Every writer aiming for publication at some point in their career faces this question: should I find a literary agent? My answer: it depends.
Early in the process of writing, you need to determine which type of publishing you will do (see types of book publishing). Basically, let’s break the industry up into two sections for ease of discussion: traditional or self-publishing.
Agent and Traditional Publishing
If you decide that traditional publishing is the way you wish to proceed and if you decide that a large publisher will handle your book best, you will probably need a literary agent. Agents work hard at developing relationships with editors and publishers. They know what each of their contacts need, what the publishing schedule looks like, and if a particular publisher has a need. A good agent will know which publisher is best for your work. They become your advocate in a very ruthless industry, and negotiate for you.
I can already hear you saying that “so-and-so got a great contract without an agent from one of the big 5.” Yes, lightening does strike, but not often in the same place. This simply doesn’t happen often. An agent, when dealing with the big companies, can be a tremendous asset for your writing future.
Within the wider realm of traditional publishing, you will find the smaller publishers. If you wish to publish with one of these companies, you will probably not need an agent. As a small publisher, I rarely dealt with agents; my contact was directly with the author. The beauty of a small publishing house is that the editor, publisher, marketing guru, and so on are directly available to you and welcome your input—whether they use it or not, they still listen. In a larger publishing company, this is not always true for they have to follow established corporate policies. There is more flexibility in the small publishers, but there is also less money available. Definitely a ying/yang situation.
Agent and Self-Publishing
It’s only been within the last 20 years or so that self-publishing has become so prominent. Prior to that, anyone who self-published was proclaiming to the world that no publishing house would touch their book (true or not, that was the perception). That simply isn’t the case anymore. With the advent of the eBook, the entire industry turned on its ear. Authors can now control the destiny of their books. If you have decided to self-publish, you don’t need a literary agent. You have already found your publisher: YOU. For good and bad, you are going to be doing everything from book production to marketing to fulfillment. Sometimes you can hire people for these various tasks, but none of them fall within the realm of what an agent does.
Regardless of what you decide to do, you are going to be looking at multiple contracts. Your agent will present you with their contract. Your publishing house will send theirs, your production company will have their own, and so on. Unless you are a contract lawyer, I highly recommend that you see a contract lawyer and have them go over each contract with you. You need to fully understand everything that you sign. It is worth a few hours of lawyer time to save much heartache and grief in the future because you signed something but didn’t understand the implications. Also be sure that you have an “end date” on every contract so that they don’t continue on indefinitely.
Agent or No Agent?
Depending upon the publishing route you will take, you may or may not need an agent. A good agent for traditional publishing is absolute gold in the industry. Treasure them, and don’t begrudge them their commission. Agents work diligently to make sure that you, their author, is well-cared for. If you decide you don’t need an agent, tread carefully and work hard to learn what publishing requires of you. Either way, a good end product of a wonderful book is what everyone is working toward.