Do I need a literary agent?

April 24, 2009

Until I began learning about the publishing process, I thought only movie stars had agents.

Turns out wannabe authors do, too. But why, you ask, would a writer want to hire an agent?

Literary agents serve as intermediaries between author hopefuls and publishers, helping writers polish their proposal, shop it around to publishers and negotiate contract terms. They take care of the money-related tasks required to publish a book, so the author can focus on writing. And they work off commission — generally 15 percent of whatever the book brings in.

They also help newbies like myself understand the publishing process, which is the primary reason why I want one. As friends in the industry have explained to me, I don’t really need an agent to get my book published, but having one likely would increase my chances of selling my book to a large publisher. And since an agent would negotiate for me the best possible contract — partly because that pays her commission — I’d probably get a better deal with one at my side.

At least a dozen literary agents maintain well-read blogs that offer tips and ideas. Literary agency BookEnds, one of my favorites, has a few great entries about working with agents. Miss Snark, the literary agent stopped posting in 2007, but writers find her blog so helpful that they still refer to it. And literary agent Nathan Bransford offered an “agent for a day” contest on his blog, so writers could get a taste of what it’s like to look through piles of submissions. (I link to these agent blogs and others on the right-hand sidebar.)

Of course, plenty of writers manage to get published without the help of an agent. Some approach publishers themselves or take other routes that don’t involve agents, such as the increasingly popular method of self-publishing.

But me? I’ve got enough to worry about just crafting this story. I’d like to find an agent sooner rather than later, so we can interest a publisher in my manuscript while I’m writing it, instead of waiting until it’s complete. That would give me peace of mind — knowing I’m working on a project a publisher will actually buy — and provide me with an advance (aka income) to keep me financially afloat while I write.

Here’s the catch: I can’t simply hire an agent. They have to want me and my proposed book.

Writers get the attention of agents through a one-page query, a letter asking the agent to consider their project. It’s short and sweet, a summary of the project and a bit about the author’s qualifications, and written in a catchy way that entices the agent to read more. (I’ll dedicate a blog post to query letters sometime soon.)

If the agent is interested, she’ll request the writer’s book proposal, a document I explained in an earlier post that includes an outline of the book, promotion plan, working title and two sample chapters.

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