Writer's Grove

On the Necessity of Agents

October 16, 2009

Okay, okay: you don’t need an agent. Unagented writers happen, and they will continue to happen, though their appearance is about as predictable as a lightning strike. You might be a bolt of lightning and your book will one day shock the world. So let me explain why you may want an agent.

Agents can submit your book simultaneously to as many publishers as they want. Publishers let them do that kind of stuff because the agents know them, take them out to lunch, etc. There’s a personal relationship there that you don’t have; an agent can pick up the phone and talk to an editor right now, and let that editor know she’s about to receive your completely spiffy book and she won’t want to put it down. Said editor will drop whatever she’s reading from the slush pile and read the agent submission instead.

As an unknown author, you can’t do that. If you pick up the phone and call an editor without being invited to do so, you’ve probably destroyed your chances of getting published there. You have to submit your work exclusively to one publisher at a time and wait for them to get around to you in the slush pile—and it can be a long wait, because agent submissions take precedence over yours.

Case in point: I submitted one novel to a publisher (who shall remain nameless) and they sat on it for a whole year. Imagine a year of nail-biting suspense with concomitant acid indigestion: it’s not fun. To take my mind off the fact that I still had no news, I wrote a different novel—HOUNDED, as a matter of fact—and found an agent who wanted to represent it. My agent submitted HOUNDED to the same publisher and they bid on it in two weeks. They also got around to finally rejecting the first novel I sent them! (I’ll work on that—it’ll get out there eventually!)

Selling your book quickly is the first reason why you might want an agent: they can simply do it faster than you because they can make editors take notice of your work. The second reason to have an agent is that they take care of things like contracts and overseas sales and negotiations over rights and endless other minutiae that you, as a creative person, are probably not built to handle well. When Evan (my agent) just says the word “boilerplate,” my eyes begin to glaze over, and that’s before he gets into any details.

The third (and probably best) reason to want an agent is that you’ll have a partner in your writing career who wants you to do well, because he or she will prosper as you prosper. And that partner is looking out for your long-term business interests, keeping a finger on the pulse of the market, and pushing you to grow creatively.

I’ll post a separate entry on my actual quest for an agent and offer some tips for those who don’t have one yet.

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