Somebody famous said it. I’m sure of it. I think it was a guy, and I’m pretty sure he was a writer.
He(?) said, “Don’t get an agent until you are making enough to afford a good one, because 10% of nothing is nothing.”
Essentially, a literary agent’s job is to say, “Okay, you write. I’ll distract ’em!” Agents act as a buffer between you and those publishers seemingly compelled to say “No!” to any question asked them. They sniff out Mr. Grinch clauses from contracts. They are marketing managers. They walk into your life to handle the business side of writing after you have become so successful you no longer have time to write and sell. You need one when the percentage of his commission from your sales is big enough to snag his attention and when your schedule demands outweighs the expense.
You don’t need one for short stories.
You don’t need one for a first novel.
You don’t need one to get your book on the Amazon Kindle Store.
Picking an agent ranks somewhere around the difficulty level of teaching cats to whistle. Otherwise reputable resources swell with the names of No-License-Required professionals promising that with minimal effort you’ll quit your day job and be a millionaire and fart nothing but rainbows and roses. So, the first disadvantage is that you can easily get scammed.
Even if they are legitimate, no agent can guarantee you will get a book deal. Your manuscript being on the right desk at the right time still dominates all other factors, including your talent.
Will an agent steal my story? Maybe. Probably not, though, especially since the income of the average successful writer places him somewhere below the poverty line. Being a honest agent probably pays more.
The good news is that some warning signs exist. Harlan Ellison said, “Money always flows toward the writer.” If they are asking for any upfront charges, such as a “reading fee” (sometimes polished with the less threatening epithet of “expenses”) they probably will do little else than relieve you of that pesky disposable income always lying around. The same goes for suggesting an editorial service. Professional agents have enough experience to spot the weaknesses in your book. They would simply ask you for a rewrite.
You need an agent. No other choice. I know, you’re probably wondering right now whether I actually read the first few paragraphs of this post. The truth is most big publishing houses will not accept unagented material. Editors don’t have time to slog through the stacks of manuscripts written by wide-eyed gonna-be writers who have not yet figured out that opening with “It was a dark and stormy night,” is not the height of originality.
Of course, this creates a Catch-22: How do I get published without an agent? You make noise in the publishing world. You get accepted by anthologies and magazines (the few remaining) frequently enough your name starts getting remembered. You submit quality work to Amazon and learn as much as you can about marketing so that your ebook sales get noticed. Then, you use these events as collateral to approach an agent.
Agented manuscripts skip the slush pile. The slush pile is the haystack and your manuscript is the needle. It is the bottom level of any publishing house where sits the vast stacks of unrepresented submissions, most of which are not yet professional quality. The slush pile provides the reason most publishers refuse unagented material. For those rarities who still do (or temporarily open for unsolicited work), a junior-level editor slips your manuscript from its 4th-class manila envelope just far enough to read the first paragraph, before immediately tossing it into the recycle bin. If an SASE happens to fall out, the editor will kindly add a “Your material does not meet our needs at this time” to your form letter collection.
When an agent is involved, you benefit from the fact that your representative might be on a first-name basis with the person directly responsible for getting your material onto store shelves. It is human nature to be more likely to buy from someone we know and trust. At very least, the editor looks at the contact information and thinks, “Hm, this is one of Shirley’s clients. She’s a sharpshooter for hitting Amazon sales. Let’s see if her newest keeps me turning pages after the first chapter.” If the editor accepts the submission, the agent then helps leverage the quality of your life for the next year — namely money.
Chris Rock said that the definition of minimum wage is “I would pay you less but it is against the law.” Like any business, publishers exist to make the highest profit possible, not to pay writers more than the value of their product. An agent negotiates higher advances, movie deals, and generally ensures you are not paid less than the value of your product.
But long before the talks of royalties and foreign rights, agents help mold you into a better writer. Their income depends on how good you really are. They have enough experience to know what sells. They are not your well-meaning spouse or your mother and less likely to gush platitudes like, “Sweetie, you’re so talented!” and more likely to say things like, “Um, you know your burly, profanity-spewing homicide detective? Your target audience is not going to accept him with the name Bubbles.”
Finding an Agent
Landing an agent is a lot like landing a publisher. Most provide submission guidelines, as to whether they wish to see the entire manuscript or the first three chapters and an outline. They may prefer not to receive electronic submissions. Research before sending.
Several publications offer good places to start. Each year Writer’s Digest Books publishes the Writer’s Market, and Information Today Inc. prints an equally good counterpart, the Literary Marketplace. (I provided links to the Amazon page for each book below.) Note, however, the copyright of the book as these listings can become dated quickly.
On the Net, AgentQuery.com aims to be (as stated on their website) ” the only one-stop writer’s resource on the web about literary agents and publishing.” They host a database of 900 agents that can be searched by genre or keyword. Best of all, you do not have to register to search.
The quest for a literary agent is an exercise in patience. It is part of the apprenticeship period, providing an opportunity to learn how publishing works as opposed to the popular romantic view of being a writer. You’ll be grateful to be armed with this experience when your time comes.