Word of mouth can be a wonderful thing. I learn about new markets that way. I learn about cool books I haven’t read yet that way. I learn about resource websites that way. But I also read a lot of things that are spread as truth that are actually myths. Some contain a kernel of truth. Some contain none at all and just grew out of frustration. And some of the most believed writing myths on the ‘net surround agents. Let’s look at some.
Publishers use agents because they don’t want to buy from new writers.
This is a biggie, and is patently false. Editors don’t want to wade through slush piles filed with unready manuscripts. These would be manuscripts without plots, manuscripts with poor writing, manuscripts that are completely inappropriate for that publisher. Many of that kind of manuscripts do come from new writers, but it isn’t the “newness” that publishers don’t like, it’s the unreadiness. So they count on agents to weed out the unready, but to keep sending the new. They actually like new writers. Novelty is something the publicity department seeks out to hang their campaigns on, and they’ll make a big noise about this being your “debut” book. New writers don’t come with the baggage of past failed books, so they aren’t scared away by your “new” as long as you get a clue.
If you want a writing career, you must have an agent.
This is not true, though sometimes it is true. It’s difficult to have a novel writing career without an agent, but if you’re a writer of nonfiction or picture books or you don’t mind doing work for hire, you can have a busy career totally without an agent. I make a solid living writing books – mostly novels, but also some chapter books and nonfiction. I don’t have an agent. But I write FOR publishers. They hire me and I write a book. So I have to be able to write to someone else’s specifications. It’s not for everyone – but it is writing you can do with no agent. I also know many nonfiction writers without agents and picture book writers without agents. Agents in all these areas can have value, but they are not a necessity. The primary value of agents is in placing novels with larger publishers, and with handling the details of the deal. But they are not the only way to have a writing career.
Agents are just one more hoop you have to jump through.
Not necessarily one more, just a different one. Technically, once you get the agent, then that person gets to jump through the hopes while you sit twitching on the edge of your chair waiting for news about your book. Some agents will help you work through revisions of your book to make it more enticing to publishers. Some agents will not. They acquire books that feel are ready as they are. The reality is that every agent is different, and the best agent is the one that
- loves the kind of writing you do, and
- has the connections to sell the kind of work you do, and
- has a personal style you can live with.
In other words, in the agent hunt, don’t forget the “you” part in a desperate hurry to have an agent–– any agent. An agent will do the best job for you if they work well with you. That’s why research is so important. It’s not just about learning to jump through the hoops. It’s about connecting with an agent who will lead to making your writing career jump ahead. Thankfully, the Internet abounds with information about agents. Sure, it’ll take time to make up a potential agent list in an informed manner, and it’s not the most fun part of being a writer––but if you invest the time, the energy, and a little bit of frustration, you can make a connection that pushes your career ahead by miles. So don’t let the myths derail you.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.