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How to Decide if You Need a Literary Agent
In a nutshell, literary agents work as the bridge between the writer and the publisher. Although their job does not end there, literary agents are primarily the individuals responsible for finding a writer and his work a suitable publisher. Of course, as with most agents, literary agents are (usually) compensated through commissions. This means the services of the literary agents are at a cost to the writer. If you are a writer, this may beg the question: do you need a literary agent?
Experts say the answer to this question is not as easy as it seems. However, everyone agrees: while it’s not always necessary, it can help you, as a writer, to have a literary agent.
The services of literary agents
Still, there are clear cut indicators that can determine whether you need the publishing help of literary agents or not. Many say that poets and short story writers do not need literary agents (because literary agents only take on writers who can make big money), although there have been exceptions to the rule. For instance, renowned short story writer Raymond Carver has an agent, Gordon Lish (granted, Lish’s role is more of an editor than agent, but more on that later). Magazine writers do not need literary agents—maybe unless they’re thinking of compiling their pieces in a book. On the other hand, novel writers and non-fiction writers can always use literary agents. This has something to do with the kind of publishing help they provide to writers and why it is beneficial to have an agent instead of not having one.
While agents are the ones who deal your book to publishers, this not their most important task, at least in the case of an aspiring writer. The most important task of agents is to work with the writer and develop his idea into something viable and marketable. While writing a book is “art,” publishing is still a business. Literary agents deal with the business side of the process. Agents are versed in publishing trends, so they know exactly what will and will not sell. With this expertise, the agent will then shape the idea with the writer, turning it into a package publishers won’t be able to resist.
After the book is written, the literary agents are also responsible for helping you, the writer, make a cover letter and book outline. These two are your keys to get attention from the publishers. Of course, the literary agents are the ones with enough knowledge to know how to do it. Of course, it is also the agent who goes to every publishing house to sell your work. If the work is accepted, agents transact with the publishers. This will include negotiations with your contract and how much your book would be worth. Different compensation packages are also discussed by the literary agents.
This doesn’t even include what the literary agents do after the book is published (promotions, for instance, are handled by the literary agents).
Deciding if you need one
So how do you decide if you need a literary agent? Here are some questions that could guide you with this publishing decision:
Can you fix your work according to the standards of the publishers? Even the most renowned and the most accomplished writers require the professional opinion of their editors and agents to turn a good book into a great, marketable book. Without an agent’s publishing help, do you think you can fix and edit your output to ensure acceptance by publishing houses? Do you have enough publishing know-how to know exactly what is right and what is wrong with your work? Usually, a second (or even third) pair of eyes is needed to pinpoint a work’s flaws. With the publishing tips of agents, can you turn your work around for the better? Or do you know someone with the professional publishing and writing skills who can do the nitpicking for you?
Do you know how to sell your work to a publisher? In publishing, writing a great book is one thing. Making sure that the publishers would think it is worthy of publication is another. Agents are usually the ones responsible for selling your work. Without the help of an agent, do you think you can do the selling on your own? Selling the book to a publisher means writing a good cover letter and outline, among other things.
Do you have the technical know-how? Publishing a book is not simply a matter of sending it to a publisher. You need to follow a process. Besides the process, you need to know what publisher prints the kind of books you write. It’s not just a matter of sending your manuscript to every publication out there. Agents, of course, know this a matter of profession. You will need the technical know-how of publishing to ensure that you’re entering the industry the right way. Any mistakes on this front can be troublesome for you in the future.
Can you do all the work yourself? Do you have the time and the money to do all the dirty work? Again, writing is only one side of the industry. Literary agents usually make sure all you have to worry about is the writing.
The literary agents’ attention
Many writers may complain that the reason why they do not get the publishing help of literary agents is because they couldn’t find one. Or, to be more specific, they couldn’t find agents who are willing to represent them. In this case, you may have to improve your work. Literary agents, who get no compensation for representing a writer until after they are published, are choosy. They only represent writers who they think have the biggest chance of getting published. Therefore, if no agent is interested in your work, it may mean the literary agents don’t think your work is good enough to commercial enough to succeed. All you need to do is work on your novel or memoir or book of criticism. If you are good enough, you will find an agent. And with an agent’s help, you can mold your work into something the publishers might get interested with.