Books, Culture and Society

Do I Need a Literary Agent?

A short guide that explains what literary agents do, and which writers do - and do not - need their services.

Do I Need a Literary Agent?

Harry Bingham is a bestselling novelist. He also runs The Writers’ Workshop (http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk), a source of advice regarding literary agents, including info about finding literary agents (http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/blog/do-i-need-a-literary-agent/) and more.

This is a common question for all new writers – and the answer, almost always, is yes. But let’s start by reviewing what agents are there to do. They have several main roles:

A) selecting saleable manuscripts from all those submitted. Bear in mind that well under 1% of manuscripts are strong enough to sell.
B) working with the author to get the manuscript in perfect condition to sell. That can mean extensive editorial work, quite likely lasting over a period of months.
C) identifying the right editors at the right publishing houses for your book. That means that the agent needs to have excellent contacts and to keep those contacts bang up to date. It also means understanding the current market for fiction and non-fiction and making sure that your book is in tune with that market.
D) conducting an auction. There’s no single way to sell a book. Your agent needs to choose the right way, then sell it professionally and with drive and conviction.
E) negotiating a contract. Publishing contracts are long and technical. Additionally, with the advent of ebooks, those contracts are changing fast and key terms are constantly moving. So you do need an expert on your side.
F) making foreign sales, and handling film and TV rights. Again, that’s a complex business involving expertise and strong contacts. Not a game for newbies.
G) guiding your career. Longer term, a really good agent should be nudging your career in the right directions and keeping you away from wrong turnings. Writing is a heck of an insecure business, so a good agent can make a massive amount of difference.

All that might make you think that you HAVE to have an agent under all circumstances – but remember that agents make their fees on sales they make. (Typically they take a 15% commission for sales in the domestic market, and 20% for sales made overseas.) Because agents work for money not for love, they simply won’t have an interest in representing you if there is no realistic prospect of them making any money. So you need to be realistic about whether your book is likely to get an agent or not.

You DO need an agent if: you are writing a novel; you’re writing a mainstream non-fiction manuscript (the sort of thing that might be sold at the front of a shop, or feature on a bestseller list); you are writing fiction for children; you are writing a ‘how to’ type book in a major category (eg: health or diet)

You DO NOT need an agent if: you are intending to self-publish; you are writing poetry; you are writing one-off short stories; you are writing journalism; you are writing specialist non-fiction (eg: “how to train your horse”). In all these cases, there simply won’t be enough money to interest an agent and you should simply approach the appropriate publishers directly.

There are a couple of intermediate categories too. You MIGHT WANT an agent if: you are writing children’s picture books or you are writing a themed collection of short stories. In the first instance, I’d generally recommend using an agent at least until you have found your feet. As for the short stories, such collections are tough to sell, but not impossible. A really good collection will attract an agent. Anything less than wonderful certainly won’t.

And as always, whatever you’re writing, it’s the quality that counts.

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