Your book is finished. You’ve slaved over it, loved it, cut it to pieces and put it back together, even read through it backwards just to make sure that every word was spelled correctly. It’s ready. So what do you do next? There are several options available now that weren’t available to authors before, such as self-publishing and internet publishing, but traditionally there were two routes: send it directly to publishing houses, or find an agent.
Why would you want an agent? Why would you seek a middle man to take a commission for your literary baby being published? What do agents even do?
Well, those are all excellent questions. I’m glad you asked.
The first thing that agents do is provide a filter for the publishing industry. Editors are swamped with submissions and the unsolicited manuscripts they receive (meaning the ones that show up in the mail that the editor did not request) are all put in the slush pile. It may take them 6-8 months to even get to your manuscript, and they know before they open it that this is just you, John Doe writer, who thinks that your book is incredible.
Agents are selective about the projects they take on, and so if a manuscript is recommended to an editor by an agent, the editor is more likely to read it sooner and consider it. The editor knows this manuscript has already been vetted by one level of the publishing industry, which gives you and your story credibility. As I was researching this, on one author’s blog he even mentioned that with editors so busy it’s rare for publishers to even consider unagented submissions. Can you get published without an agent? Yes, but it’s harder, and we’ll talk about how to do that later.
Now that you’ve found your agent (to find an agent, go to my Query and Cover Letters page to learn how to contact them), what do they do for you besides add a level of professionalism? They help you make your manuscript stronger. The publishing world is very competitive, and most literary agents do their job because they honestly love books. Your agent will help you edit your novel and offer suggestions for revisions. Now you are allowed to take or leave these suggestions, but may I recommend that you TAKE THEM. Agents offer a fresh perspective that is weighted with years of experience. Love your story enough to want to make it the best it can be. Don’t smother it. And if you and your agent don’t get along? Drop them and find another one. A good agent may even recommend someone else whom they think you will be better suited to work with.
Because agents have worked in the publishing industry, usually for years as an assistant before becoming an agent in their own right, they have a lot of networking hours lodged. Your agent will have gone to conventions, workshops, and other industry events. There they meet editors and form relationships with them. They have represented other clients and helped them get published, and worked with publishing houses to do so. There will be editors that your agent knows personally. Agents also research the market and submission guidelines, editor’s preferences and publishing house genres. They will know to whom to submit your manuscript, how, and when. And then they can pester those editors until they get a response. If you tried that, the editor would likely trash your manuscript without even opening it.
It is worth mentioning at this point your agent has done all of this without getting paid for any of it. You don’t pay your agent. The agent earns a commission of the sale of your manuscript, so they don’t get paid if you don’t. This is referred to as having skin in the game. Getting you published matters to them because that’s how they earn their living. If you encounter any offers by any agency who wants you to pay up front, WALK AWAY. There are no fees, no costs to finding an agent. Anyone who says there are is trying to scam you.
And having an agent is not a guarantee of publication. They could spend hundreds of hours on your project and still come up empty. But they represented your manuscript because they believe in it. That alone can make it worth it.
But then, if everything goes well, an offer comes in. (Time out for joy-dancing. Go ahead, I’ll wait. I have mine all planned out.) The agent helps you, the author, decide what comes next. Initial offers are usually not that much money- authors do not become wealthy by selling manuscripts to publishing houses. Your agent can let you know if it’s a good offer, but they can also negotiate it upwards. There are legal contracts involved, and the agent will make sure all the details are in line and correct and explain anything that isn’t clear, and take any questions you have to the publisher. Once everything is right, then your agent will submit the contract for your signature. So another great perk of having an agent is not needing to be versed in contract law.
The agent will also follow along the publication process. They’ll follow up on payments and stay on top of publishers until payments come in. Your agent will mediate any disputes between you and the publisher, keep track of important dates, and discuss marketing strategies. Publishing houses are excellent at getting your book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but terrible at promoting it for sale. We’ll talk about how to promote yourself and your work later, too.
And then there are subrights. Have you heard of subrights? These are the rights to use your manuscript for film, audio, and translation, which can be sold directly and not through the publisher. These rights can be very profitable if your book is successful, and your agent can include clauses in the publishing contract to ensure that you retain these subrights. That way if your book is made into a movie, you don’t split the revenue with your publisher. Your agent still gets a commission, as they should, because they’re the ones setting all this up for you.
So your book is sold, you’ve got a solid contract, and the publisher has set a publication date. Do you still need your agent? YES. Your agent isn’t through with you or done believing in you. Agents can help you plan your career trajectory and decide where to go next. They can brainstorm how to get you in front of larger audiences. Agents can be a sounding board, help you decide what projects to pursue, keep you updated on changes in the publishing industry, and generally help you navigate through where you should be going next.
There’s even more to it than all this. The agent is the author’s ultimate advocate and champion, whose entire job is to help advance you. Why wouldn’t you want one?