November 26, 2020
Maybe It's An Agent
For writers with high concept books (works that can be summed up in a few, movie-poster type words) or who are writing primarily young adult novels, you may not need to spend more time building market lists, especially if the markets you find that fit your work best are closed to unagented writers. What you might need is an agent who can expand the number of markets available to you.
Literary Agents aren't for everyone. Sometimes writers build whole careers with no involvement of an agent (For examples, I've had over 100 books published without an agent.) Other writers cannot imagine working without an agent. Agents survive on a percentage of the money that their clients receive when the agents sells the publication rights to a publisher. In this way, a literary agent works a bit like a real estate agent—if the agent doesn't make a sale, the agent doesn't get paid. This arrangement can be both good and bad for a writer.
Having a literary agent can mean having someone on your side who has read dozens of contracts and understands what each thing in the contract means. It can mean having someone who knows where there is room to ask for more and where there is not. It can mean having access to bigger publishing houses and bigger publishing deals. If the agent has great connections, it can also make the process faster.
Depending on the agent, it can mean having someone on your side who can guide you toward revisions that will make your book easier and quicker to sell. If the agent is from one of the bigger agencies, it can mean you have the might of the agency behind you, making it less likely that a publisher will try to insist their boiler plate contract is unchangeable. All of these can be good things, because they result in more money for you (and for the agent as a result.)
Because agents regularly target large publishers who can pay more money, you also tend to get all the perks of working with larger publishing including longer reach to get your books into big box bookstores and open other promotional doors. So does all this mean you definitely want an agent? Maybe not.
Having a literary agent often means a real push toward big publishers. This can sometimes overlook publishers who won't pay as much, but might be a better fit with your manuscript. Sometimes smaller publishers can also be more patient as a book finds its feet in the marketplace. Big publishers have big expenses so they tend to use their reach to push books out into the marketplace, but then they move on to the next book, so whether your book sinks or swims, it better do it quickly.
Having a literary agent also means part of whatever deal you get goes to the agent. That is usually quite fair. The agents opened a door that was closed to you, helped you navigate the contract, and pushed for the best possible deal. The odds are you got more money because you had an agent, even with the agent's cut coming out.
Having a literary agent can be one more person pushing you to change your book in ways you don't really like to make it more marketable. Now, most literary agents are extremely respectful of their clients, and they want you to love the book after revisions as much as you loved it before revisions (if not more). But there have been stories of writers who felt pushed into revisions that they felt bad about (adding sex scenes to a YA novel, for instance, or changing a main character in a chapter book from a girl to a boy, etc).
Not every writer needs a literary agent. And agents say the vast number of submissions they receive aren't ready for a literary agent, because they aren't ready to be published. Some writers will start sending manuscripts to agents in the hope of cutting the revision process (why should I revise and revise when the agent is just going to ask me to revise again?). Anytime a writer sends out a manuscript that is not ready, they only add time and frustration to the process. Agents don't take on a submission when it's obvious the writer hasn't properly worked through their own revision process. For one thing, this tends to suggest the writer is averse to revision, and that is a huge headache for an agent.
Even if you have worked the revision process again and again and you know your work shines, a literary agent isn't necessarily right for you. Agents depend on sales to support themselves. If your book is not going to work for the publishers who pay out well, many agents will shy away from it, simply for their own survival. Agents often look for the books their contacts in the business want right now. Agents know what publishers are looking for and they tend to look for books that will make a quick connection. This means an agent may turn down a book that is ready for publication. This is why it is essential not to take agent rejections personally. A reject usually means “this book isn’t a good match for the connections I have” rather than a value judgement on the work or your skills as a writer.
Some agents will fall in love with a tough book to sell and will sign one simply out of that passion for the project. To that agent, the work will be worth it because the book is special to them, but both agent and writer may be in for a long slow process in making a publishing connection for the work. Agents cannot afford to do this often, but most agents who have been in the business for a while will have stories of these kinds of projects.
Just as there are bad publishers, there are bad agents. Some are accidentally bad (because they mean well but don't have the experience to do their work well). Some do things that are frowned on in the industry (charging you for helping with your manuscript or charging you a reading fee). Be aware of the reputation of the agents you're considering.
And when you make an agent connection, think it through. Not all good agents will be a good fit for you. So find out how hard/easy it will be to end the relationship if things don't work out. Find out if the agent has only agreed to representing you for this particular project (which is becoming more and more common) or signing you on with an eye to representing most, if not all, of your future work. Read the agency agreement carefully so you know what you're promising. For instance, is the agent going to allow you to sell projects on your own or do all sales have to go through them? If they allow you to sell a project on your own, are they going to expect a cut? All of these questions need to be considered before you make your final decision.
The final truth is simple, your publishing journey is yours alone. What works for you may not be right for someone else. What worked for someone else, may not be helpful to you at all. So do your research. Keep your eyes open and your head clear. And choose the path you understand and that seems right for your project. We’re all in the middle of a learning curve somewhere. If we do the work and the research, we’ll come out of it smarter and more successful.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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