Why You Need a Literary Agent (Except When You Don’t)

If you’re to believe the respected elders of the field who broke in 20 or 30 years ago, finding an agent should be on the bottom of any new writer’s priority list. With all due or undue respect, that advice simply isn’t as valid in the twenty-first century.

The speculative fiction fields are still famous for having editors who constantly seek out new talent and fresh voices. Most science fiction and fantasy publishers, and a couple of the houses with horror lines, are still open to unsolicited submissions.

Depending on the editor’s preference, you can send in a query letter, a few sample chapters, or an entire manuscript. And, if you have the requisite imagination, you can even convince yourself that your odds are just as good as the agented writer’s who has a manuscript on top of the editor’s stack.

If you have your heart set on one house, you’re not being practical. It’s good to have goals and priority lists and you should be passingly familiar with the philosophical leanings of each publisher. Still, you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. Of course, the exception is when you’ve met an editor at a convention, made a favorable impression of yourself and your work, and elicited a personal invitation to submit. Or, in plain English, you successfully bribed her with drinks.

Having an agent send in your work gives you several instant advantages. The primary one is the reputable agent makes a living by knowing who is buying what. The manuscript goes to the most likely markets right away. The editor benefits by knowing the manuscript has passed muster with at least one literate professional. Having an agent send it in doesn’t guarantee a sale, but almost always guarantees a faster and fairer read.

That said, having a bad agent is worse than having no agent at all. If you’re a new author, the agent’s reputation is riding on the manuscript more than yours is, since you don’t have a reputation yet. That’s why agents are cautious about what they will take on, where they will pitch it and how much they will ask for. An idiotic or make-believe agent will not get the time of day from a real editor, even if the manuscript is on par with Faulkner’s best or Stephen King’s worst.

We’ll skip the part about never paying an agent to represent, read or edit your work. You’ve heard that basic lesson before.

The Association of Author’s Representatives is a good resource to begin your research. The AAR is an organization whose members have scored legitimate sales, don’t charge reading fees and ascribe to a canon of ethics. There are exceptions, naturally, and some very high-powered agents don’t belong to AAR. But it’s still the best place to start looking.

The agent doesn’t earn his keep simply by getting the manuscript on the editor’s desk. If the publisher makes an offer, the good agent will usually ask for more money right away.

In most cases, the agent will recoup the cost of the commission by getting you more money. In other words, the agent pays his own way instead of taking money from the writer.

And you’ll eventually need to be on good working terms with the editor, so it’s helpful to have someone standing between you and the editor’s purse handlers. If negotiations get brutal, you are shielded. In most cases, you don’t even have to know how the battle is going until the dust settles.