Fiction Reboot: Do you need an agent?

Publishing. Seems a bit like magic, doesn’t it? You spent long hours on that manuscript, but sadly, when it’s complete, no wand-wielding magician turns up to shazzam it into a market success. This leads me to our focus today:

Do you need an agent?

I hear that question a lot. And, to be fair, I’ve asked it a few times myself. I have always found the answer to be a resounding YES… but to be honest, it very much depends on your personal aims.

Let’s take this in steps. The first question you should ask is not do I need an agent, but who am I writing for? Writing for friends and family? Passing around a group of colleagues or classmates for fun? Then you probably don’t need one. Self-publishing? Then an agent might not be necessary (please see the interview with David Bain—he has worked in small press and in self-publishing). However, if you are writing for a large audience and want to see your worked picked up by a press (major or minor), then an agent is very valuable. Here are some reasons why:

  • Many publishing houses (especially the bigger ones) do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. If you send it, they won’t read it. You must work through a trusted agent.
  • Most of us are juggling more than one career to write in the first place. We don’t have time to be our own agents, too. The work of an agent is complicated and there are legal matters to consider, too—even if you get the attention of a publisher, not everyone is great at contract negotiation.
  • We all need a cheer-leader, someone who believes in the work and knows the industry. An agent can help you understand the niche and make suggestions, too.
  • And finally…they know more than you about publishing. It is, after all, their job. Many of them are authors, too—like Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency.

Traditional Avenues:

Great. You have decided that you want to publish to a wide audience and would like a bigger publishing house. Now what? How on earth do you land an agent in the first place? There is a nice little how-to on Poets&Writer. Here are some other basics:

  1. Find a list specific to your genre. You can do this a number of ways—including buying a book at the local bookstore (Writer’s Market, etc.) or finding out who represents your favorite authors. You can also join a society (for YA, I like SCBWI). That is useful for more than one reason: regional conferences, useful articles, great speakers…and published directories. SCBWI also provides great insight on what agents can do for you. Check that out here:
  2. Write the query letter, synopsis and author bio. Almost every agent wants to see some combination of these things. AND PLEASE NOTE: there are ways to do this correctly. Lots of references exist (Query from Charlotte Dillon, Query from SCBWI). The smartest idea is to see what the agents on your list want; do some research. They often have blogs and websites.
  3. Continue that research! Do not just send any old thing any old way. Check the agency’s site and make sure you are sending ONLY what they want. If they only do email, do email. If they only do snail mail, do snail mail. You want to be remembered for great writing, not for doing things the wrong way!
  4. Keep track! Make sure you know who you have sent what to, when. I keep a spreadsheet.
  5. Take heart! It takes time to find the right agent. Many published authors will tell you they sent out fifty to a hundred (or more) queries before getting a nibble. Don’t be discouraged by rejection…but you should also take care to revise if none of your letters get you in the door. Try new things. Have several versions. Keep working it.
  6. Tweet! That’s right, we are in the age of online networking. I follow authors and agents alike, and I get very helpful information that way.
  7. Check to see what else the agents are saying. Here is a great interview with Donald Maass, of the Donald Maass Agency.
  8. Be Patient. This takes time. But don’t just cool your heels; use the intervening time to tweak, to edit, to revise. Authors should always be writing. Finishing the novel is just the beginning.

Non-Traditional Publishing

But wait—what if you don’t want to publish in the traditional venue? Well, we are seeing a lot more of that, too. Once rarely considered, ebook publishing and other options are gaining favor. With kindle, it is even easier to get your work to the world (again, see David Bain’s interview from last Thursday). The Fiction Factor has a bit to say about attracting an editor without an agent, and the Authors Speak blog has a nice article on self-publishing:

Those fiction conferences can also be a way of meeting editors without an agent; sometimes even closed publishing houses will make exceptions for those who attend certain lectures, etc. Networking is as golden in this industry as the next.

For most of my work, I still try to work with an agent, but you will see that none of the authors interviewed here have given exactly the same response to questions about agents and representation. In the end, you have to discover what works for you and your goals. I’ll close with wise words from the SCBWI agent listing: no matter what you decide, always be respectful and professional.

“Whatever you decide – to seek representation by an agent, the advice of a literary lawyer, or to market and negotiate on your own behalf – remember to be professional in your approach and always include a SASE with any [paper] correspondence.”


Tune in tomorrow for advice about the writing schedule, and remember, this week we are interviewing Alex Grecian, best-selling author of The Yard.

One Reply to “Fiction Reboot: Do you need an agent?”

  1. I’m somebody who’s really just starting out in the adventure to become a published writer. This post was exactly the most invaluable resource I’ve found. Thank you for posting it.

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