Do You Need a Literary Agent?

Speaking of all the various ways the publishing world has changed, just in the last decade…let’s talk about literary agents.

Once upon a time, agents were virtually mandatory, because the only way to get your story into the hands of readers was to sell it to a publisher, and most major publishers would not accept “unsolicited” manuscripts, preferring to get work from agents. Was this because agents sprinkled magic fairy dust on them that made them better? No. Was this because anything an agent liked would automatically be liked by publishers? No. The agents were simply gatekeepers. Publishers assumed agents would separate the wheat from the chaff, that is, reject the completely unpublishable, so they could focus on choosing amongst the remainders.

This system worked well for publishing houses. Less so for writers. In the first place, agents were hard to come by. Queries worked infrequently. Face-to-face meetings were better, but no one could afford to go to all the writer conferences out there, and some conferences promoted agents that were less than ideal. And even after that holy grail agent was obtained, they were no guarantee of publication–and typically took 20% of a writer’s already meager earnings. And you could never get them on the phone…

More than one writer thought, there must be a better way.

Now of course, there is. For the first time ever, self-publishing is viable. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily what you want. Some people–ok, probably everyone–would rather write than run a business. Some people dread marketing and social media–though they will need to do both even if they land a major publisher. But self-publishing rarely results in books in bookstores, or flashy hardcovers you can show off to your mother or zealously competitive siblings. What’s best?

To some extent, the best course depends on what you’re writing, but if you’re writing anything remotely resembling commercial fiction, I advise starting with trying to get an agent and print publisher. Give yourself a deadline. If you work it hard but don’t get there in three years, maybe it’s time to consider independent publishing. But that assumes you’ve worked it hard. Which means sending out queries, attending conferences, giving pitches (don’t worry–no one else enjoys this any more than you do), and seeing if you can find your way into a comfortable New York berth. The stakes are high. It’s worth the effort, especially early on, when you’re still building a career and a following.

I’ve mentioned this before, but at my annual conference, I am quite choosy about who I invite. Agents aren’t there unless they are reputable and have a substantial list of successful sales. I don’t promote anyone I wouldn’t have for an agent myself–in fact, several of the speakers have worked for me in the past. I have seen people at my conferences land agents who got them substantial publishing contracts–and to me, that’s what it’s all about.

If you think an agent is something you might like, I know a great opportunity for you to find one. Come to my writers conference September 22-23. In between sessions, we can chat about your work and your plans and try to get you what you need to succeed. I’d like to see you become the next publishing success story.

Schedule and registration info: https://www.rose.edu/content/business-community/community-learning-center/writers-symposium-2017/

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