Do You Really Need An Agent?
If you’re a writer, you may wonder whether or not you really need an agent to get your work picked up by a publisher.
The short answer is this: agents can be helpful in some circumstances but they are not necessary.
Let’s start with what agents do, and keep in mind that I am only discussing the world of non-fiction, and that I am addressing myself to agents working with the vast majority of non-fiction writers (not the one-percenters who produce work that has big publishing houses fighting each other to pay six or seven-digit advances).
An agent will help you hone your proposal in the manner I have outlined here. Once you have a credible pitch package, he or she will send it out to a list of maybe a dozen editors at reputable publishing houses and follow up in a couple of weeks to see if any are interested enough to make an offer. If none on the initial list are interested, a broader list of second-tier publishers is employed.
In the vast majority of cases, no publisher is interested, or one publisher is interested, or a couple of publishers might be interested but one offer is clearly better than the others. In rare circumstances, more than one publisher will offer and the agent will play them off against each other. In any instance, the agent either tells you no one is interested or accepts on your behalf the best deal offered and gets fifteen percent of whatever you make from the project.
There is an element of service in agency. Some agents are better than others at helping you prepare your pitch and/or your manuscript. Some are good at holding your hand through the process of writing a book and will be an advocate for you on publication, prodding the publisher to design a better cover or promote the book, etc. The level of service varies from agency to agency but in almost all cases, in my experience, the fee is earned on the original deal.
I know many writers who can’t really afford to be giving fifteen percent to anyone yet are loath to put themselves forward or negotiate. They have agents. Other authors simply don’t want the bother of firing out pitch packages and familiarizing themselves with the terms of a contract. They are happy to pay an agent to do the work.
If you don’t mind doing a little work yourself you can save the fifteen percent. It is not difficult. The contracts are all pretty much the same – you can find samples online – and there are really only three things that need close attention: advances, royalty rates, and rights.
Advances are guaranteed pre-publication money. A publisher who wants your book will make an offer – say, $5,000. Ask if it can’t be a bit higher – that’s all your agent will do. The publisher will either stand pat or offer ten or fifteen percent more. I know some publishers who, aiming to keep advances low, fight a lot harder with agents than with writers. They either don’t like agents (or your particular agent), or they feel more comfortable extracting harsh terms from a professional negotiator than an indigent writer.
Most people can negotiate at least as hard as an agent. Agents are like realtors: their success depends on a high volume of deals, not making sure each one is as rich as it can possibly be. Another five hundred up front means a lot to you and nothing to them.
Royalty rates, your share of revenue from each book sold, are almost always in the range of eight to ten percent. Most publishers are loath to negotiate them. If you push for and receive a better royalty rate (and I don’t know anyone getting more than ten), it will probably be at the expense of your advance.
Most publishers will want the world rights to your manuscript, meaning it will be up to them (not you or your agent) to sell the book to other publishers in foreign markets. Most publishers will also want your audio and e-book rights and allow you to keep your video rights. In my experience, it is the book itself (not the publisher or the agent) that leads to foreign sales and film options. On these items, a lot of agents simply wait for the phone to ring. You can do that yourself.
This seems to happen more often in the realm of fiction than non-fiction but some publishing houses won’t look at your manuscript unless it comes via an agent. I think those publishers are foolish and lazy but they exist.
Most good publishing houses (including this one) will give your proposal or manuscript due consideration and, if acceptable, sign you to a contract, offer you the same terms and look after you just as well as if you had a tribe of agents behind you.
So it’s up to you but don’t ever feel that the barrier between you and a writing career is the lack of an agent. Submit your proposals and manuscripts to a publisher. See what happens.