author looking directly at camera in bookstore do you need a literary agent
Do you need an agent? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Somewhere between that first glimmer of an idea and seeing our book on a shelf in a bookstore, we begin to wonder about the mechanics of getting a book out into the world. 

This absolutely is an important part of the process, and yet in my experience writers worry about this question far too early in the process.

Question: Do you need an agent?

My First Answer: Have you even finished the book yet??

In most cases, you can’t begin to talk to an agent until you have finished your book. If you want to be a published author, finishing the book is your first and most important job.

When should you think about an agent?

Okay, let’s assume you’ve written a complete first draft of your book, you’ve reviewed your whole story and the book structure, and you’ve made a plan to revise the book and gone ahead to revise and edit your book.

If you’ve hit SAVE on the revised version of your manuscript and have sent it off to your beta readers, then this is a good time to begin doing the thinking and research necessary to determine if and how you’ll approach an agent to represent you and your book.

But until then, when the book hasn’t been written or revised yet, you’re probably thinking about agents and the publishing process a little too soon. And this is important because doing so can cause some creative anxiety that you’re better off without during the creation process.

Let yourself have the time to create FIRST and while you’re creating, just focus in deeply on that part of the process and leave the rest aside for now. It’s time will come, but fretting about it too early can really derail your initial drafting and revision process.

Are there any exceptions to this?

Yes: certain categories of non-fiction require a book proposal to an agent before the book is completely written, but you will still need a clear outline, sample chapters and a marketing plan. This category of book typically also requires a significant social media following.

A friend just had her agent send her as-yet-unwritten book to auction, where publishers bid on it, and ended up with a multiple six-figure deal from Penguin Random House. This happens all the time, but for general interest non-fiction where the authors have a large platform and can help sell the book.

Okay, it’s time. Should I get an agent?

If your book is revised, edited and out with readers to get their feedback, this is a good time to spend some time thinking about your publishing goals for the book and what you want to achieve — from there you can decide if you need an agent to help you achieve those goals.

If you intend to self-publish, then the short answer is No — you don’t need an agent. An agent typically only comes into play with traditional publishing. However, if your book has some success in sales on Amazon, you may find yourself approached by publishers who are interested in taking it on as a traditionally published book, and in that case (referred to as “hybrid” publishing) you would find an agent useful.

Another friend with a large social media following (30K followers) was recently approached directly by a publisher who invited her to submit a book proposal for a non-fiction “how to guide” type of book. Although she could go to an agent with that invitation to see if she can generate further interest from other publishers, she’s chosen not to do that and will negotiate on her own behalf with that publisher.

I’m a published poet and found my poetry publisher and negotiated those rights on my own, through a writing mentor of mine, without an agent — this is typical for most poets. If you are an Instagram poet with a large following, then you might want to consider approaching an agent first.

How Literary Agents Work

A literary agent, as a member of a literary agency, will represent you and your work to publishers and negotiate on your behalf. If you work with an agent, you’ll sign a contract with the agency, not with an individual agent. 

Even though you may spend most of your time just talking to your specific agent, it can be nice to know you’ll still be represented if that person leaves the agency or no longer wishes to do that kind of work. And, depending on the size of your agency, there may be agents who specialize in certain types of rights, such as foreign publication or film options or even merchandise rights. (Hunger Games, Harry Potter or Twilight series, anyone??)

A literary agent knows the editors at various publishing houses, as well as their likes/dislikes, what they’re looking for and open to receiving, as well as current trends in the industry. They can reach out and put your book in the hands of the publisher most likely to be interested in publishing it. This eliminates a vast amount of time and energy that would otherwise be required on the part of the author.

Some publishers — most notably the “Big 5 Publishers” — either state outright that they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts (the stack of manuscripts they didn’t ask for, otherwise known as “the slush pile”) OR will let you send them a query but take months or even years to respond, OR only ever respond when interested.

If you think your book is suited to publication with the Big 5, you’ll need an agent.

If you’re working on a novel (whether for adults, young adults or children), or a memoir, or a book of non-fiction with broad general interest — then yes, an agent is a very good idea.

If you can use the word “market” to describe a group of people waiting to read books like yours, then yes, seeking an agent may be the best idea.

How do I get an agent?

There are two basic options for getting an agent. Both of them start with the same place…

Research.

Research agents working with authors like you and representing books like yours. You can use the Internet for this. Google “[author name whose work is like yours” plus “agent” and see what you find. You can also check the Literary Agents Database compiled by Poets and Writers Magazine, the “Deals” announcements in the Canadian book trade magazine, Quill and Quire, and other industry magazines

If you’d prefer a book, there‘s also this great resource specifically on literary agents, by Robert Lee Brewer, and of course the perennial Writer’s Market books. (Just make sure you get the latest edition, and you might want the version specific to your genre, e.g. poetry, short fiction or books for children.)

Finding an Agent: Acknowledgements Research

By far my two favorite ways to research agents are the following:

  1. Read the Acknowledgements sections
  2. Talk to other writers

Most writers thank their Editors and Agents in the Acknowledgements sections of their books. Make a large list (10-20, at least!) of books in your genre, especially those writers whose work is most like yours. (Need to know which writers those are? Go to the library or bookstore and check out the shelves until you find similar titles. Alternatively, GoodReads is a good online resource for this kind of research.)

Check the Acknowledgments section in the back of the books most like yours and begin compiling a list of possible agents. Then, head back to Google and flesh out your list with just a little research.

Finding an Agent: Talk to Other Writers

Even if you’ve built up a list of potential agents from your own research, I still advise talking to other writers about this. Many writers won’t speak publicly about this, but there are sometimes “behind the scenes” things that are useful to know.

For example: is an agent known to take on many clients, but then lose interest if their books don’t sell to a Big 5 Publisher right away? Is an agent known to be difficult to work with, to the point where editors avoid him/her? Does an agent prioritize some kinds of work over others? Is an agent good to work with, or do they stop responding to your emails after you’ve been a client for a while?

These are the things writers often will talk about privately if asked and it’s worth uncovering upfront any potential pitfalls before you decide which agents to approach.

And the biggest reason to talk to other writers about their agents is in case they may be in a position to refer you and your book to their agent. I know many writers who got their agent because they were referred by a friend.

WARNING: Do not randomly approach writers you’ve stalked on the Internet to ask them to refer you to their agent. You’ll either be ignored or yelled at. 

But, in some cases, it may be possible to develop relationships with writer friends or even mentors and teachers, who come to know your work and proactively want to refer you to an agent they know. If that rare gift is offered, SAY YES.

How to Approach an Agent

If you’re writing non-fiction, you approach an agent with a book proposal. I highly recommend Jane Friedman as a resource for all things related to the business of writing, and her post on writing a book proposal is still an excellent resource.

In fact, Jane’s book The Business of Being a Writer should be on every writer’s shelf.

If you’re writing fiction or memoir, you’ll want a query letter and a synopsis of the book. The synopsis (or summary) of the book should be written from a marketing perspective — to “sell” the book to the agent and convince them they should take their precious time and read your book in the first place.

Here’s a great post from Reedsy on how to write a compelling query letter.

Here’s a resource straight from an agent (Carly Watters) on how to write the synopsis.

The job of your query letter and synopsis is similar to the CV or resume for a job hunter — your first task is to get the interview, or in this case, to get the agent to ask for the full manuscript so they can read the work and decide whether they’d like a further discussion or not.

An Agent Loves My Book: What Now?

Congratulations! It’s an exciting time and let yourself enjoy the process.

However, you don’t quite have a book deal yet so probably best to temper excitement with realism.

If an agent likes your query and asks for a full manuscript, they’ll probably ask you not to talk to other agents while they’re reviewing your book. You can agree to this of course, but probably want to also agree a time frame with them. (And if they take your manuscript and then pull a disappearing act, no longer replying to your emails for a few months, eventually you’ll have to write them the email saying you’re now moving on to speak with other agents.)

If you’re offered a contract for representation, then by all means celebrate! Buy yourself some Champagne and get ready to pop the cork…but not before you consult on the contract provisions.

Writers can get contract advice from The Writer’s Union of Canada, or National Writers Union in the US, and comparable organizations probably exist where you live.

But if you have friends who’ve signed similar contracts, you can also ask their advice and compare clauses and requirements. If things look truly complicated, there’s also the option to check with an attorney. It’s your creative work and your livelihood, so pay attention to the fine print.

Agents work on commission and get paid when they sell your work, so you can expect to pay in the range of 15-20% of the total amount offered for your work to your agent. It may sound like a lot, but they’re doing work and accessing contacts you otherwise would not be able to reach, and they don’t get paid if your work doesn’t sell.

If you get asked to pay a literary agent up front for any type of fees — reading fees, manuscript evaluation fees, retainer fees, etcetera — this should be a red flag. Run, don’t walk, in the opposite direction.

Agents work in the realm of traditional publishing and with traditional publishing, the author does not pay upfront costs to anyone in the publishing industry. (I would make an exception here for working with editors to make your book the best it can be BEFORE submitting it to agents or publishers.)

I’ve tried to get an agent, but no one said yes…now what?

First off, how many times did you try? Writers are sensitive to rejection so often we get told “No” or “It’s not right for us at this time” just two or three times and we think we’ve failed.

This is why I recommend to do your research and build a list of 10, 15 or even 20+ potential agents and then tell yourself you won’t look at your Plan B until you’ve exhausted all of your options. 

Do. Not. Give. Up. Too. Soon.

Rejection is just a rite of passage for authors and a numbers game. The first Harry Potter book was rejected 12 times before it found a publisher, and best-selling author Lisa Genova (author of Still Alice) approached 100 (!) agents before finding success.

Okay, my list of 100 agents have all said No…now what?

If you want to be published by one of the Big 5 publishers, then realistically you’ll probably need an agent. There are sometimes exceptions (if you win a big writing contest, for example) but generally this is true.

However, those are just the agents saying No — no one at a publishing house has yet seen your book and there are lots of smaller publishers (even medium sized publishers!) or the so-called “literary publishers” or “small press publishers” who will accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from writers.

Submitting directly to publishers for publication is a whole other topic for another day, but rest assured that your quest to publish isn’t over just because you don’t have an agent. Some of my favorite books have been published by small literary publishers and gone on to win awards and sell well. 

(Of course I might be biased, since my own books were published that way!)

Often, for poetry, short stories, or essay collections — as well as many novels or memoirs — literary publishers make the best home. Because a press is smaller, you tend to develop relationships with the editing and publishing staff and your books receive more personal attention than they might at a larger publishing house where you’re not that season’s hot ticket to Frankfurt.

If you’re considering going directly to publishers, here are some helpful links:

Ranking America’s Largest Publishers (Publisher’s Weekly)

Top 10 UK Indie Publishing Houses (Books and Bao)

Top 30 Australian Book Publishers Accepting Manuscripts (Rafal Reyzer; includes Kiwi options!)

Literary Publishers in Canada (Literary Press Group)

 

Do you need a literary agent?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

In the end, only you can decide what you want for your book. You’ve spent a long time writing it, so take the additional time to do the research and find the agent who will do the best job of representing you and your work within the publishing industry. 

And if you end up without an agent, don’t despair…you can always seek publication directly with literary publishers or smaller publishing houses, or even go the route of publishing it yourself

What matters is that the book gets FINISHED in the first place and then finds its way in the world to reach the readers who need it. You have far more control over this process than you realize.

 

By the way, my First Book Finish program will open for registration again on February 22, 2021 and run for 12 weeks starting March 1st. If you need to take your half-finished manuscript all the way to “The End” and would like the support of community and my hands-on guidance in the process, sign up here for the Waiting List so that you can be the first to hear and access exclusive Early Bird pricing and a special bonus.

 

Do You Need a Literary Agent?