Agents are a hot topic on Facebook writing groups. Some people idolize them. Some people think it’s impossible to get an agent without money or connections, and tend to refer to them as elitists. Others call agents scammers or thieves. Most of those people are wrong, at least on some level.
To be fair, agents are people. Just like all people, no two agents are the same. Some of them are very good at what they do, others are not, and most fall somewhere in the middle.
Today, I want to go over what agents do, why you might want to have one on your side, and things that might help you get an agent.
What does a literary agent do?
An agent is an author’s gateway to most traditional publishers. They help you get your manuscript to editors at publishing companies that might want to buy it. They also negotiate contracts and can help you manage your writing career. Not all agents are lawyers, but most of them understand the legal aspects of publishing. They can help you with whatever you need to know about your contract and your rights regarding your work. They can also help you if you have disputes with your publisher.
Some agents will help with setting up speaking engagements and interviews.
Reputable agents don’t get paid until you get paid. Their commission is usually something like 10-20 percent of your earnings. If an agent asks you for a reading fee, or a processing fee, or any other kind of payment up front, they are not a good agent. Stay away!
Why you might want an agent
In addition to all of the above, having an agent gives you more time to focus on writing. You don’t have to worry about keeping up with various publishers’ submission guidelines. You don’t have to put a pitch packet together by yourself, or negotiate your contracts by yourself. There are publishers out there that accept unagented manuscripts, but having an agent might mean more money, or more control over certain parts of the creative process.
If you’re dead set on self-publishing, you probably don’t need an agent. There are good things about self-publishing: you get full control of your work, and you don’t have to share a cut of your earnings with an agent. However, a lot of the self-published authors I’ve talked to just don’t get good sales. They struggle with marketing. Some of them have been scammed. I’d much rather leave all of those details to professionals and be free to concentrate on writing.
Things you can do to get an agent
This could probably be an entire post all on its own, but let’s go over a few basics today.
First off, no, you don’t need “connections” to get an agent. Unfortunately, timing, luck, and the agent’s personal preferences and current workload play a part in their decisions. You can’t control any of that, though, so focus on your manuscript and query letter, and remember that this is a numbers game.
Your manuscript needs to be in its absolute best shape. Polish it up on your own as much as you can, and have someone (preferably several someones) give it a thorough critique. Don’t fall into the trap of only polishing your sample pages, and leaving the rest for later. You’re going to be embarrassed if they ask for a full and you can’t provide it.
Your query letter needs to be in its best shape. I’ll write about query letters at some point, but I haven’t done enough research to give you any solid tips. You’re just going to have to trust me on this for now. Check websites like Query Shark for help.
Follow the agent’s guidelines. Check their website if you’re feeling lost.
Don’t give up too soon. I’ve heard of authors deciding to quit after four or five rejections, and that’s way too early. I’d cut my losses at 100 rejections, but not before then. Query Tracker is a tool you can use to help organize your query process.
Keep writing! If you’re querying one manuscript, write another while you wait for responses. Write short stories! Enter contests, take a course. Whatever you do, keep working on your writing and doing what you can to improve your craft.
Persistence is important. Don’t give up too soon.
I hope I’ve taken some of the mystery out of literary agents today. It’s not impossible for even an unknown author to land an agent as long as their work is good and they’re persistent with their queries. I’ll probably write about agents again, or at least about the querying process again, so keep an eye out for that. If you need me to address something from today’s post in more detail, or if you’d like to add to this, please leave a comment below.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk some about Big Five publishers and their imprints. I hope you’ll be back for that.