If you’re a first time-author, you may be unsure of how to approach the publishing stage. There’s the question of traditional versus independent (“self”) publishing, and just as important, the question of whether or not to hire a literary agent. Literary agents can represent new and already-published authors, though on an individual level, some agents will only work with published authors.
What is a literary agent?
A literary agent handles the business side of the publishing process for their clients. Agents work their connections to get a client’s manuscript from the dreaded pile on a desk into the hands of an actual publisher. Agents facicilate contract discussions and negotiate the advance their client will receive. Often, agents act as the middleman between author and publisher. For traditional publishing, it’s crucial to have an agent representative working for your best interests as the author. With the rise of independent publishing, more agents are working with independently published authors as well.
Once an agent reads over your manuscript and offers feedback, they’ll write queries and pitches to send to publishers, magazines, conferences, etc. As an agent, their job is to represent your interests and make your publishing a success.
Cost and Payoff
10-20% of your royalties or sales go to your literary agent. In some ways, this acts as an incentive for the agent to negotiate the best possible contract for you. Some high-profile and well-connected agents may also require a retainer fee to compensate for their experience and established network. Be wary if an agent tries to charge you a “reading fee” prior to representing you. Most often, this is a scam.
The majority of reputable agents are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), which is an organization with a database of people who agree to observe an established ethical code of conduct while representing their clients. You can use this site to vet your potential agent or to connect with a reputable agent.
Literary agents know the market and they know the players. With their connections, your book may gain recognition that it may not have otherwise received. An agent can connect you with professional editors and cover designers so you don’t have to navigate those processes alone. An agent can be a valuable asset in the publishing process. As such, it can take months or years to land an agent. Be prepared to double or triple the length of your publishing process if you decide to pursue a literary agent.
Even if an agent calls you for a page sample, be aware that it’s just a query. A query is an inquiry for the first chapter, 50 pages, or a full read through in order to ascertain if they want to represent you. While this is a big deal and an achievement worth celebrating, a query is not a guarantee of a contract with the agent. The agent could read your pages and pass on you for a number of reasons, so celebrate reasonably and continue pursuing other opportunities.
Do you need an agent?
The publishing industry has been experiencing remarkable changes for the past few decades. As independent publishing grows, its reputation for being less professional or less “legit” than traditional publishing has changed. There are still unpolished works that contribute to the “lesser than” mindset, but these examples are vastly outnumbered by the number of successful independently-published books. Before, an agent wouldn’t even consider working with an independent author, but now, they have grown to become respectable clients.
For most authors who plan to independently publish their book, you don’t need to hire a literary agent. An agent could help locate an editor and cover designer, and they may even coordinate some speaking events, but you can do that on your own as well. Plenty of authors sell their books successfully without the support of an agent.
If you have limited time but a large budget, a literary agent could ease the stress of the publishing process. They can put in the time you may not have to get an editor, find a cover, build publicity, and get your name and book out in the world.
If you want to follow the traditional publishing route and have your eye on a Big Five publisher (Penguin Random House [now owns Simon & Schuster), Hachette Livre, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, and Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt), then you’ll need to consider a literary agent.
Most of the Big Five imprints won’t consider an unsolicited manuscript, i.e. a manuscript unrepresented by an agent. The few who will look at unsolicited manuscripts are overwhelmed by submissions, so it could take years, if ever, for them to find and consider your manuscript.
There’s a common misconception that you can’t become a successful author without hiring a literary agent. If you’re looking to traditionally publish, especially with one of the Big Five publishers, you likely will need an agent to get your manuscript past the gatekeepers to be considered. If you’re following the independent route, you don’t need a literary agent, though having one could ease your workload throughout the publishing process.
Regardless of your publishing path, make sure your literary agent is reputable, and make sure the two of you are a good fit. The agent-author bond requires trust and authenticity, so if the connection feels forced or you feel otherwise uncomfortable, it’s reasonable to look for a new agent. Much like going to the doctor, you want someone you trust and can be open with.
Before independent publishing was on the rise, literary agents were the gatekeepers to the publishing industry. If you didn’t land one, there was little chance for your manuscript to be discovered by a publisher unless you were well connected. These days, a literary agent can be an asset, but you can forge ahead and become an independently published author without one.