is, after all, why they’re in business in the first place.
2.) They know how to negotiate book contracts. A general intellectual property lawyer doesn’t specialize specifically in book contracts, game contracts based on books, or film/TV contracts based on books. A literary agent does this, and pretty much only this, all day, every day, for years. There are nuances, standard clauses, and most importantly deviations from standard language that only an experienced literary agent is going to spot. Good agents are intimately knowledgeable of the specifics of the standard contracts of the publishers they sell to. If a publisher suddenly changes their boilerplate, an agent with years of experience negotiating contracts with that publisher is going to spot it. An IP lawyer who has been looking at the occasional book contract doesn’t have that intimate familiarity.
3.) The publishing world is all about relationships. Your agent goes to bat for you in negotiations, leveraging relationships built over years to win concessions for you. Publishers are far more likely to make concessions to an agent who has brought them millions of dollars of business and may potentially bring millions more. Even more importantly, the agent is a buffer between you and your publisher. There will be times that you need to stand your ground and fight with your publisher on an issue of importance to you. You do not want to sour your relationship with your publisher. Sending your agent to fight the battle provides a step of remove that protects the critical relationship between you and your publisher.
4.) Foreign Rights. Foreign rights are a major part of making money as a novelist. Foreign rights are usually sold through a network of subsidiary agents to your US agent. Great US agents have built that network over years. Are you, as an unagented writer, going to pay your own way to London Book Fair to try to hawk your book? How about Frankfurt? Are you going to submit your manuscript to publishers in 30 countries? Do you have the time and money to take care of this on your own?
5.) Administrative work/Counsel. Want to have a royalty statement explained? Call your agent. Want to bounce an opinion off someone as to how to word an email? Call your agent. Want insight into how to develop your career? Call your agent. Want to vent about how you’re not happy with your new cover? Call your agent. Want your tax information neatly organized in a single statement? Call your agent. Agents provide a wide range of basic administrative work, and most importantly act as advisors in navigating the often confusing and challenging world of publishing. It’s certainly possible to figure this all out on your own, but unless you’ve got a magical machine in your basement that churns out free time, you’re going to be really glad of having an agent to help.
If your goal is to self-publish, this may not apply to you. But if your goal is a traditional publishing deal with a major house, then you are going to be really glad of having a good agent in your corner. Of course, it’s harder to get that kind of a deal without an agent, but it happens. In those cases, getting an agent will be pretty easy, as you’ll be bringing them a deal with the up front work of submitting all done.
Another important (and difficult to accept) aspect of agents: They are frequently the first indicator of, not whether or not your novel is good, but whether or not it can sell. Agents are in the business of identifying great books. They have years of experience in picking the ones they think will make money. This is how they make their living. If you can’t get an agent interested in your project, it’s possible that they’re just not recognizing your genius/giving you a chance, but it might be an indicator that you need to do more work.
And that service, they provide you for free.