Do You Need a Literary Agent?

A common question for all new writers – and the answer, almost always, is yes, you need a literary agent.

Why Do You Need an Agent?

With the rise of ebooks and self- and indie-publishing, many writers are asking WHY they need an agent. And some agents are now changing their business model, offering to bring self-published works to the market for an ongoing cut of the proceeds (so-called “agent-assisted self-publishing”).

A lot of indie writers look at the prerequisites they need to bring to an agent in order to be considered for representation (a marketing plan, an author platform capable of sustaining the sales effort for the book, etc.) and they rightly wonder, “If I have everything the agent and the publisher needs to sell the book, then why do I need the agent and the publisher to sell the book?”

And the answer is: You don’t, not necessarily.

You DO need an agent if you’re

  • writing a novel, a non-fiction manuscript, fiction for children, or a “How To” book in a major category, and
  • you want that book to appear on the shelves in major bookstores throughout the country/world, and
  • you’d rather someone else took care of the design, production, printing, and distribution, and
  • you intend to pursue traditional publication with a traditional publishing house, and/or
  • you intend to pursue foreign translation sales, or option the film and TV rights to your manuscript.

You DO NOT need an agent if:

  • you’re intending to self-publish
  • you’re writing poetry
  • you’re writing one-off short stories
  • you’re writing journalism
  • you’re writing specialist non-fiction (eg: “how to train your horse”)

In all these cases, there simply isn’t enough money to interest an agent and (if working with a publisher is your goal) you should just approach the appropriate publishers directly.

There are a couple of intermediate categories too. You MIGHT WANT an agent if:

  • you are writing children’s picture books. I’d recommend having an agent to start with, but you could go either way.
  • you are writing a themed collection of short stories. Such collections are tough to sell, but not impossible. A really good collection will attract an agent. Anything less than wonderful certainly won’t.
  • you’re willing to work with a smaller, independent publisher.

How much does an agent cost?

Up front… nothing. That’s right: zip, zero, nada. Yog’s Law states that, in traditional publishing, all money flows toward the writer. The book store takes its cut, the printer and distributor take their cut, the publisher takes its cut, and your agency takes its cut, which leaves a fairly small trickle that gets back to the writer (usually around 8-12%), but it does get there. Eventually.

A legitimate agent takes on authors whose work they believe they can sell to a publisher, and they work hard to make the best deal they can. Each time they sell a novel, the contract includes a clause which entitles them to a percentage (usually 15%) of everything the author earns from that deal. The important thing to note is this: they don’t take on authors if the manuscript needs more work. Why not? Because that manuscript might never be ready, and they don’t earn a dime until a publisher buys a manuscript. That’s why you only submit polished, finished work to literary agents.

Agent Scams

Unfortunately, there are less than legitimate agents in the world. As an editor and book doctor myself, I’ve met a few of them, promising to “refer” their pool of literary hopefuls to my editorial services. (I politely decline these arrangements; agents have no business referring authors to me for editing, and if they do, they should be picking up the tab. Yog’s Law applies.)

If an agent wants money up front you’ve probably fallen into the clutches of a scam artist. Whether it’s reading fees, copying fees, placement fees or a special on doctoring your book, you don’t want any of them. Remember Yog’s Law.

What does a scam agent look like? The scams I’ve seen look like this: An agent offers to represent an author, not caring what the manuscript is like. Maybe the author sent them a query, or maybe the agent sent the author an email after seeing their Facebook profile or website. The author jumps in, happy to be signed up at last.

A few weeks go by, during which the agent sends the author regular updates on fictitious submissions to various publishers (never named, because the author’s manuscript never goes anywhere). Next, the agent says they’ve had feedback from a major publisher who may be interested in the novel, but only if the author edits their manuscript into shape. The publisher recommends the author employ a book doctor to edit the novel into shape, before resubmitting.

Now remember, at this stage the agent hasn’t been in touch with any publishers…. All they’ve done is sit on the manuscript and pretend they’re submitting it. Telling an author that a publisher is interested is a sure way to hook the author into the main part of the scam, which is to recommend a really good book doctor who will “only” charge a thousand bucks or so to fix the book. The agent is on “your” side against the evil demanding publisher, and although it’s a lot of money, “just imagine how glorious life shall be when the publisher accepts the novel!”

Usually this ‘book doctor’ is the same agent with a different company name, maybe registered in a different city or state, or else it’s a business buddy with a commission system in place—or even the ‘agent’ themselves! The unsuspecting author pays up, which is what the agent intended all along. The manuscript is given the bloody pen treatment, and then the fictitious submissions go on for a few more weeks before everything goes strangely quiet. Finally, when the author has the temerity to ask what’s happening, the agent replies that they’ve tried oh, just EVERYbody, but the novel simply won’t sell in the current climate. Then they either release the author, recommend they write another book, or recommend another round of editing.

That’s a typical scam, and a particularly cruel one which has burnt many hopefuls. If it’s happened to you, you’ll just have to dust yourself off and start again.

Don’t misunderstand me. Most agents and book doctors are legitimate. Not everyone calling themselves an agent or a book doctor is automatically under suspicion. However, the old adage, “Trust, but verify” applies.


The Wedding of Eithne, by Michael E. Dellert




Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in The Business of Writing, Writing Life

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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