Friday, August 22, 2008

The Pros and Cons of Finding an Agent

Agents are still on my mind, and the world of publishing is changing fast. There are new questions and new answers every day. The question of whether to get an agent used to be a no brainer. Everyone agreed that having an agent was essential to publishing success. That may no longer be true. There are dozens of approachable small publishers. And my own personal experience with agents has not led to success. So now I’m faced with that decision again, and I’m getting conflicting advice. Here’s the pros and cons as I see them:

• An agent has access to editors at major publishing houses and can get your work read and accepted by people with the power to print a large quantity of your novel.
• A good agent can help you develop your story into a marketable manuscript.
• An agent can negotiate a better contract and maybe a better advance.

• Finding an agent can take months or years. (See Wednesday’s post.) And there's no guarantee you ever will.
• An agent will take 15% of any earnings she or he contracts for you (and mystery writers are notoriously underpaid). Some agents steal from their clients. See Tess Gerritsen’s post on Murderati.
• Most agents will want to help shape your story. This can be good or bad. It’s all subjective. An editor may like your story better the way it is. You never know. Either way, it takes time.
• An agent may only submit your novel to five or six major publishing houses, then give up (leaving you to submit to small publishers anyway).
• An agent may quit or move to another another agency after you’ve signed a contract. (Yes, this happened to me too.)

The disadvantages seem to outnumber the advantages. But the first benefit is so huge, that if it happens, its tips the scale. But that’s still a big IF. And I keep reading stories about people who say they didn’t get published until they gave up on finding an agent.

Tell me what you think. Do you really need an agent?


Helen said...

It doesn't seem that this question can be answered with a yes or no. I think the answer is a depends.

It depends on the author, what she wants out of her career. Almost all of the major houses require an agent to submit. Few of them accept or bother to look at manuscripts sent over the transom. But not all authors want a major house. They look for niche or small press - and you can submit to them without an agent.

And how small are you as an author willing to go? How much are you willing to learn? Are you going to figure out how to get your self-published book (even with your own publishing company) into the major bookstores? Get your own ISBN? Do all your own marketing? And, yes, even authors pubbed with a bigger house have to do marketing, but they do, in most cases, have an in-house publicist or their agent who may be able to offer advice. Are you the author willing to spend part of the year that it takes you to write the book studying up on what resources you can utilize to promote that book? But, of course, the truth is that even if you expect to be published with a major house, you need to be doing that.

It's not an easy question to answer. I think if you asked all writers would they rather have an agent or not have one, most would say "have one." But not all of them would say that. The question almost becomes, if you don't get an agent, will you give up?

L.J. Sellers said...

"Give up" is not in my character. And I've spent more of my career as a novelist without an agent than with one. And having an agent has never benefited me. But not having an agent is almost as big a stigma in this industry as being self-published.

zhadi said...

I got published without an agent, but I had a friend and fellow writer recommend my work to his publisher. So...I had a connection. I had a great screenplay agent who quit the business. I haven't found another one yet, although the last few years it hasn't been a priority because of life changes and other writing.

Excellent post, LJ!!!

Trixie said...

Great blog, LJ! So much great information from someone who's been doing this for a while. I've read a lot already, but I'll come back here for more info in the future!
Thanks for sharing all your expertise.

John Taylor said...

Good post - I would direct any new authors straight to the Writers Handbook 2011 published by Pan Macmillan; this at least assures they submit their mss to the right agents/publishers.