Home page  |  More useful articles  |  Search for more information

To Use an Agent, or Not Use an Agent?
That Is the Question
"Musings" - September 2007

by Margot Finke

Sponsored Links

I don’t know if Shakespeare had an agent, but if he did, the fellow did an awesome job.

Before I delve any deeper into the agent dilemma, let me clarify one thing: there are good agents, and then there are "run for your life" agents! Just because someone calls them self a literary agent, and offers to represent your book, does not mean they have the experience necessary to know Harry Potter from Harry Carey. Does this agent have the right publishing contacts? Can they craft you a killer contract? Do they have the respect and trust of editors in the publishing world? You had better know the answers to all these questions before you sign on the dotted line. Research pays off, big-time!

Once you line up a couple of agents that look promising, a good place to begin your research on their honesty and integrity is: BEWARE: Agent and Publishing Scams.

The Good and the BAD:

A Great Agent has your interests uppermost. He knows where your book will have the best chance of an acceptance. He understands contracts, and how to get you a "plum" of a deal. He is on good terms with editors in the business — he was probably an editor in another life. He knows that the harder he works for you and your books, the higher his profits. A really good agent loves children’s books and enjoys what he/she does.

A Bad Agent can tie you and your book up on a long train to nowhere. They hardly ever reply to letters and e-mails. They charge you for every little service, and if their results were as good as their excuses, you would be rich. A list of the publishers where they sent your book: good luck with that, mate. A bad agent gives new meaning to the term "Hell on earth."

Understand the Dynamics of Being a Literary Agent:

This is their job. Their percentage of your earnings pays their rent, gas, food, clothing bills etc. The more clients they have, and the more books they sell, the higher their earnings from client’s advances and royalties. Agents want clients whose books SELL. They also like it when books they represent sell to publishers for big bucks, and fly off the shelves faster than you can say "best seller list!" Some agents offer writing advice and other manuscript suggestions. However, wise writers understand that critique groups are for ironing out plot problems and wordy paragraphs. Agents are for selling your well-polished manuscript, and then negotiating a far more favorable contract than you ever could.

There are a few agents out there who specialize in children’s books. However, many combine adult and children’s genres because it is far more profitable. Books for young children (picture books and first readers), do not sell in the same quantities, or for the same price, as those for mid grade, young adult, or adults. With PBs particularly (unless the writer also illustrates), the writer and illustrator must share the royalties and the advance, thereby halving what an agent earns. For the agent, the math is inescapable: all the usual hard work, for far less than what they would earn by representing a mid grade, young adult or adult book.

The "No Need For an Agent" writer:

Those who fit the criteria below could certainly sell their first few books without the assistance of an agent. After that, an agent would probably be a wise investment. It would free them up to do more writing, and probably get them bigger advances and perks. For these writers, a good agent is a buffer between writing time and the rest of the known world.

The "I’m Desperate for an Agent" Writer:

Does the list below look like a portrait of you? An agent will take away your research worries and the need to write all those query letters. And contract negotiations — YIKES! You can thankfully sit at your computer - aha. . . writing heaven! HOLD IT! First, you will have to gird your loins, as old timers would say. Meaning massive research to find an agent who will free you to write, write, write. Unfortunately, if you write picture books, you’ll probably have to dig up the moxie to sell those first one or two all by yourself: at least until you acquire the writing chops to interest an agent.

NOTE: here’s a little help to get you started:

Books Agents are Likely to Represent —OR NOT!

First, the Disclaimer. It is always possible to buck the so-called "set in stone" rules. This means the hope of becoming published never dies. The flame burns eternal, because there are always those few who barge through all the set rules and become published authors. Your chances of acquiring an agent increase by leaps-and-bounds if you are already successfully published. This column is aimed at writers who are thinking of getting an agent, and want a reality check.

Picture Books and Early Chapter Books — Maybe Not!
This applies especially if it is your first book. Besides, agents like clients who have proven themselves. Later, when you have several successful publications you can add to your resume, and maybe an early chapter book under way, an agent will look at you more seriously. Apart from everything mentioned above, when a good agent takes the burden of finding publishers out of your workload, you will find lots more time to be creative and WRITE.

Middle Grade and Young Adult Books — Definitely YES!
Once upon a time, the collective wisdom was that children’s writers did not need an agent. That has changed, plus, many more topics for both these genres are now acceptable. Getting an agent if you write either genre is a good idea — if you can swing it. As with Picture Books, you will probably find an agent faster if you already have a couple of successfully published books out there. If your book has a new topic with a fresh twist, or an old topic that is out-of-the box terrific, an agent will snap you up. If your writing style introduces a unique "voice" that captivates, or you dream up a scenario that hooks readers. Fresh, new and unusual will get their attention. However, your writing had better live up to the hype that hooked the agent, or your book will never be auctioned to the highest bidder in a room full of drooling New York editors (not that auctions occur all that often....).

The Best Place to Find That Agent:

If this is your first book, being accepted by a well established literary agency is on a par with shooting a hole-in-one: don’t hold your breath! Look for agents new to the game, or not part of a large agency. These folks are hungry, and eager to stock their files with viable authors. This does not mean you grab the first Joe Blow who offers his services. Many great editors, for whatever reason, transfer their talents to the field of agenting. They become agents who KNOW publishing, and what publishers want. They are insiders who can help you find the editor of your dreams. Keep your ears and eyes open for news of such transfers, and jump in with your query, ASAP.

Links to Articles About Acquiring an Agent:


Join an online writer’s list. Learn to network with the other writers, and take note of the agent/publisher information as it filters through. Computers encourage people to write. The Internet spews out information and facts regarding everything to do with writing. It is up to you to triple check whatever a search engine offers. Writer Beware!

If you do decide to try for an agent, take the time to research, and find a really good one who shares your dream for your books, and for your writing career. Furthermore, if you write everything from picture books to jam jar labels, don’t expect one agent to represent every genre. A few lucky writers have this sort of dreamboat agent, locked-and-loaded in their arsenal, but think "hen’s teeth" and you’ll be nearer the mark. A string of two or three agents, if they really do the job, is not such a bad thing.

You should be so lucky!!


Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

Crayon tiphomearticlesCrayon end
Home page | Articles index