You Must Have an Agent, And Other Myths about Publishing

For years, I thought that the only way to get published was to be represented by a literary agent.  The publishing industry perpetuates this myth – just look at how much Writer’s Digest talks about finding and keeping agents if you don’t believe me. But the truth is: it is not necessary to be represented by a literary agent to get published. I’m living proof.

There are many ways to get books published. One option is self-publishing, although that option has the most difficult path to financial success for an author and puts 100% of the marketing and sales efforts squarely on the back of the author. Another option is small press publishing, which typically uses a business model where the publisher and the author are partners in getting the book published and into the hands of potential readers. The third option is large press publishing. Unless you’re already a best-selling author, this option treats the author little better than a commodity and still puts much of the marketing and sales efforts on the back of the author until the book has proven itself worthy of the publisher’s continued investment.

None of these options requires having literary agent representation.

How do Literary Agents fit into the publication process?

Put simply, literary agents are supposed to help you find a publisher. In theory, they have relationships with publishers and know what the publishers are looking for. For a fee, paid out of monies the author receives from the publisher, the literary agent will try to find a publisher willing to purchase the publishing rights to an author’s book or story. If the literary agent is successful, he/she and the author benefit financially. If the literary agent is unsuccessful, he/she will often drop the author, forcing the author to look for new representation.

So literary agents seem like an indispensable resource for getting books or stories published, right? Wrong. While they can serve a useful purpose, they are not necessary.

Myth #1. Literary Agents Work for the Author.

Literary Agents work for agencies, and those agencies have revenue targets that their literary agents are expected to meet. The authors they chose to represent have manuscripts that the literary agent believes can be sold. But on what do they base this belief? Does the literary agent maintain a list of what publishers are looking for to help decide which manuscripts to represent? In many cases, yes. But literary agents are also like fashion designers; they want to set trends as much as they want to follow trends. Look at 50 Shades of Gray. Did publishers put out the word that they wanted this type of book, or did a clever literary agent convince a publisher to explore new ground? Look at the LGBT genre. Did the publishers decide to explore this subject matter, or was it literary agents desiring to set new trends that launched this genre?

From these two examples, you could easily say that the literary agents who pushed these manuscripts did indeed help their authors, and I don’t want to imply that literary agents don’t help their authors. The point I’m making is that literary agents have their own ideas about what will and won’t sell, and it is often different from what the publishers think will and won’t sell. An author may have the perfect manuscript for what a publisher wants to publish, but trying to find a literary agent may keep the publisher from ever seeing that manuscript if the literary agent is pursuing his/her own agenda for what should be published.

Myth #2. Publishers Won’t Accept Manuscripts Directly from Authors.

Most publishers accept submissions directly from authors. Literary agents can make the submission process easier with the larger publishers, but it is not the only way that publishers accept and review submissions.

So how does an author decide if he/she wants to be represented by a literary agent in order to find a publisher or wants to self-represent his/her manuscript to find a publisher? Well, it’s a numbers game – pure and simple.

The process for finding a literary agent and finding a publisher is essentially the same. To find a literary agent, the author must do research to find which agencies are looking to represent the manuscript’s genre and subject matter. The find a publisher, the author must do research to find which publishers want to publish (and have a track record for publishing) the manuscript’s genre and subject matter. The same research is required when searching for literary agents and publishers.

If the author has written a manuscript in the adult fiction genre, there are a large number of publishers to choose from that handle that genre. There are also a large number of literary agencies that handle that genre. In this example, it could be advantageous to have a literary agent help navigate the volume of publishers.

However, if the author has written a manuscript in the historical fiction genre, the situation is different. First of all, most literary agents who claim to represent historical fiction actually represent historical romance. Researching all of the genres that the literary agent represents will help spot those who mis-label romance, fantasy, young adult, or middle-grade genres as historical fiction, but that does not guarantee that the author will identify which literary agents are looking for true historical fiction. Second, the number of publishers who handle true historical fiction is also low. Rather than take the effort to find a literary agent, hoping that he/she represent true historical fiction and not one of the mis-labeled genres, it’s easier to self-represent the manuscript and go straight to the publishers.

From my perspective, if the number of literary agencies is greater than the number of publishers who handle a manuscript’s genre, then go straight to the publishers and don’t bother with finding a literary agent. If the number of publishers is higher that the number of literary agencies who handle a manuscript’s genre, or if the number of publishers is quite high, then literary agent representation could be the better way to go.

Myth #3. An Author Can’t Sell Movie Rights Without a Literary Agent.

This depends on the contract that the author signed with the publisher. It has nothing to do with literary agent representation.

So what is required to get a book published?

In this new world of self-publishing, the only thing required is a manuscript. That said, I strongly recommend that the author also use editors, critiquers, and beta readers.

When an author writes a manuscript, the author is writing the story that he/she wants to tell. That’s what the first draft of any manuscript is. But there is a lot of work required to take that manuscript and transform it into something that a reader wants to read.

Sadly, many self-published authors embarrass themselves by publishing books with terrible grammar and typos. Readers don’t want to read books that are amateurish. Editors who focus on grammar, focus on continuity (ensuring that the story doesn’t contradict itself or leave sub-plots unresolved), and focus on style, are valuable resources to any author. These editors help polish the manuscript so it’s ready to be read.

Critiquers are also valuable. Manu authors are members of critique groups. The critiques offered by these groups help polish the manuscripts by providing feedback on characterization, plot development, pacing of the story, etc.

Beta readers are an author’s test market. These readers are a mix of authors and avid readers who look at the entire manuscript and provide feedback on the overall story. Beta readers help determine if the story that the author wanted to write has been successfully transformed into a story that other people want to read.

Regardless of whether you self-publish, self-represent your manuscript, or seek literary agent representation, I cannot stress strongly enough the need to use editors, critiquers, and beta readers before making any attempt to publish your manuscript.

In Conclusion

Literary agents serve a useful purpose in the publishing process, but they are not for everyone, and they are certainly not required to get a book published. Rather than focus on how to get representation, the author should focus on the best method for getting his/her manuscript published. If literary agents seem to be the best way to get the manuscript in front of the right publisher, then by all means pursue representation. But don’t be afraid to self-represent a manuscript if it makes sense for the situation. I self-represented 11 manuscripts and signed publishing deals (small press, not self-publishing) for all of them without the aid of a literary agent. If can be done.

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About wbspeirjr

Author of "Muzzle-Loading Artillery for Reenactors," the 7-book "Knights of the Saltier Series," four historical novels ("King's Ransom," "The Saga of Asbjorn Thorleikson," "Nicaea - The Rise of the Imperial Church," "Arthur, King"), the sci fi novel "The Olympium of Bacchus 12," and the fantasy novel "The Kingstone of Airmid."
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10 Responses to You Must Have an Agent, And Other Myths about Publishing

  1. Steven Capps says:

    Fantastic article! I would completely agree that agent are not necessary to get published, but I think there is one other pro for agents that you did not mention. Most authors have limited experience with publishing contracts. A good agent should have a lot of experience or knowledge, preferably both. An agent can have a better understanding if a contract is “good” or “bad” due to their knowledge and experience. They can also have a stronger negotiation with the publisher because of their experience. If a publisher is offering a lower than normal advance to a new author, then the author may not know that. If an agent looks at the same contract, then they can go to publisher and say, “My client deserves $5000 for their manuscript and not $3000, because I see contracts every day and I know that you are low-balling them.”

    • wbspeirjr says:

      A very valid point. A good attorney can also provide the same service. Again, I’m not saying that literary agents don’t add value – they do. All I’m saying is that they’re not required to publish, and in many cases can be the reason a great manuscript never get published while terrible manuscripts do get published.

  2. Thank you for such a great article! Now I feel a bit more confident in my decision to self publish and not seek out an agent right now. On to finding an editor and beta readers 🙂

  3. frenchc1955 says:

    This is a great article!

  4. Great article but I’m guessing that an agent will help in putting a final polish on the novel by either editing themselves or finding the best editors for your genre. They have a vested interest in making the best book possible.

    • wbspeirjr says:

      True, but agents are not required for editing purposes. I use a number of different freelance editors who provide valuable feedback on changes that should be made to my manuscripts. They may not have the same vested interest as an agent, but then again, they don’t have the same agenda as agents often do.

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