Do I Need an Agent?

A discussion on whether or not an agent is needed, including some advice for choosing wisely and avoiding scams.

Image Credit: 
© 2011 Sam Slattery / Used With Permission

Do I need an agent for my novels? Well, I never have up until now, and managed to get two books published…surely that’s good enough, right?

Well, maybe. A lot of writers think that you should have an agent—with a small, perhaps heretical, number, thinking that it’s fine to do without one. For a long time, I always believed that you didn’t need an agent to get anywhere but, to be frank, my opinion is changing.

Before the advent of substantial changes to the publishing world—self-publishing (not vanity presses, which is something much different and tackier) becoming more mainstream, smaller publishers freeing themselves from the chains of the large, multi-national conglomerates (my publisher, Inspired Quill, being a perfect example of that) and writers becoming more connected to their audiences through websites, Twitter, Facebook and face-to-face events—then agents were pretty much de rigeur. They were essential. Now, many people see them as optional.

For me, it depends very much on what type of author you want to be. Are you content—in fact, do you prefer—to be a small, niche author writing either for a boutique publishing house that you’ve managed to secure on your own terms, or publishing your work yourself? There are definite positives to that style of writing, and Inspired Quill—with whom I’m published—are certainly not “boutique” (it’s growing nicely, thank you very much), but it’s still just the right size for the authors to have a direct and constructive relationship with the Managing Director and not really need anyone in between.

But what if you want to expand—either through your existing publisher, or elsewhere? It’s harder to get editors at traditional, larger publishing houses to look at your manuscript without an agent; at the small houses, the MD will often be the decision-maker. Sara is at IQ. I like that quick, responsive angle that IQ can afford to take; they don’t need committees to decide which author to take on, and won’t limit themselves to authors that only have an agent.

Personally, I think publishers can shut themselves off from a lot of fresh talent by refusing to talk to un-agented authors, and smaller publishers often get a far better deal as a result. A lot of the authors at IQ don’t have agents, but there is some brilliant talent in our cabal and they haven’t needed external representation to get where they are.

However, there are two things an agent does that I would just go to pieces even trying.

1. Agents get you the best deal

A literary agent has a good idea what your manuscript is worth on the ever-changing book market, and will likely be able to negotiate a better book contract than you are able to negotiate yourself. I wouldn’t know where to start—or, indeed, when to stop.

2. Agents negotiate on your behalf

With many subsidiary rights at stake (film, foreign, electronic, derivative) and money attached to them all, you want someone who is knowledgeable to translate contract-speak for you. The more money you make, the more money your agent makes—so he or she is going to make the best agreement possible.


I like working with Inspired Quill, and hope I continue to do so for a long time, but there will be occasions where something I’ve written doesn’t necessarily fit with its publishing guidelines—so of course, in those circumstances, I’ll look elsewhere to get the book and/or short story “out there.”

In those situations, an agent would be a very useful ally. They can hawk your wares, and know where to hawk it. They’ll know that Editor X at Publisher Y doesn’t buy fantasy trilogies. No point sending it to them—but I might have spent six months finding that out, with only a cryptic rejection letter to show for it. Maybe your agent knows that Editor Z has a full list and isn’t buying at all; well, that’s just saved me more time. When Editor W agrees to take a look, your manuscript will likely zip to the front of the queue, since Editor W trusts your agent’s judgement. If they don’t trust your agent’s judgement, you may need a new agent.

So, you just have to get an agent, right? Piece of cake, isn’t it? Not so much…

There’s significant demand out there for agents to find the next big thing, and for authors to find the one. Tough match sometimes, especially when—as now—it’s a buyer’s market. Each agent has a separate submissions criteria, and quite rightly don’t deviate from that—but if you make a mistake in the submission (and hey, we’re only human), then you get dismissed straight away and won’t be considered at all.

There’s also the question of money. Most agents will take 15% or so of any profits, which can be a double-edged sword; you lose 15% of your royalties, but you’ve got to ask yourself how much extra income your agent has brought in by all the rights negotiations they will have done. Personally, I would say that it’s worth it.

Sadly, there are quite a lot of scams out there; agents asking for reading fees, copying fees, placement fees, or offering you a special deal on doctoring your book. A typical scam goes like this:

An agent offers to represent an author, not caring what the manuscript is like. Maybe the author sent them a query, or maybe the agent sent the author an email after seeing their Facebook profile or website. The author jumps in, happy to be signed up at last.

A few weeks go by, during which the agent sends the author regular updates on fictitious submissions to various publishers (never named, because the author’s manuscript never goes anywhere, or else it’s sent as an email attachment to everyone in the agent’s contact list without any targeting). Next, the agent says they’ve had feedback from a major publisher who may be interested in the novel, but only if the author edits their manuscript into shape. The publisher recommends the author employ a book doctor to edit the novel into shape, before resubmitting.

Now remember, at this stage the agent hasn’t been in touch with any publishers. All they’ve done is sit on the manuscript and pretend to submit it. Telling the author a publisher is interested is a sure way to hook the author into the main part of the scam, which is to recommend a really good book doctor who will ‘only’ charge a thousand bucks or so to fix the book. The agent is on ‘your’ side against the evil demanding publisher; and although it’s a lot of money, “just imagine what life will be like if the publisher accepts the novel!”

Side Note: Not all book doctors are part of this scam. Most are perfectly legitimate, quality editors—as most agents are quality agents, but just bear in mind that there are a small minority of rogues out there.

Usually this ‘book doctor’ is the same agent with a different company name, perhaps registered in a different town or city, or else it’s a friend with a commission system in place. The unsuspecting author eagerly pays up, which is precisely what the agent intended when they signed them on in the first place. The manuscript is given a hack and slash treatment, and then the fictitious submissions go on for a few more weeks before everything goes strangely quiet. Finally, when the author gets up the courage to ask what’s happening, the agent responds that they’ve tried everyone and the novel just won’t sell in the current market. They either release the author (how kind), recommend they write another book, or recommend another round of editing.

That’s a typical scam, and a particularly cruel one which has burned many hopefuls. So how does a legitimate agent work? They take on authors whose work they believe they can sell to a publisher, and they work hard to make the best deal they can. Each time they sell a novel, the contract includes a clause which entitles them to a percentage (usually 15%) of everything the author earns from that deal.

How would I avoid scams? Well, a big part would be through the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, a UK publication that lists reputable agents and publishers—although some choose not to be listed, either because they have enough authors on their books already, or because they have other referral paths already.

As a general rule of thumb that I take to heart, it’s that good agents don’t need more clients. They’re always on the lookout for the next big thing, but they’ll more often than not say “no” to a prospective client, because the work doesn’t excite them enough.

Also: check their website and see who’s on their client list. If you’ve never heard of any of the authors mentioned, do some research; are all their clients still unpublished? Red alert klaxons should start flashing at that point…

I’m convinced by the need for an agent. I’m proud to be a part of Inspired Quill, but some of my writing will take me away from them in the future—I’m currently working on a thriller and a non-fiction book about dyspraxia, and neither of those will interest Sara, so I’ll need an agent to help me find those titles a new home.

Now all I’ve got to do is find one…

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Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.

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