(Remixed from a post over two years ago, when self-publishing wasn't quite the thing it is now. I'm still of the opinion that agents are a Very Good Thing. Opinions on self-publishing can be found here.)
When I first started querying, I didn't know if I should query agents or editors. I
was only vaguely aware of what agents did. Based on my experience with
real estate agents, I knew they handled the legal stuff and took a cut,
that was about it.
I wanted help with the legal stuff, and
preferred an agent to a lawyer. I figured I'd get one eventually, but I
wasn't very adamant about it back then. Two things tipped me over the
The first (though I
don't remember where I read it) was this: say you submit to all the
hundreds of agents and they reject your work. You can still submit to
But, if you submit to all those editors who accept unagented queries and they reject you, any agent you get afterward will be quite disappointed to find half their prospective editors already said no.
* Though if all the agents are rejecting you, I don't know why you'd expect different from the editors.
The second was Tobias Buckell's author advance survey.
I love statistics, and Tobias got some good ones from a decent sampling
of authors. If you're at all interested in what authors make, I suggest
you read it. But basically: the median advance for first-time authors
with an agent was $6,000; the median advance to the unagented was
Some quick math: the agent's cut is 15%. For the agented
authors, then, the net gain was $5,100. Still significantly more than
that of the unagented.
As far as I know, that 15% is the only downside
to having an agent. If agents are making back 3x that, while
simultaneously haggling for your rights, selling those rights for more
money, and generally ensuring you don't get screwed -- all while you are
busy with the task of actually writing -- the choice of agent or no
seems like a no-brainer.
(From a publisher's point of view, it seems to me
that they could save a lot of money by encouraging writers to
submit to them unagented. But then Moonrat has a good list
of reasons why editors would prefer to work with agents anyway. So there you go).