In today’s world, does an author need an agent?

November 5, 2012 | Written by Chip MacGregor

I’ve just returned from our annual MacGregor Market Seminar (we host a free gathering each year for the authors we represent, just to talk about how they can effectively market their books), and while I was gone I received a bunch of questions regarding agents. My guess is that one of the Pied Pipers Of Publishing Wisdom has once again declared that agents are unnecessary and agenting is dead. So… Do you need an agent? If so, why? If not, why not? How will you know if you need an agent? What should an agent do for you? And what will an agent NOT do for you? How do you go about finding an agent? What questions should you ask if you run into one in the wild?

Here are some agenty thoughts…

1. Do you need an agent? That depends. I suppose I’m not an evangelist for agents, though most publishers have moved toward relying on agents more and more. If you’re not a proven writer, or if you don’t have a completed novel manuscript, you may not need an agent, since you may not be READY for an agent. If you don’t allow others to critique your work or you can’t take rejection, you definitely don’t need an agent. If you understand and enjoy both negotiations and the inner workings of publishing contracts, you may not need an agent. (I’m not being facetious…some people like that stuff. They’re probably off their medication.) If you’re sure you can write, post, market and sell your works and maximize their value without any experienced help, you might not need an agent. Finally, if you feel like you are “losing” fifteen per cent of your writing income, rather than investing it for help with ideas, writing, editing, proposals, negotiations, and ensuring contract compliance, then you aren’t ready for an agent. But if you plan to take the business of writing book seriously, and to make either a part-time or full-time living at it, then yeah, you probably need an agent.

2. How will I know I need an agent? Most likely the agent fairy will arrive and sprinkle “publishing dust” on you while you sleep. Or, if you have a dynamite idea and proposal, that may help, too. If you’re talking with people in the industry already, and they’re encouraging you to seek publication, you may find it helpful to talk with an agent. And if you don’t have any connections at all in publishing, you’ll probably have to work with an agent to get your foot in the door. You may want to ask around and talk to experienced authors at conferences and publishing events.

3. What should an agent do for me? An agent should help you evaluate ideas, including following publishing trends. He or she should help you create great proposals. Help you know the industry. Tell you the truth. Get you editing or writing help if you need it. Introduce your work to key acquisition people. Sell your proposal. Negotiate a good deal for you, paying special attention to key contract issues. Help you create a partnership with your publisher. Ensure contract compliance. Be a pain when you need someone to kick you in the rear. Take your part when there is a disagreement with the publisher. Read a royalty statement and spot errors (most royalty statements were created by lawyers — they are considered “successful” only when they are totally indecipherable). Be conversant with marketing/publicist types, and assist in some areas of your marketing. Be your biggest fan and encourager. Assist you with career planning. Champion your projects. Grow with you over time.

4. What should an agent NOT do for me? Write your books. Be your mom. Handle your personal finances. Vacuum. There’s not really ONE author/agent relationship. Some authors want to talk over ideas, others don’t care one bit what an agent thinks of their ideas. Some want the agent to completely handle the contract, others want to be part of the entire contract negotiation. If you figure out what you need, it’ll be easier.

5. How do I go about finding an agent? You can look in any of the “find an agent” books that are on the market (check out Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents). You can meet agents at writer’s conferences. You can meet them at BEA or at publishing functions like a writing conference or RWA or ACFW or an editor’s conference. You can send in your stuff, or stop by and introduce yourself. But the key thought is that you should create a good presentation – after all, when you talk to an agent, you are selling yourself. So put together a cover letter that tells about YOU. Include your previous writing and book sales, if you have any. Show the agent a great proposal — in fact, have it ready to show to publishers. And be ready to talk about yourself, your books, your ideas, and your platform. An author who shows huge potential for the future is much more apt to link up with an agent.

6. What questions should I ask if I run into one? I was once on an agent panel at a writer’s conference in which everybody was asking all the wrong questions. One person who had, like, two weeks experience as an agent, was blabbering away as though he was Mr. Experience. Um…having done this job for several years, it’s my view that it takes somebody at least a year to figure out what a good agent is and does. So, while I know I’ve mentioned this before, some questions to ask the next time you spot an agent in the wild might include:

-How long have you been doing this?

-How many contracts have you negotiated for authors?

-Who do you represent?

-Which imprints and editorial personnel have you done deals with?

-What sort of authors and projects do you represent?

-What do you like to read? (Ask for titles.)

-Can you give me a book title you sold that you loved?

-Can you give me a book idea you generated that you loved?

-What would you say are your best skills?

-What’s unique about your agency?

-What percentage do you earn on a book deal?

-Are there any hidden fees or charges? Any up-front costs? Do you charge back your expenses?

-Have you ever worked in publishing or done any editing or writing? (If the answer is “no,” ask yourself if this agent can give you what you need.)

-How do you approach career planning?

-Do you work by yourself?

-Are you full time?

That should get you started. Just so you know, there are some WONDERFUL agents out there — people I really respect and admire; people who I wouldn’t mind asking to represent ME. And then there are… um… some not-quite-so great agents. People who I wouldn’t have represent me. Or you. Or my dog, should he decide to start writing.

Yeah, I apologize if this comes across as self-serving, since I make my living as an agent. But I just came back a bunch of questions on this topic and thought it might prove helpful to some of you who are in the market and trying to make wise choices.

Posted in Agents, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing

  • John Robinson

    There’s no doubt I need an agent, a great agent. And I have one, Chip, in you. Glad you’re safely back home.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks for the compliment, John.

  • Karen Morris

    Hmm…so what I think you’re saying is we still need agents…? ;-)

    I, personally, would love to have one. So I will continue to write and hone my skills, in the pursuit of attracting one in the future. Because I agree-I would feel much better putting my career in the hands of a reputable agent than spend the next 30 years floundering on my own.

    • chipmacgregor

      Yeah, I think that makes sense. And all those authors who self-pub and succeed? They suddenly find themselves looking for some experienced person to help them negotiate the path.

  • Keri Wyatt Kent

    Great post, Chip. Sending several aspiring authors here to read it.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks, Keri!

      • Angie Mabry-Nauta

        I’m one who stopped by because of Keri’s recommendation. :) I’m also about to begin querying, as I JUST completed my book proposal. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Ruth Taylor

    In regards to #6, I had an agent at the ACFW conference emphasize how important it is to choose your agent wisely. He said to be very cautious about the ones who are “building their client lists”, as many times they have little or no experience. There are no qualifications, licenses or anything else required to become a literary agent, so jumping the gun just because a writer feels desperate for an agent can be very damaging to his/her career in publishing.

    I’m 100% convinced, and have been for a long time, that a serious writer who wants to be published NEEDS an agent. And not just any agent they can find – the one that is right for their work, and vice versa. It has to be a mutual fit.

    • chipmacgregor

      That’s correct, Ruth. Too many authors think they need “an” agent. In point of fact, they need “the right” agent.