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  Why You Need An Agent (Except When You Don’t)
By Scott Nicholson

If you’re to believe the respected elders of the field who broke in twenty or thirty years ago, finding an agent should be on the bottom of any new writer’s priority list. With all due or undue respect, that advice simply isn’t as valid in the twenty-first century.

The speculative fiction fields are still famous for having editors who constantly seek out new talent and fresh voices. Most science fiction and fantasy publishers are still open to unsolicited submissions, and the two houses with horror paperback lines don’t require agented submissions. Depending on the editor’s preference, you can send in a query letter, a few sample chapters, or an entire manuscript. And, if you have the requisite imagination, you can even convince yourself that your odds are just as good as the agented writer’s who has a manuscript on top of the editor’s stack.

I don’t follow the markets closely enough to know which major publishers in mystery, suspense, mainstream, and literary fiction now accept unagented subs. I don’t have any knowledge of the romance field besides what I’ve heard from some its practitioners. Some houses formerly looking at slush stopped the practice after the anthrax scare following 9/11. Whatever the market listings say, my advice is to find an agent before sending your manuscript into the world.

So forget whether a certain publisher will look at your manuscript. If you have your heart set on one house, you’re not being practical. It’s good to have goals and priority lists and you should be passingly familiar with the philosophical leanings of each publisher. Still, you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. Of course, the exception is when you’ve met an editor at a convention, made a favorable impression of yourself and your work, and elicited a personal invitation to submit. Or, in plain English, you successfully bribed her with drinks.

I wish I had a book contract for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “So-and-so agreed to look at my novel.” Funny how I’ve rarely heard of a sale resulting from this method, though I’m sure it happens from time to time. I don’t think your odds are any better than if you sent the thing in cold, with nothing but a cover letter and synopsis to cover the naked pages. Ultimately, the work has to speak for itself.

But having an agent send in your work gives you several instant advantages. The primary one is the agent makes a living by knowing who is buying what. The manuscript goes to the most likely markets right away. The editor benefits by knowing the manuscript has passed muster with at least one literate professional. Having an agent send it in doesn’t guarantee a sale, but almost always guarantees a faster and fairer read.

That said, having a bad agent is worse than having no agent at all. If you’re a new author, the agent’s reputation is riding on the manuscript more than yours is, since you don’t have a reputation yet. That’s why agents are cautious about what they will take on, where they will pitch it, and how much they will ask for. An idiotic or make-believe agent will not get the time of day from a real editor, even if the manuscript is on par with Faulkner’s best or Stephen King’s worst.

We’ll skip the part about never paying an agent to represent, read, or edit your work. You’ve heard that basic lesson before. I would say go for an agent who belongs to the Association of Author’s Representatives, a group whose members have scored legitimate sales, can’t charge reading fees, and ascribe to a canon of ethics. There are exceptions, naturally, and some very high-powered agents don’t belong to AAR. But it’s still the best place to start looking.

The agent doesn’t earn his keep simply by getting the manuscript on the editor’s desk. If the publisher makes an offer, the good agent will usually ask for more money right away. In most cases, the agent will recoup the cost of the commission by getting you more money. In other words, the agent pays his own way instead of taking money from the writer. And you’ll eventually need to be on good working terms with the editor, so it’s helpful to have someone standing between you and the editor’s purse handlers. If negotiations get brutal, you are shielded. In most cases, you don’t even have to know how the battle is going until the dust settles.

The agent will also try to protect your subsidiary rights as much as possible. As with the advance price of your book, this is an area where your interest and the agent’s coincide. The more rights the agent wrings from the publisher, the more rights can be sold down the road. A good agent will be thinking of your entire career, or at least the next three books, instead of a quick cash-out.

One more area that’s a bit subjective is finding an agent who has similar philosophies to yours. I don’t think a young writer should sign with an agent, no matter how powerful, who’s on the verge of retirement. Similarly, if you’re the kind who likes to feel pampered, you should probably seek a small “boutique” agency rather than signing with one of the powerhouses. You also need the patience to trust that your agent is working behind the scenes for your ultimate benefit, even when it seems that things are moving slowly.

You generally don’t need an agent to represent a small press or self-published book, since you wouldn’t be able to get one anyway. Even if it was a done deal, the commission wouldn’t cover the postage. Agents won’t bother with short stories, either, unless you’re bringing in four or five figures for them, in which case you’re not wasting time reading articles about agents. But limited edition books and collections can be tools that help you sell yourself to an agent, and occasionally those are re-sold to larger publishers.

Some established writers seem to do just fine representing themselves. That’s okay if you are knowledgeable about contracts and can negotiate from a position of strength, meaning you won’t have much trouble finding another publisher if you turn down a contract. But I believe it’s well worth the fifteen percent to have someone who is looking out for your interests, even if it seems like a waste of money early in your career when the offers are largely take-it-or-leave-it. The agent will also find sales avenues that never would have occurred to you, pester the publisher for checks, and make sure the royalty statements jibe, thus leaving you free to focus on your work.

So what do you do when all the agents turn you down? Well, you find out which publishing houses are willing to look at unsolicited manuscripts of the type you’re writing. You send out query letters until you sell something. Then you get an agent. And you may even end up with one who had previously rejected you.
Because, in the final analysis, no agent, no editor, and no publisher will ever care as much about your career as you do. Nor should they. Because they have other clients and other books. You have only one career.

So make it work however you can. Don’t swallow the popular wisdom that agents “only want books by authors who are already selling.” New writers get agents every single day. Don’t worry, as soon as there’s enough money for someone to get interested in taking a cut, you’ll find your agent. The sooner the better, of course.

Once you start sending a novel to the publishers, write another novel and start sending that one to the agents on your priority list, even if they rejected the first one. Of course, if you manage to sell your novel yourself through the slush pile, then you are in a better position to get the agent of your choice. If the agent likes the second, represents it, and sells it, he will likely want to try selling the first one for you. Either way, you can’t lose, because you’ll have two novels, double the odds of breaking in, and you’ll become a better writer in the process. Repeat as necessary.

In the meantime, keep those query letters in the mail.

(Scott Nicholson is author of six novels, three screenplays, and numerous articles, short stories and songs. He runs a freelance editing service at www.hauntedcomputer.com/editing.htm, which includes a free five-page sample. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Horror Writers Association.)



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    Novel Writing tips for fiction writers