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

The agent will also try to protect your subsidiary rights as much as possible. As with the advance price of your book, this is an area where your interest and the agent’s coincide. The more rights the agent wrings from the publisher, the more rights can be sold down the road. A good agent will be thinking of your entire career, or at least the next three books, instead of a quick cash-out.

One more area that’s a bit subjective is finding an agent who has similar philosophies to yours. Example: A young writer signing with an agent who’s on the verge of retirement, no matter how powerful. Similarly, if you’re the kind who likes to feel pampered, you should probably seek a small “boutique” agency rather than signing with one of the powerhouses. You also need the patience to trust that your agent is working behind the scenes for your ultimate benefit, even when it seems that things are moving slowly.

You generally don’t need an agent to represent a small press or self-published book, since you wouldn’t be able to get one anyway. Even if it was a done deal, the commission wouldn’t cover the postage. Agents won’t bother with short stories, either, unless you’re bringing in four or five figures for them, in which case you’re not reading articles about agents. But limited edition books and collections can be tools that help you sell yourself to an agent and occasionally those are re-sold to larger publishers.

So what do you do when all the agents turn you down? Well, you find out which publishing houses are willing to look at unsolicited manuscripts of the type you’re writing. You send out query letters until you sell something. Then you get an agent. And you may even end up with one who had previously rejected you.

Because, in the final analysis, no agent, no editor, and no publisher will ever care as much about your career as you do. Nor should they. Because they have other clients and other books. You have only one career.

So make it work however you can. Don’t swallow the popular wisdom that agents “only want books by authors who are already selling.” New writers get agents every single day. Don’t worry, as soon as there’s enough money for someone to get interested in taking a cut, you’ll find your agent. The sooner the better, of course.

Once you start sending a novel to the publishers, write another novel and start sending that one to the agents on your priority list, even if they rejected the first one. If you manage to sell your novel yourself through the slush pile, then you are in a better position to get the agent of your choice. If the agent likes the second, represents it, and sells it, he will likely want to try selling the first one for you. Either way, you can’t lose, because you’ll have two novels, double the odds of breaking in, and you’ll become a better writer in the process. Repeat as necessary.

In the meantime, keep those query letters in the mail.


The Red Church by Scott Nicholson Scott Nicholson is the author of the novels The Red Church and The Harvest. His Web site contains writing articles, interviews and fiction.