Recently, a first-time author asked us why we can’t also act as agents. After explaining our very different skill set, we realized that he isn’t the first author to express confusion about what agents do and who they do it for.
Agents may bear the mark of mystery, but they’re publishing professionals who are empowered to act on an author’s behalf.
Agents know the publishing industry and know what each publishing house wants to publish. Because an agent only makes money on commission, they take on the books they know they can sell. They have a vested interest in working to secure the highest sell price possible.
This means that an agent will pick up your book and fight for the very best terms for it when they firmly believe they can make a meaningful profit. Of course, with few books selling for big-bucks advances, it also means that securing an agent can be tough.
So, do you need an agent? Like much else in the publishing process, the answer is a resounding “it depends.”
It partly depends on your endgame. Many authors imagine a future-bestseller’s experience: A bidding war between well-known, well-staffed publishers who are committed to letting loose marketing mayhem on their book.
Does this describe your manuscript-shaped dreams? Do you envision doing the work that will vault you to the top of the bestseller lists and on to a media junket? If so, you probably need an agent. You can certainly shop your manuscript to publishing houses without one, but many of the big houses, or the ones that still offer advances (or the big 5), won’t accept un-agented inquiries.
But, real talk: while most of us harbor some version of this dream, it's pretty much completely unrealistic. This is especially true for first-time authors and authors who lack an already-proven platform. The good news is, if you're willing to accept other versions of publishing success, you most certainly do not need an agent.
And if your manuscript is a niche genre that falls outside of commercial fiction, like literary fiction or niche nonfiction, you don’t need and likely won’t want an agent.
Agents aren’t easy to secure, and even if you have the right book, there are lots of reasons you may not want to use one (the minimum 15% commission, for one). But agents are also valuable and skilled contacts in the publishing world: If it’s the right choice for your book, we can help you make it.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.