Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Technical Topic -- Do I need an agent?

Because advice is kinda like this

Giving advice here:

First, you finish the book.

I. If you're going for print publication with one of the Big Five New York Publishers you probably need an agent, because these publishers mostly don't look at unagented manuscripts.

Who are the Big Five? If you go to a book-and-mortar bookstore or the book aisle in the grocery and run your finger down a row of books, 90% of them are from the Big Five. Most of the folks who make good money writing publish with one of these imprints. We're talking Hatchette, McMillian, Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster and all the subsidiaries thereof.

So that is one career path. If you take it, you need an agent.

Your agent at work
A good agent will not only get your foot in the door, she will (a) know the best place to sell your work, which makes the sale more likely, (b) get the best contract terms, and (c) keep the author from making contract mistakes.

There are exceptions to the rule that you need an agent to get in this particular door. Some folk meet an editor at a conference; they're already published; they have a following for their fanfic; they are successfully self-published; they know somebody who knows somebody ...

II. Some imprints from the Big Five (Tor, Avon,) and some large independent publishers (HQN, Baen, Kensington, Ellora's Cave, Sourcebooks, Grand Central, Carina) accept unagented manuscripts.

These books are distributed to brick-and-mortar stores and groceries. Writers can do very well indeed dealing with this set of publishers. A number of the folks making a living at writing sell to these companies.

Your agent helps them pick YOUR ms
If you plan to deal with them, you do not need an agent to get your work seen. But a good agent might still perform functions (a), (b), and (c) above.

III. E-publishers and almost all small presses accept unagented submissions.

Agents do not generally submit to these publishers because there's not enough advance money in it.

Many satisfying options don't need an agent

IV. Self publishing/indie publishing, of course, doesn't need an agent.

So, the short answer is --

Summarizing all this
-- You need an agent for some career paths and not for others.
-- There are many profitable career paths that don't require an agent.
-- Even where an agent is required, you may be able to sneak by without one, depending.
-- Agents earn their weight in gold at contract time.
-- If you plan to submit to the Big Five, get an agent before you start firing your ms out to random publishers.
-- Finish the book.


  1. Hi, Jo. *waves*

    You begin and end with the most important piece of advice: finish the book. Sure, considering agents is a fun form of writerly procrastination, but you reeeeally need to finish the book first.

    (For fiction, anyway. I'm given to understand nonfiction book proposals are another kettle of beans entirely. But I have no firsthand experience with that.)

    1. The nonfiction query is, as I understand it, a different beast. Yes.

      I do think it's worthwhile keeping an eye on agents even before you finish the book. But very careful consideration can wait till you in the midst of final drafting.

      *waves madly*

  2. Something else that some (not all) agents will do is work on the manuscript with you, making the kind of revision suggestions that a good editor will make. This can be helpful before your first sale arrives.

    But you still have to have a finished book to send them!

    1. Many agents do wonderful work 'shaping up' the manuscript. This is an important matter to discuss with a future agent, ISTM.

  3. Finish the @#$* book! My hubby keeps reminding me of that one. Thanks for the info. I didn't know that some of the subsidiaries of the Big 5 accepted unagented MS. Add that handy list of big independents... Things to think about... ;-)

    1. If you plan to get an agent at all, I think it's a good idea to go for that agent first before you go directly to a publisher.

      No. Wait. First, finish the book. Right. That's what I meant.