Do You Really Need a Literary Agent?

by Karole Cozzo

Back in 2005, I completed my first manuscript. I was jazzed to learn that I could, in fact, accomplish such a thing, that I could take a story from start to finish without getting bored and starting something new or bowing out because I felt overwhelmed or lost along the way. I started Googling “how you get a book published” and quickly realized (especially back then), that querying and finding a literary agent was a necessary first step in the process, especially if an author had any hope of being considered by well-known publishing companies.

Fast forward to 2018. I’ve sold four books to a Macmillan imprint since 2014, and I still don’t have a literary agent. Through the Swoon Reads website and community, I sold my first novel, and I’ve sold my subsequent novels to Swoon Reads through direct contact with the directors and editors at the imprint.

Beyond Swoon Read’s crowdsourcing approach to book selection and publication, there are several other options for selling books without the assistance of an agent, including self-publishing and smaller publishing companies that are willing to consider manuscripts without the divine intervention of a literary agent. It’s definitely possible to see your work published — in electronic format or on the shelves of brick and mortar stores — without agent representation, but what are the advantages of having a person working on your behalf? I questioned some of my author pals, those with representation and those without, about the positives and negatives associated with the agent search in launching and sustaining publishing careers. Here’s some of what I heard:

The Benefits of Going it Alone . . .

  • Complete control, creative or otherwise. Sometimes, agents request one or more rounds of edits before they’re comfortable submitting your work to a publishing company. It’s likely that if a story is acquired, editors will request additional edits before publication. By this time, your novel may bear little resemblance to the story you initially imagined. These changes may be based on expertise and market knowledge, but some authors are uncomfortable or unhappy with the number of changes that may come along with having an additional person weigh in on his or her work.
  • Increased industry knowledge and opportunities for self-advocacy. When you represent yourself, you have to do the research in order to feel comfortable and confident that you’re doing it right. Instead of relying on someone else to manage your career, the responsibility is in your hands. This provides increased motivation for an author to learn all he or she can about how the industry works, contract nuances, etc. When you’re the sole person working on your behalf, there’s the impetus to become as knowledgeable and informed as possible, and there is complete transparency about contract negotiations, conversations with publishers, and career planning that might not come along with having someone speaking for you.
  • If and when you sell a book, you get to keep all the money! When you’re your own agent, that 10-15% cut goes right to you.

. . . and the Downside

  • You don’t necessarily know what you don’t know. This is probably my greatest concern in going it alone. I don’t necessarily know what’s typical or fair in the industry, and I can review contracts and royalty statements until my eyes cross and still not feel 110% confident that I understand everything I’m reading. There are definitely times I’d love to have someone else to bounce my questions and concerns off of. There is always a lingering fear that I’m missing something really important that an agent would alert me to immediately.
  • Most big-name publishing companies aren’t willing to review your manuscript without it being presented by a literary agent. This is a big one if you’re hoping to reach as broad an audience as possible and one day hold an actual bound copy of your book in your hands.
  • Who do you turn to for career guidance? Maybe you’re looking at branching out to another genre, maybe you want to know if the idea for your new novel is “so yesterday” based on market trends. Maybe you want someone to help you develop realistic and attainable career goals. Without an agent, a lot of this feels like guesswork (trust me), and even if you’ve developed a relationship with a publisher, as you attempt to grow your career, it can be difficult to know what steps are best to take to actually do so.

The Benefits of Having an Agent . . .

  • Advocacy. Several of my writing pals quickly noted that their agents are worth every cent they get, simply because it’s worth it, 10 times over, to feel like there’s someone in their corner and someone looking out for their best interests. One author friend mentioned truly believing “he wants to sell my book as much as I do.” It was also noted that an agent may be working on your behalf even when you don’t hear from him or her, coming up with new plans or ideas to be shared. They may be your biggest cheerleader and your most loyal teammate; as one author friend put it, “they’re not succeeding unless you are.”
  • Contract review and negotiations. I’ll be blunt — attempting to read a publishing contract is like attempting to read Latin. Maybe Chinese, because I often feel like I don’t even recognize the characters! Several of the authors I spoke to mentioned how valuable an agent can be when it comes to contracts. They noted that agents caught things and asked for concessions on points they never would’ve thought of on their own. While agents don’t usually get everything they ask for, they often can get publishers to budge on a few points that you wouldn’t have known or thought to ask for.
  • Contacts. They have connections with those working at the big-name companies. Beyond getting a publishing company to review your work, previously established relationships can make that much easier.

. . . and the Downside

  • That whole sharing your profits thing. Ah yeah … you have to do it. It’s typical for new authors to not earn out on their first books, which means a portion of your advance — maybe the only money you’ll ever see that is often taxed heavily — goes to someone else.
  • Like any other profession, there are good agents and there are bad agents. I’ve heard horror stories about unresponsive agents, agents who disappeared off the face of the earth entirely after signing an author, agents who rarely updated the author on submissions or if submissions were being made at all. It can feel like the process is out of your hands, and if you’re not entirely gelling with your agent, a relationship that seemed like a dream come true can end up leaving you unfulfilled, feeling like your career is being handled by someone you might not have total trust or confidence in.
  • It’s really hard to get one, and the query process can be (okay, let’s just say always is) nerve-wracking, frustrating, and disheartening. Rejection from agent upon agent upon agent can really shake an author’s confidence. An agent I follow on twitter recently shared the following: “I just organized my inbox, so some #querystats! I was open to queries for 9.5 months last year. Here is what that looked like: 3, 615 queries received; 89 fulls requested from queries; 124 fulls (or partials read); 4 clients signed.” I’ll do the math for you — in this case, .01% of her queries resulted in an author being signed. These odds can feel downright debilitating, right? While it’s true that most big-name authors can tell tales of the hundreds of rejection emails they received, it’s extremely hard to take these emails in stride and keep going. If rejection emails shatter a writer, he or she may give up entirely on their dream.

Here’s the bottom line: It is indeed possible to become a published author and advance your writing career without a literary agent. It’s up to you as a writer, upon considering the pluses and minutes of having one, to decide how much time, energy, and angst you want to invest in the query game, to decide if the benefits outweigh the negatives of having an agent working on your behalf.

3 thoughts on “Do You Really Need a Literary Agent?

    1. Oh good! So glad you found this useful 🙂 Did you happen to see the #querystats I shared last week on Twitter from Lindsay Mealing? Geeeeeeeez! Tough world out there! It’s reassuring to know there are options. Good luck with the process.

  1. Such a great compilation of pros and cons, Karole! Another agent pro (which I NEVER would’ve considered otherwise) is that they can get you into the foreign market. My income was hugely supplemented from foreign sales—a possibility that wasn’t even on my radar!

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