I’ve found this question to be the new hot topic at a lot of conferences lately; it’s right up there with questions on self-publishing and thoughts on ebooks and the effects of digital publishing on the industry.
My take: really, if your only goal is to be published, the answer is you don’t.
There are so many small presses popping up these days (but please read this warning on recognizing legit small presses) that accept unagented work that it’s very possible to obtain a contract on your own. Or you can just self-publish. You can even hire a publishing lawyer (BIG emphasis on PUBLISHING lawyer) to look over your contract. You can Google a PR agent or even do marketing on your own.
But if your goal is to grow a career and explore exciting new options and opportunities…well, you kind of do.
An agent can:
-reach publishers you can’t (who often pay more money upfront)
-edit/help polish your work
-negotiate (without getting blue in the face over industry standards no one will ever cave on)
-protect your rights/options (contractually and otherwise)
-sell retained rights (foreign, film, audio, etc)
-offer advice on marketing or PR opportunities (we are usually contacted by bloggers for author recommendations etc)
-offer advice on future projects/career path (making sure a contract leaves your goals in mind for the LONG TERM, such as narrowing an option clause so you can branch out, is something a publishing lawyer on a one-off basis may not do)
-assist with self-publishing (I personally like to do line edits, e-formatting, and cover art, but that’s just me)
-vet manuscripts for editors & get more attention/faster response times (WITH feedback!)
Guess how much THAT whole kit-n-caboodle can cost you if you just want to hire people to perform the above one-time? Upwards of $2-5,000 (encompassing all of the above; obviously much less if you hire out only one or two things). And we do ALL of it for the bargain price of 15% commission.
Even where self-publishing is concerned, there is a big difference between hiring freelance editors or formatters who offer a la cart services and having an agent who will offer these services in conjunction with career planning and advising. It would be beneficial to have a hand in more than one method of publication (self, e, and traditional) to balance out and protect both income stream as markets shift and distribution for readers - which an agent can help manage. And just for the sake of sanity I would imagine it gets exhausting to have to be writer and production manager and business manager and marketer all alone; it detracts from the time spent writing to have to be the only one in your corner.
Not enough? Ok. Here’s a post from an editor on why agents rock.
Still thinking…yeah, but you’re an agent. Of course you think you’re relevant!
An editor friend of mine, who was recently asked on a panel: do you think it’s important to have an agent, even though you accept unagented work? Addressed this question quite nicely. She said that she is a publisher; not a hand-holder.
It is incredibly difficult to have to answer basic questions to a client which, quite honestly, she is going to answer in the best interest of her company, not the author.
She was from a smaller press, the kind you don’t need an agent for, and she candidly admitted that of course she’s going to want an author to stay with her forever; she’s never going to suggest hey, you’re really good – ever think you should try it with one of the Big 6? Or hey, ever think you should branch off into cookbooks instead of mystery thrillers?!
Basically, she added a few more bullet points to the list above on what agents can do:
-advise in your career path’s best interest
-be a go-between
There are often things that an editor or publishing house will need to say to an author that are not so nice – like, hey, your sales aren’t so great…we’re going to have to drop you, or hey, just so you know, if you get upset and want changes to ONE MORE cover my boss is ready to fish and cut bait. As an agent, I know how to deal with these (and a myriad of other very unpleasant) situations in a way that might offer a compromise, or explain with a ray of hope instead of causing panic and slamming shut a door.
There are also more positive reasons to have an agent, such as potential work-for-hire, film, foreign and audio possibilities that, due to our contacts, we are presented with. We got the hook ups, baby!
As an example, recently one of our clients at Bradford Lit was in a precarious position as a published author at a Big 6; her sales were not performing as well as hoped and her editor wasn’t sure they’d be able to do another book despite the fact that the author had talent to spare. The economy can be very cruel. In a trip to NY, the editor met with Laura B and started picking her brain on potential authors for a top-secret-totally-cool project the publisher had just hatched. Laura pitched this client to her, and the deal was born; the project gained incredible press and attention, and her publisher was so thrilled with how cooperative and professionally she had worked, they blindly offered on four more books...for a substantially increased advance. Yowza!
I do think the question of whether or not to sign with an agent is more common within the romance genre than any other; many authors are obtaining contracts for first novels through e-or-small presses first, and doing quite well that way. But, money isn’t everything; it’s always a dream to try and reach out and be accepted by the publishers an author grew up reading. The big hesitation I’m hearing on actually signing with an agent, however, is: so what if I get an agent…and she can’t sell my next book to anyone but my existing publisher? How is it fair to give her a commission on something I established myself?
It’s ok to ask to exclude anything in an agreement that could fall into this category; but not all agents will agree to that. Agreements are usually intended to cover representation for an author's published works, however that work becomes published. Publication comes in a lot of forms these days and agreements are evolving with the changes. In which case, the question becomes: do I take a chance and sign, keep searching until I find an agent who agrees to what I want, or continue on my own and hope to gain enough clout to break into the big 6 myself?
That’s not an easy call to make. Personally, I think it’s worth it to find an agent you click with, who has all the clout and contacts you’re looking for, and dive in. I don’t recommend giving up after only one book, either; sometimes, things just don’t sell. But if, several books down, you’re not seeing any progress with that agent, I think it’s completely fair to part ways and either decide to find a new agent, or continue with the e-or-small press rout.
Yes, this runs the risk of having some books tied up with an agent you’ll no longer work with, but if you never try…you’ll never know. The agent can also start to withhold rights you may have granted to this smaller press, like film, audio and translation, which you couldn’t do anything with before, but your agent can. I would simply recommend heading into any relationship like this will full clarity and understanding on both sides of expectations and concerns. Keep open communication and an open mind (after all: it’s also not fair to get mad at/dump an agent for not selling books, like homosexual erotic romance, that are so niche they have such a limited chance of selling to New York in the first place) and stay professional, positive, and polite about it all.
Still not convinced?
Ok. I recommend not submitting to me. ;)