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Why Do You Need a Literary Agent?

Updated on October 20, 2014

So here's a question you're probably asked a lot, by people who aren't involved in publishing.

Your agent gets 15% of your money? What does s/he even DO?

And we all spout the list of reasons we've learned a thousand times over.

I've been thinking lately about the things my agent does for me that aren't the ones you usually see listed. We all know at least the skeleton of what an agent does for her clients. She makes contacts with publishers, she edits her clients' work, she reads, adjusts, and manages contracts.

But now I'll make a confession: I was once the kind of person who insisted that agents were a waste of money.

This was years ago, way before I'd had any kind of success, and before I found AbsoluteWrite, where this idea was promptly shaken out of my head with all the great reasons I've mentioned above. But it wasn't until I had an agent--and, really, it wasn't until I had my first good agent that I began to understand all the other reasons that every writer with her eyes on a career, no matter if she's sold no books or sixty books, should strongly, strongly consider looking for an agent.

So. Here are some reasons you might not have thought about.

Your Book Gets an Advocate Before it is Successful.

When you get an agent, in all likelihood, your book hasn't made anybody any money. It's used up a lot of time, made your husband exasperated with you, cost you a raise at work, eaten up your homework time, and otherwise left a giant crater in your pre-novel existence. But you inexplicably love it and want to spend more time with it, and while you try to stay realistic, you drift off to sleep secretly dreaming about high school students dissecting it in English class.

And now guess what? Someone else is dreaming about it too.

Your agent is your first fan. Later, your editor will have to make a leap of faith and buy a book that might not be successful, but your agent has to do it first, and she has to do it in a different way.

An editor who picks up a manuscript knows that the agent have screened and read and sparkled it. An agent knows none of this. An agent who falls in love with your book doesn't know if she's the first or the twentieth agent to have that response. And she loves it anyway. And if she offers, she's willing to make that leap of faith and cross her fingers that she won't be the only one.

She believes in your book when you previously might have been the only one doing so.

You Learn to Collaborate With Industry Professionals Before You Have a Book Deal.

I believe that the best agents are the agents who make the book the best thing it can be before they let it out into the world. Because not only is this best for the book, it's best for the author. Especially if we're talking debut novel.

Because even if your agent lets the thing go out unscathed, an editor isn't going to do the same. Somewhere along the line, something you love is going to get cut and something you don't love is going to be suggested, and you're going to need to learn what to accept and what to fight. You're going to need to figure out how you approach directions and revisions handed to you in a completely new way. Do you outline? Because your editor might want you to. Do you like firm direction or open-ended questions? Your editor might do it the opposite way.

You will need to learn to cope. Learn early with your agent.

Your Crazy Writing Process? Legitimized.

I had so many people telling me that I was approaching writing the "wrong" way. Real writers don't watch TV while they write! Real writers spend time on their first drafts! Real writers have to cut words, not add! Real writers like sausage on their pizza, not pepperoni!

Yeah. Well now everyone can shut up, because you have an agent. Which brings me to...

Other Writers Will Take You More Seriously.


--OTHER WRITERS WILL TAKE YOU MORE SERIOUSLY. This point obviously sucks, but it's worth noting. Way too many published and agented writers assume that everyone who isn't must be bad. I guess they were born published or something, I don't know.

Anyway, get an agent, put it in your twitter profile, and suddenly people will start to notice you. It's kind of gross, but while you're acknowledging the grossness, you should be getting ready to use it to your advantage. Because getting noticed is important. You want to know as many people as you can. Period. So a corollary would be:

Networking.

Get an agent, and you become instant casual friends with that agent's colleagues, her other clients, the clients of the colleagues, etc. It's nice to have more tables to sit with at lunch, and this opens doors to getting to know even more writers through friends of your friends. You'll probably meet some people you absolutely adore. You'll almost definitely make connections with people you don't adore that will still end up helping you later. Every writer needs someone to blurb her books.

I know I'm revealing my ugly side in this post, but I'm not saying anything you guys don't already know, and you know it. You will meet amazing people. You will also meet people who will help you. If you're lucky, these will be the same people. They're not always. Know how to talk to everyone.

And do it. Talk to everyone. Getting an agent opens up those doors.

You Do Not Want to Talk About Money With Your Editor.

Switching gears here. After your agent sells your book, you start your other most important relationship: the one with your editor. If you are as lucky as I am, your editor will be absolutely amazing, you will send her ridiculous emails, and you will be just as close with her as you are with your agent.

But there will still be conversations that happen between you and your agent and not between you and your editor, and conversations that happen between your agent and your editor and not between you and your editor. These are conversations about money and marketing and the nitty gritty.

If you don't have an agent, and you're trying to negotiate a book deal yourself, or negotiate your books' placement in the catalogue or in a bookstore, you're going to hear a lot more than you want to about where your book sits on a publisher's list and how much money it's worth to the imprint and how it compares to the season's lead title and all of that stuff.

You don't want to know that.

You and your editor have a job to do together. Make the best book that you can. That means you need to talk character motivations and scene placement. You do not need to talk co-op and royalty percentages. Leave it to someone else. Don't dirty up your relationship. Don't give any resentment a chance to take root.

Sometimes You Will Feel Confused and Stupid.

Someday your editor will send you an email telling you about a second printing or a review or a stage in the publishing process, and you will smile and say "Awesome!" while your head is saying, "I don't know if this is awesome because I have no idea what it means."

You are not stupid. You are new. It's okay to be embarrassed. Your editor knows the answer to this question. You can ask her if you want.

So does your agent.

Ask her.

Your Agent Will Stay With You Across Books and Publishers.

If your editor passes on your option book and you need to shop it to other publishers, or you write in a genre that your editor doesn't do, you're going to feel scared and alone shopping that around if your editor is your only close contact in the publishing world.

When I branched out into writing Middle Grade novels, after previously only doing YA, the MG publishing world was completely new and familiar to me. These were editors' whose names I didn't know, some with imprints I'd never given much thought. I didn't have the connections. My agent did .She was making them while I was working with my YA publisher.

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