Do I Need a Literary Agent to Find a Publisher?
How important is it to have a literary agent to find a publisher? Writers & Artists Editor Alysoun Owen shares her experiences on the role of literary agents in the publishing industry. Who are they, what do they do, and should you find yourself one? Read to find out.
Do I need a literary agent? The answer to this much-mooted question asked by thousands of first-time authors is ‘Yes’ (with the parenthetical caveat of ‘But sometimes no’). Allow me to explain…
Nearly all fiction – for adults, YA and children – reaches a publisher via a literary agent, a person who acts as an authors’ representative and principal champion of their book. Where fiction is concerned, authors seeking the representation of a literary agent are usually required to put together a manuscript proposal, typically consisting of the three opening chapters of their book, plus a query letter with a short synopsis. Requirements do differ from agent to agent and publisher to publisher, though, so check their websites and the information provided in the latest edition of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.
What do I need a literary agent for?
New authors need to ask themselves, what do I need a literary agent for? What is it he or she is going to do for me that I can’t do for myself?
Quite simply, being represented by a literary agent may be the only realistic route to getting a foot on the first rung of the publishing ladder, as most publishers of fiction do not now accept unsolicited manuscript submissions from debut writers. Agents have regular contact with editors within the publishing houses and they will have an idea of their tastes or knowledge of the types of books they are looking to add to their list. In effect, the agent will ‘sell’ your manuscript to one (or more) of these editors, championing you and your writing to the hilt. These are the first crucial steps of your book being bought by a publishing house.
Agents offer much more than a foot in the door, though. They are expert negotiators, combining financial acumen with a nose for the value of good, saleable writing; they can be a useful buffer between you and your publisher, managing the financial and marketing side of things while you concentrate on the writing; they will also have strong editorial skills, working with you to help refine your manuscript before it’s even submitted to a publisher. All of this can only work to your advantage as an author, helping you secure a more lucrative deal with the most appropriate publisher — much more than you may have been able to agree yourself as someone without contacts or knowledge of the publishing industry.
Are there exceptions to the rule?
As stated above, nearly all fiction authors do require representation of a literary agent if their book is to be produced by a traditional publishing house, and that is also true with some forms of general non-fiction too (such as histories, memoirs and biographies). But, as in life, publishing is full of notable exceptions: award-winning children’s author Philip Ardagh, for example, makes a good case for doing it alone in his article ‘Do you have to have an agent to succeed?’, which is included in the next edition of the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (published annually each July, with the 2017 edition available on 28 July, 2016).
It’s important to note that not all literary forms are (usually) represented by an agent. Poetry is a good example of this, and academic, professional and the large majority of educational books are usually commissioned direct from the publisher. Thus, if you’re writing in these fields, it is possible — provided you have the right credentials as an author, a well-argued proposal and quality script — to have your non-fiction book accepted by a publisher without being represented by an agent.
A critical warning here, though. If you are an author that falls into the aforementioned categories it is vital to have an understanding of who you’re writing for. Who is your target market? Basically, works that have an easily identifiable market or niche can be pitched direct to the right publisher or publishers that publish in that area but don’t waste your time, or that of the publishers, by failing to do research around who publishes the type of book you have to offer. Also, check whether that particular publisher accepts unsolicited proposals. In the case of non-fiction, this would usually be a full chapter outline or synopsis and a sample chapter along with your cover letter which includes knowledge of your intended readership or market.
Tips for finding a literary agent
Whether you need to submit your work to a traditional publisher via an agent or not, an integral part of your work as an author — if you’re to do your writing the justice it deserves — is to carry out research. Are they likely to be interested in your work? Are you meeting their submission criteria? Have you put together a convincing, professional and engaging pitch? All of which brings me neatly back to some further advice on things to consider about the process of submitting to a literary agent.
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Before you submit ask yourself this question: Is my manuscript ready? Is it the very best it can be? You only have one shot with each agent you approach, so make it a brilliant pitch they can’t afford to ignore. Have you researched who might be the best agent for you and your writing? Are there new agents setting up who are actively looking to commission new writers? There is no point in contacting an agent who has closed their books to new submissions. (It’s worth remembering that agents spend a lot of their time looking after the interests of their existing clients and that most will take on just a couple of new writers in a year because of that).
So competition is stiff, but finding the right agent with whom to work and develop is likely to be a highly rewarding experience. Is my manuscript ready? Is it the very best it can be? An agent is a business partner (they take a cut, typically 15%, of any revenue you make from the sale of your book and other rights), but one you should be able to turn to for advice. Many authors and agents speak of the close relationship they develop, as over time the agent takes the form of negotiator into an editorial advisor, gatekeeper, literary confidante and even a friend. A handy person to have in your corner, I’d say.
Do you agree with Alysoun's perspective on literary agents? What's your personal experience been with agents? Let us know your thoughts, or ask Alysoun any questions, in the comments below!