Why Should You Get an Agent?

(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 edge.

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 the editors.*

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 $3,500.

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).


Matthew MacNish said...

I remember vividly the day I decided I'd written something worth publishing, and I went right to the Houghton-Mifflin website, because they'd published Tolkien in the US, and discovered the fact that there was such a thing as a literary agent. Five years later, I'm still trying to find one.

R.S. Bohn said...

Interesting and pragmatic view towards agent vs. unagented. Really, it just cements further for me why I'd want one, but I think for those on the fence, it's good info.

Diana Stevan said...

You've given more reasons why it's good to get an agent, even in this day of wild west self-publishing. I also think an agent can point out the flaws which tend to get missed with a lot of self-publishing. As I want to put my best foot forward, I'll keep trying to get an agent.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I think Tobias' numbers are likely out-of-date, with advances trending down, but those numbers are still reasonably close. Most notably, I think the differential between agented vs. unagented is probably still the same - at least partially due to the fact that the editors that take unagented submissions tend to be at smaller houses that don't pay as large of advances (or any advance at all).

I'm curious if your views on self-publishing have changed at all since your September post? One data point I can provide: my self-pub novel has outearned that "median advance" in the first 6 mos - and I know a lot of self-pubbers who do better than I do (as well as many who don't).

I still am gloriously happy that you've landed an agent for one simple reason: it was part of your dream. :)

Angela Brown said...

This is some very intersting information. I'm wondering about the flexible author, the one who decides to send one MS out to agents, a different MS out to editors that accept unagented MS's and also self-publish a novella. Hmmm...

Susan Spann said...

Very good advice. Another advantage to working with an agent (for authors who choose the traditional publishing route) is a "second set of eyes" on each new manuscript and a business partner to discuss career choices and actions. An agent also has experience in the "peripheral" parts of the industry that can help authors immeasurably.

One example: many new authors have no idea how to handle blurb and interview requests. An agent may know authors to ask, and can help the author determine which sources might be best or most likely to consent to interviews and blurbs.

There are many more reasons, too.

That said, an author who decides (for the right, considered reasons) to follow the independent road may get that advice from more senior authors, attorneys and other contacts.

Authors wanting to pursue traditional publication are still much better off with an agent, though.

Adam Heine said...

Both you and Diana (above) bring up great points. When I originally wrote this post, I didn't have an agent.

Now that I do, I can add that my agent is a fantastic writing/crit partner who knows the business better than most of my crit partners (and I have some good ones). She's also an unending source of optimism in an otherwise manic-depressive business :-)

Nancy Thompson said...

I, too, wanted an agent, if for no other reason than to be validated. But after a few short months, I got a little frustrated with the process. Just before I was going to restart querying, I decided to try out my new query (thank you Matthew MacNish) on an editor instead. Well, it stopped right there. They requested the full and made an offer within 2 weeks. It was all so surreal. Then my agented friend made the same book deal a month later. So did it matter in the end? Well, not this time. But I think I'd still like to have an agent...someday...maybe.

(And I agree--those numbers are off in today's marketplace.)