Do I Need an Agent? And How Do I Get One?

Do you need an agent? And if you do, then how do you go about getting one?


The publishing industry has changed a great deal in the past few years, largely as a result of the internet and the ubiquity of computers. Whether the explosion of writers out there writing books is a result of the advent of electronic publishing operations like Amazon’s, or whether those are a response to the fact that computers and wordprocessing software have allowed more people to turn out books is moot. The fact remains that there are far more books produced each year than traditional publishers could possibly hope to publish.


Why is this significant? Because while many writers will choose to self-publish – a procedure that requires no agent – there are still large numbers who want to be traditionally published. Indeed, the numbers of submissions to publishers reached such a level some years ago that several of the larger publishing houses pretty much ended the policy of accepting unsolicited manuscripts. There were simply too many for them to wade through, and so they began stipulating that they would only accept manuscripts submitted by agents. (The latter are essentially the first guardians of the gateway to publishing, and when they submit a manuscript to an acquisitions editor at a given publisher, that editor can usually be certain the work has at least some merit.)


This shift in policy by many of the publishers has meant the numbers of people submitting to agents has skyrocketed – to the extent that some agencies receive more than a thousand submissions a week. Needless to say, with so many people applying for representation, the chances of a writer acquiring an agent have greatly diminished. Indeed, even if your work is exceptional, it’s possible agents may pass on it for a variety of reasons, a fact that invariably leads to a great deal of frustration for writers desperate to be published the traditional way – particularly since a writer without an agent has little chance of being published by one of the larger publishers. It’s not impossible, but it’s certainly rare.


Beyond finding a home for your manuscript and negotiating the contract between you and the publisher, agents also serve as the intermediary between you and the publisher on those occasions when you may have an issue (such as a dislike of the cover for your masterpiece, or questions about release dates and the like). Many agents also do the initial editing of your manuscript. They review your work, make suggestions on how to improve it, and often offer invaluable input as to what might work better to make the novel more marketable to publishers and the reading public. And since many writers (especially those just starting out) are often somewhat uncertain (and even, dare I say, somewhat needy at times), the agent invariably serves as counsellor and cheerleader.


Your agent will be (hopefully) one of your biggest boosters. After all, she took you on because she saw something in your work, something she believed in. And because her aim is to not only find a home for the book you submitted, but also to help shape your career, she is a source of advice of which any intelligent writer would be wise not to ignore.


So do you need an agent? The obvious answer seems an unequivocable yes. But it really all depends on what your goals are. If you’re content to go with a smaller publisher – one that still accepts unsolicited manuscripts – then you can probably get away without an agent. But generally, smaller publishers mean smaller advances (or none at all), less extensive distribution and marketing, and consequently fewer sales. It all leads to a smaller income. Generally one that isn’t sufficient to live on. Not that getting published by one of the larger houses is a guarantee of riches. The sad truth is, few writers are able to earn a living from their writing. Fiction writers, at least. (Eight percent and dropping in the United States. Worse, still, in Canada, but a bit better in the UK.)


There’s no reason not to try for an agent, however – unless you have an acute aversion to rejection. (Nobody likes it, but it’s an unfortunate part of the business.) There’s an old saying: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Which is to say that fear of failure should never stop you from doing anything, because you never know when you might succeed. If you don’t make the attempt, then you’ll live your life wondering if you might have succeeded – and how different things might have been had you.


And this brings us to how you go about getting an agent.


Unfortunately, there is no magic recipe for how you can do this. Some people try for years and never succeed; others strike gold with their first attempt. Basically it comes down to doing your research, following the guidelines to the letter, writing a winning query, having a book that is unique and (of course) well-written, patience, and undoubtedly a measure of luck. These days, probably a LOT of luck.


The Internet is the first place you should start. Yes, you can buy writers’ market guides that have information about agents and how to query them, but the fact is that you can find all that on the Internet. So why shell out money for a book that is probably out of date? While it’s not a case of musical chairs, agents do on occasion leave agencies to strike out on their own or to take up a position with another agency. So relying solely on information from a book whose data could be several months old might result in you querying an agent at a particular agency only to discover that the individual in question has moved on or is simply no longer accepting new clients.


Your best bet is to use a search engine to find agents who deal with your particular category or genre. So if you write YA, for example, you might input “YA agents” or “agents who deal in YA” and voila! You’ll find pages of results for agents who represent writers in that category. Then it’s a simple matter of checking out each one to see if they’re open to new clients, whether they deal with your particular genre (YA is a category – not a genre; genre would be “alternate history,” “fantasy,” “magical realism,” etc.), and what they like to see as far as submissions go. Often you’ll find some indication of the clients they represent and the books they’ve sold, so you’d be wise to check these over and see if the work you’re offering dovetails with what they’re looking for. Be sure to read their bios, websites, blogs, etc. because these will give you some indication of what they’re interested in seeing and what they definitely don’t want to see. For example: They may have sold several dystopian novels a few years ago but are now done with that genre and no longer wish to see any more. In that case, it would be foolhardy to approach them with a dystopian novel – no matter how much of a masterpiece you may believe it to be.


If you don’t know how to query an agent, many of the agencies have instructions on how to do so, including the dos and don’ts of querying them. Some even offer clear descriptions on how to write an effective query letter. You can also find places on the Internet that will provide you with examples of query letters that agents consider good examples of what works. Writing a good query letter is no easy task, and you’ll find that crafting one that is effective can be some of the most difficult writing you’ve ever done. It helps to remember that you’re dealing with a person, not a machine.


All agencies have guidelines, and if you choose to ignore them, then you’ve only yourself to blame for rejection. They wouldn’t put up guidelines if they didn’t want you to adhere to them. So if they ask for a brief cover letter, a synopsis, and five pages of your manuscript, don’t give them a ten page cover letter, a fifty page sample, and a long treatise about how your book is so much better than such-and-such’s bestseller and how they’d be fools not to take you on as a client. That’s a red flag, and in all likelihood they’ll just pass on your work – no matter how good it is. And think about it: If you’re unwilling to accede to their guidelines, then why on Earth would they want to work with you? Ignoring their submission rules suggests you believe rules don’t apply to you, which in turn gives the impression you already think you know everything you need to know and won’t be willing to take an agent’s advice. And the thing is (as pointed out above), one of the reasons you should want an agent is for her insight and perspective on the industry, her sense of what will and won’t work with publishers, and ways in which you can make your writing more marketable. If you don’t want any of that and aren’t open-minded about your work, then you should probably reconsider the traditional route and just self-publish, where you get to make all the choices (and mistakes) you like, with no one telling you what to do.


Assuming you’ve written your query, submitted it with the requisite sample of your work, and actually had an agent bite, what comes next? That will probably depend on a lot of things. In my case the agent who represented me for Becoming Darkness asked to see the entire manuscript (which at that time I had to mail to her – a very costly affair). She loved the premise and the basic story, but she wanted the book geared more toward the YA market and made considerably shorter. So before she would sign me on as a client, I spent a few months cutting the manuscript by nearly a hundred thousand words and rejigging the main character and some of the relationships.


Now, I could have said to hell with it and gone in search of another agent. Why didn’t I? Because acquiring an agent is no easy feat (for most writers), and because I wasn’t so arrogant as to believe my book was perfect as it was. In fact, I knew it had flaws, and I took all the advice she gave me and used it to write a much better novel. In a way, she served as the first editor on my book, and the contrast between what I submitted to her and what ended up being published is like night and day. It may be all my writing and ideas, but she definitely set me on the path to producing a much better product – one that I was far happier with. In fact, I can honestly say that she improved my skills as a writer immeasurably, and for that I shall always be grateful.


You should realize that even if you sign with an agent, there’s no guarantee she’ll be able to sell your work. Even if she does, it could take months – or even years. That can be demoralizing and frustrating, and at times you may think a sale to a publisher is never going to happen. But you have to realize that patience is an absolute must in the publishing world. Even assuming you get an agent, that your book doesn’t require a lot of work, and that she manages to sell it to a publisher in a matter of weeks, you will likely still have another eighteen months before you see your book released. That’s just the way things are – at least, for debut authors. Later, the time between purchase and publication will probably be shorter. But in the beginning, likely not.


If this all sounds discouraging, well, yeah, it is. Getting published traditionally is becoming more and more difficult these days, which is why so many people self-publish. Many of those don’t even bother trying to go the traditional route (but more on that in the self-publishing section).

The fact is, despite the stories you’ve no doubt heard of first-time writers who have been signed to big six and seven figure contracts, these are actually extraordinarily rare – which is why they became news in the first place. It’s possible you’ll be one of those rarities, but it’s more likely you’ll be one of the hundreds of thousands of others who struggle to find an agent, finally get published, and subsequently vanish into obscurity, your book never making sufficient sales to even pay back the meager advance you may have gotten.


If any of the above dissuades you from trying, then maybe you should reconsider being a writer. Truth to tell, as beleaguering as it may all seem, as insurmountable as the obstacles may appear to be, none of it should seem to you unscalable. And take heart in the knowledge that many great writers suffered through rejection and struggled to get their work published. They didn’t give up and they were rewarded ultimately for their perseverance. The same may happen to you. But you won’t find out unless you try.


A note of advice: If you receive a rejection, DO NOT send back a snarky rejoinder like “You’ll be sorry.” (Believe it or not, I’ve heard that there have been people who have done this.) First of all, it is never a wise strategy to burn your bridges. You may have submitted to this agent and have been rejected on that occasion, but in the future you may have another book you want to submit for consideration and if you ticked off the agent in the past, what do you think the chances are that she’s going to want you for a client? Secondly, agents often know one another and if you get a reputation for being obnoxious about rejections, that’s probably going to get around and it definitely won’t work in your favor. So if you respond at all to a rejection (and really, you shouldn't), make it nothing more than a polite “thank you.”


A few final notes: It often takes weeks before you hear back from an agent you’ve queried as to whether she’s interested in further pursuing your work. (This applies, of course, to those who actually send out rejections; many agents no longer do, leaving you to assume you’ve been rejected if you don’t hear from them after a given period of time.) Considering the length of time involved, you obviously can’t just send out one query and wait to hear back before sending out the next one. Not if you want to get anywhere fast, which is why most writers send out several queries at a time. However, if you do this, some agents request that you inform them, so make sure to study their guidelines for details on this score.


Also, should you receive an offer of representation and accept it while in the process of querying other agents, its generally accepted that you inform them of this. Like anyone else, agents don’t like to waste their time – especially these days, when they get so many submissions. So do them the courtesy of informing them that you’re withdrawing your submission. It’s just good manners.


As with all advice, you should take what I offer with a grain of salt. Different people will have different experiences when it comes to the traditional publishing process. For some it’s a magical ride – a fast elevator to the top and filled with glory. For others (like myself, unfortunately), it is all too often fraught with disappointment. Regrettably, not everyone gets to be a bestselling author. Alas, more often than not that is the nature of a writing career.

In closing, I should warn you that as in so many businesses, loyalty only goes so far. You may get an agent and think that's one mountain you've conquered, but as quickly as that success is attained, it can be snatched away from you. Agents will drop you; it happens. (Believe me, I know only too well of what I speak.*)

The cause may be that the agent no longer has time for all the clients she has or because she realizes the two of you just don't fit. Or it could be as prosaic as the fact that your book(s) aren't making enough money to warrant the time and effort the agent spends on you. Regardless, you may find yourself waking up one day to find a terse e-mail informing you the relationship is over. That can be truly devastating (it was for me) -- particularly given how monstrously difficult it is to get an agent. But if it happens, the only thing you can do is start all over again and hope you succeed in finding new representation. It's either that or give up. How much you love writing will probably determine whether or not you forge ahead.


*Shortly before Becoming Darkness was released, my (then) agent sent me a brief e-mail saying it was "time to move on" and informing me that her desire to spend more time with her family meant she would be reducing her workload and was therefore dumping her YA clients from her clientele.


Nearly four years later, I have yet to acquire new representation. I've written four very different novels and received (between them) some two hundred rejections (about fifty apiece). It's been hard to take, and increasingly I feel as if my chances of ever being published again are fast approaching nil. Not a day goes by when I don't consider quitting. I'm not sure why I don't. Perhaps because some part of me still has faith, still believes in myself, and can't yet let go of that dream.

As I write this, I've a new novel in the works--one I've decided to illustrate. I feel good about this one, but that means little. The only people who count are the agents (and the publishers), so I'll have to see how it goes when I start querying. As for the other four books, I haven't given up on them. They had excellent beta reader feedback, so I'll be revising them and sending them out again, because even fifty rejections is not a lot these days. Some writers have gone through as many as a hundred and fifty or more before landing an agent. Just keep that in mind when you start sending out your own queries.

And the lesson to be learned from all this? That writing is a business. Agents are business people and you are their business partner. When it is no longer in their interests to retain you as a client, you may well find yourself on the outside looking in. That's the nature of the business. I won't say not to take it personally, because it is personal. At least, to you it is. It was to me when I was given the heave-ho. But you either give up then or you soldier on, and as you can tell I have so far opted to do the latter.

Wish me luck. I'm going to need it.