Why You Need An Agent

Do you really need a literary agent to sell your novel?

Probably not; however, you should have one. The reason is simple–writers write. If writers also try to sell their work and handle the business deals, they have less time to write.

There are several reasons you should stick to writing and let the agents handle the sales and business deals:

  • Selling a manuscript is a specialized skill. You would have to  do extensive research on the types of fiction publishers are buying and which editors are reading which categories of fiction. And you’d have to keep up-to-date–editors move around, and their needs change.
  • Agents have made contacts in the publishing industry–doing the research and keeping up-to-date is their job.
  • Agents can often get your work read more quickly than you can if you submit it yourself; the editor may not know you, but he knows the agent and trusts her judgment, so he’s more likely to put your novel on the front burner.
  • Agents sometimes can set up an auction situation where several publishers bid on a manuscript; this would be difficult, if not impossible, for an unknown writer to do himself.
  • Agents know the ins and outs of contracts. They try to get their clients the best deals they can and hold on to subsidiary rights (film, TV, foreign, etc.)–the inexperienced author might inadvertently sign away some of these rights to the publisher. Being able to navigate contracts is more important than ever now that  eBooks are at the center of a controversy about what royalties should be paid, how earnings should be reported, and the rights that will be retained by the author or sold to the publisher.
  • Agents interpret the royalty statements, which can be a pain if you’re not familiar with publishers’ accounting procedures.

It’s not as difficult to get an agent as you might think. Do the following two things, and you should be able to find one :

  • Write a good novel, one that people will want to read.
  • Write a good query letter, one that will inspire the agent to ask for a partial or the complete manuscript.

To write a good novel, there is no substitute for practice, lots of practice. An excellent guide to writing a novel that people will want to read is literary agent Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and its companion, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Those books not only have good information on how to write a novel that people will want to read, but they also offer some insight into what agents and publishers look for in a manuscript.

To write a good query letter, here are a few things to remember:

  • Keep your letter to one page.
  • Try to make a connection with the agent. Keep it brief, like “I met you at such and such conference.” If you haven’t met or corresponded with the agent, do some research about her to see if there is something you can work in, such as a similarity between your novel and another she has represented. But don’t try to force a connection; if you don’t have one it’s better not to say anything. Say something like, “I’ve just completed an 85,000-word literary novel entitled [you novel’s title].”
  • The next paragraph should be your “hook,” a one-line summary of your novel’s conflict, what makes it unique. Then write a few sentences expanding on the hook. Include the main characters and the setting.
  • Next write a short paragraph about you. Keep it short. If you’ve had fiction published, mention it. If you have some special knowledge or experience that is relevant to your novel, put that down. If you’re a beginner with no published works or special experience, leave this part out. It won’t hurt you. The agent probably will have decided to ask for a partial on the basis of your hook and description. If he has decided not to ask for a partial, he probably won’t finish reading the query.
  • End by asking the agent if she would like to see the complete manuscript, and thank her for taking the time to read your letter. Very important. Don’t leave that last part out, the thanking her part. The agent will then ask for a partial, the complete manuscript, or will pass on your novel.

It’s okay to send queries to several agents simultaneously. Most agents expect this, but if you receive an offer of representation it is common courtesy to inform the other agents to whom you have submitted.

It’s as important to craft your query letter as carefully as you crafted your novel. The query is your main sales tool; too many writers spend most of their time an energy writing their novels, then dash off a slipshod query and expect agents to be trampling one another to get their hands on what is surely to be a hot best seller.

I’ve only sketched in the process finding an agent. For for information in much more depth, check out Guide To Literary Agents and Pub Rants. Not only do those two Websites tell you how to do it, they give you samples of queries that worked. Also, do some Web surfing yourself. You’ll find more information on writing queries than you’ll need.

Happy writing!

Categories: Selling Fiction

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5 replies »

  1. It is great to have the ability to read a good quality article with useful data on topics that plenty are interested on. The point that the data written are all first hand on actual experiences even help more. Go on doing what you do as we like reading your work.


    • Kate – That’s true, agents do take a commission (which in most cases is 15% ), and it’s still possible for an author to sell to a small publisher without an agent; however, if your aim is to sell to a large publisher and (hopefully) sell lots of books, agents are well worth their commission. It may not be impossible to sell to a major publisher without an agent (although it’s a lot less possible than it was 30 years ago), but if you do interest a major publishing co. in your mss., they will probably give you a list of suggested agents and tell you to choose one before they will deal with you further. Agents are good at handling the business affairs of writers and in looking out for the writers’ interests. In this global, multimedia economy even the most business savvy authors could inadvertently make a mistake that could cost them lots of $.

      So, being published by a small publisher, you could probably go it alone. But if your aim is to be published by a big publisher, it’s a good idea to have a partner who thoroughly knows the business.


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