Why do I need an agent? What do they even do?
There are a lot of reasons why people might not want to explore getting a literary agent. For some, it’s just another gatekeeper to getting their writing to a publisher, another hoop to jump through which can seem exhausting and unnecessary. For others, the idea of losing some of their (fairly small) royalty fee can feel unnecessary when they’re already only getting about 90p for every book sold anyway. Knock 15% off that and they’re down to 76.5p a book. There’s also the feeling that submitting to an agent can make things more long-winded – you have to wait for the agent to respond, and then they have to send it onto publishers and wait for them to respond. Why not cut out the middle man and just submit directly to the publisher?
I have talked before about how to submit to agents, and also have a twitter thread from a talk I attended by Juliet Mushens, agent for Jessie Burton (multiple bestseller), Stephanie Halls (bestseller for her debut), Richard Osman (secured an astronomical 7-figure advance for his debut novel). If you ever get a chance to hear Juliet speak about publishing, you should listen. She and her co-founder Robert Caskie set up their own agency in 2017 and since then seem to be involved in almost all the biggest publishing events going on. Which leads me neatly onto the first point I’d like to make.
They know the industry, and the people
That’s the first reason you want a literary agent. Access, muscle, connections. Agents know people in the industry, they know editors and publishers, and they have access to them. But more importantly, they know what editors like and are trusted. If an agent sends an editor a manuscript, it’s because they know what the editor is looking for and what they enjoy; the editor knows that the agent has only sent it because it is a good fit. They also know that the agent has seen the full manuscript and helped to edit it, so the book will be near as dammit ready to print. In an industry where people are time-poor, this streamlines things massively.
It’s true that some publishers will have open submissions, some will have them all year round, some will do it for a set period of time each year, and others will only do it once in a blue moon. During this period, however, there is a huge influx of manuscripts. It can take months, maybe years, to clear through all the submissions, and the risk is higher. Most submissions only require the first three chapters, alongside a synopsis and covering letter. There’s no guarantee of consistent quality through the rest of the manuscript, so the opening has to be really good for an editor to request more. And in some cases, it just simply might not be the book the editor is looking for at that moment in time, or be the right book for that editor. This is also true of submitting books to agents; however if an agent is submitting your book to an editor, the editor knows that all they have to do is decide whether the book is right for them and their lis, because it will have already been edited with the agent.
They know the contracts
Do you know anything about copyright law? About ownership, moral rights, subsidiary rights, reprint rights? I work in publishing, I did my dissertation on copyright, and I still sometimes find it difficult to keep track of. While there are resources are available to help authors who are going it alone – The Society of Authors offers advice to authors on contracts and payments if you become a member, for example – but an agent will be there to negotiate every part of your contract and explain to you what you get from each part. They’ll also know when it’s best to retain some rights and sell others, what the market is like, and what the best deal is for you. This is what they’re wizards at, what they do, and they are absolute pros.
They know the money
Talking about money is great fun, isn’t it? It’s so easy to have a working relationship with someone and make sure you’re getting paid exactly what you want, said only a very small number of people – like my brother – who can negotiate salaries easy peasy. I think a lot of people find talking money very hard, particularly if they don’t understand the copyright and legal aspects of what is being bought, so don’t know if they’re getting a good deal for what they’re selling. Agents know what your book is worth, and how to maximise the cost-benefits of payments. They’ll advise you on offers you receive, for example it’s not always the best thing to chase the biggest payment, as that can add pressure if your book doesn’t sell enough copies to pay off the advance, which could tank your career long term; instead they might push you towards a sensible payment with an editor who clearly understands and is passionate about the book.
They will always try and get the best deal for you though – partly because, if we’re being mercenary, whatever you get paid impacts on what they get paid. A real agent will never charge you for signing with them, or for submitting to them. All their payments come through commission which they take off the money you receive from publishers. That means the more you get paid, the more they get paid. It’s a symbiotic relationship. That’s also why they want to look after your long-term prospects by pairing you with the right people.
And with them handling the money-matters, it means your relationship with your editor and publisher is free from any potential barriers to a smooth working relationship, and you can concentrate on the most important thing – your book.
They will be your biggest cheerleader
If you get the right agent, they will be your longest and most devout publishing relationship. They will work with you to shape every draft into something brilliant, and as your career progresses they’ll be there from idea to publication for everything you do. They’ll fight your corner for every new contract, and every rights sale; they’ll talk you through every meltdown and crisis of confidence; they’ll be at the front of the queue to tell everyone how amazing you are and cheer you on at every success. I once saw an agent tweet that her job covered everything from counsellor to editor to cheering squad. If you ever need a boost and someone to give you the push to get you to achieve the success you want, then that’s your agent.
Often in media they don’t get such a good rap – Estelle in Friends was seen as disinterested at best, while Charlie in Californication has precisely one client, and does nothing with or for him. That’s not the reality of an agent – a good agent will work with you to grow your career in the long term, and will do everything they can to ensure that you succeed.
So what do you do?
If you do choose to submit to an agent, the rules for submission I discussed in my blog on Common Mistakes When Querying are very important. In summary:
- Research your agent. Make sure they represent the sort of book you have written. Don’t submit a thriller to an agent only looking for romance, or a SFF book to an agent who represents non-fiction authors.
- Check they are accepting submissions. Some agents will close submissions if they have a backlog, or if they are going away, and will often tell you so on their website, or on their twitter. If submissions are closed, don’t submit. Wait, or find another agent.
- If they are accepting submissions, make sure that you meet their submission requirements. These will always be clearly specified on their website. Whether they want the first three chapters or 5000 words, whether this needs to be double-spaced, how they want your synopsis presented – all of this is key to making sure your submission is read. Agents are busy, if you can’t be bothered to read their guidelines, why should they be bothered to read your submission?
- Make sure you address your letter to the agent specifically. No “Dear Sir/Madam”, no generic opening, and no re-using a letter to another agent without changing the name! It’s basic courtesy to ensure that you have taken the time to learn the agent’s gender, name, and how to spell it. If you are successful, this will be a close working relationship – don’t start it by being rude.
- Be patient – all agents will reply to you, but it may take a while. Don’t badger them. Some agents will offer feedback if they reject you, some won’t. Sometimes it will be because they don’t like your story, sometimes it will be because they’ve just taken on a book that’s very similar, sometimes it will be because they don’t think they’d be the right fit for you and your work. Don’t take rejection personally, and definitely don’t write back to tell them they’re wrong. That sort of behaviour only cements to them that they were right not to work with you, and damages any potential future relationship.
- Never submit the same manuscript to an agent twice, unless they’ve specifically requested it. Sometimes agents will ask for you to rewrite and resubmit, proving guidelines on what they’re looking for. If they don’t do this, don’t try to submit the novel again. That said, you can always submit any new work you’ve done – you never know, they might feel it’s a better fit for them!
I follow a number of agents on twitter and have found it extremely enlightening and useful in understanding the work they do and the advice they give. Some of the accounts I recommend are:
- Juliet Mushens, co-founder and director of Caskie Mushens
- Jo Unwin, founder and director of the Jo Unwin Literary Agency
- Ginger Clark, literary agent at Curtis Brown
- Ed Wilson, literary agent at Johnson & Alcock
You can learn so much from these people – but don’t just follow them to ask them to read your novel. Instead listen to what they say about the publishing industry, look at the way they treat their authors, and you’ll be able to see the important work they do for the industry and for their authors.
Of course, you don’t have to have an agent by any means. It’s about what works best for you as an author – but now you can make an informed decision, knowing the benefits of having an agent in your corner.