Today I’m covering some back-to-basics information. While people have always asked me about the advantages of having an agent, I’ve noticed an increase in the frequency of the question in this age of independence and do-it-yourself. People want to know: Do I need an agent? If I had one, how would they help me? Is it worth paying out 15% of my revenues?
Not everyone wants or needs an agent. Your job is to assess your situation and decide if it is the kind of partnership that would serve you. Here I offer you an overview of the ways the right literary agent can enhance your writing career.
You only need to consider an agent if you’re interested in pursuing traditional, full-service, advance-and-royalty paying publishers. If you’re 100% committed to some kind of self-pub or subsidy publishing, you can probably do that on your own, although many agents today offer publishing services.
An agent can help you prepare and polish your proposal and manuscript before they’re submitted to publishers. Agents know what’s sellable in the current market, and they can help make sure your materials are top-notch before submission. They can help with everything from revisions on your manuscript to showcasing your platform in the most impressive way possible.
When your proposal is ready for submission, an agent has a big-picture view of all the possibilities, and they have information and experience that tells them which houses might be best for you. They have relationships with editors and an awareness of the editors’ preferences and current needs. The agent knows exactly how to submit your project to publishers so that it gets the proper attention. Often the agent has multiple conversations with publishers at the submission stage—answering questions, providing further information.
When offers come in, the agent knows how to respond and how to negotiate the initial offer (at the Deal Memo stage). This is typically the time when the amount of the advance and the royalty rates are discussed, along with other key terms that may include the rights being sold, whether the publisher wants an option on the author’s next book, and the author buy-back discount. If there are offers from multiple publishers, the agent sets up a formal auction to decide the publisher.
All the the functions listed above assume that you need a publisher. But sometimes an author is already working with a publisher when they begin considering an agent. In this case you’re asking, “Does the agent serve any function beyond the initial submissions and sale to a publisher?”
The answer is yes—read on below. But also, consider that even if you already have a book deal, signing with an agent will mean that your agent can help you with all the above functions—on your next book. By then they will have been working with you for some time, they’ll know you, and be in an even better position to help you take the next steps.
Most publishing contracts are 15 to 25 pages of legalese spelling out what rights the publisher is buying, and what rights you retain. The contract details how much money you’ll make on each format of your book and on every different kind of sale the publisher might make. It details how much it will cost you to buy your book from the publisher, whether the publisher wants an option on your next book, when you are eligible to get your rights back from the publisher, and whether your right to publish other materials is restricted. A typical boilerplate publisher contract that hasn’t been looked at by an agent usually doesn’t contain the most favorable terms an author could get if they tried (and I am not just referring to money). And most attorneys do not understand the implications of much of the language, unless they specialize in intellectual property.
Your agent understands the contract, and their job is to make sure your rights are protected and you are getting a fair deal with the best terms possible in your situation. They know which terms are most important to negotiate given your own goals and publishing scenario. Most importantly, they won’t allow you to sign a “bad” contract that would probably come back to bite you in the long run.
Once the contract is signed, you are on a long road with your publisher in which you’ll go through the process of:
Throughout this journey, you will have many questions, and your agent will have the answers. Whenever you have an issue (for example, if you think you may not meet your deadline) your agent will handle it with the publisher. Whenever there is a conflict, such as a cover design you hate, your agent knows how to go back to the publisher and facilitate a satisfactory resolution.
It is this day-to-day partnership that is most valuable to many authors. An agented author is never alone on this publishing journey.
When your royalty statement comes, it will probably be confusing and hard to read. You may have no way of knowing if it contains mistakes or if you’ve been paid the proper amount. Part of an agent’s service is that they analyze your royalty statements to be sure your sales are being properly accounted for.
Your agent can be a great source of knowledge about the industry. They can offer you a wider perspective whenever you have a question or concern. When you hear industry rumors, your agent usually knows what’s true and what’s not. Many agencies also offer concrete help and education for their clients, on topics that concern authors such as how to use social media to market books, or how to make the most of a writers’ conference. Some agencies have regular webinars for their clients, some have retreats, and many offer an online forum in which their clients can communicate and support each others’ careers.
One of the best values an agent can offer is brainstorming with you about your “next book” and the entire direction of your career. They can take into account your personal goals and the state of the publishing marketplace to help you determine your next steps. If you have three different book ideas on the table, your agent would offer guidance as to which would probably be your best bet. They are keeping your brand in mind and will want to help you maximize your sales potential over the long term.
These days, literary agencies are doing more than just representing books to traditional publishers. They’re offering their clients multiple ways to be published, whether it’s traditional publishing, self-publishing, or a hybrid method. They’re always on the lookout for new opportunities for their clients.
It’s up to you to determine whether a partnership approach to publishing would be right for you. I’m not trying to convince you to get an agent! But for those who’ve asked, I wanted to point out the benefits.
Do I need an agent? If I had one, how would they help me? Get the answers. Click to Tweet.
Does the agent serve any function beyond the initial sale to a publisher? Click to Tweet.
Here’s an overview of the benefits of having an agent. Click to Tweet.
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