Last revision: March 13, 1999
Part Five: Do I Need An Agent?
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
So you want to be a writer. You've written a story, and you want to sell it. You want to look like a pro; you want to get the best deal you can.
Should you get an agent?
There isn't a simple yes or no answer to that.
First off, it depends what you've written, and what you're hoping to get out of it. If you've written poems or articles or short stories, whether you can use an agent or not, you are not going to be able to find a good agent who will handle you. The profits involved in agenting short works aren't worth the trouble for any competent agent. Some excellent agents do handle short stuff--but only for clients who also write novels or other book-length works. Books are where the money is for literary agents.
So let us suppose you've written, not just a story, but a novel--400 pages of blood, sweat, tears, and toil. You think it's good; you've let other people read it (not your mother) and they think it's good.
Do you send it to an editor, or to an agent?
My vote would be to send it to an editor. Here's why.
All an agent can do for you, at this stage, since you have no track record, is to send the novel to editors, much the way you would do it yourself. If he's a reasonably well-known agent, a submission from him will skip the first reader and go straight to the editor's office, which could save you some time, but simply because the book is coming from an agent instead of an author doesn't make it any more likely the editor is going to buy it once he or she has actually read it.
What could make it more likely is if the agent puts his or her personal reputation on the line here, goes in there and tells the editor, "I really think this is a great book--I know it's not your usual stuff, but I think it's going to surprise you." Or perhaps, "I know this book isn't anything special, but the author is; his next book is going to just blow you away, and if you buy this one you'll have first shot at it."
If the editor has a high opinion of the agent, this can make a real difference. What could give an editor that high an opinion of an agent?
If the agent has been right before, and right much more often than he's been wrong. Or if the agent has clients the editor values very highly.
An agent with an impressive client list has clout. If an editor mortally offends my agent, for example, that editor not only loses me as an author, but risks losing all Russ Galen's other clients--Marion Zimmer Bradley, Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Kube-McDowell, Mercedes Lackey, S.N. Lewitt, and so on.
So an agent can help sell a novel.
But will he?
Because, quite frankly, why should he?
The best agents have literally hundreds of would-be clients sending them manuscripts. At the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, in order to keep the flood of manuscripts manageable, they charge a reading fee--I believe it's presently $500 to have a novel read and commented on.
There's at least one person at SMLA, and I think more than one, who works full-time doing nothing but reading manuscripts from people who were willing to pay $500 apiece to get back three-page letters telling them why their novels suck.
This is not to suggest that it's purely a racket, because it isn't really; I know at least one author, now quite successful, whose first sale was made through the SMLA reading fee desk.
But I only know one.
[Important note: All the above references to SMLA are out of date; Scott Meredith is dead and the agency has been completely restructured -- for the worse, in my opinion.]
Because why should a good agent take on a new client who's unpublished, when there are plenty of established writers who don't have agents, or who are unhappy with their agents?
And most established agents already have plenty of clients. Last time I saw a list, Russ Galen had at least forty-three clients in the science fiction field, and the gods know how many in other genres. Eleanor Wood, the top agent in the SF field, apparently doesn't take on new clients any more at all. You are not going to get one of the big names to handle your first novel; it's not worth their time and effort.
And in fact, it's not worth the time and effort for any competent agent to sell a story unless it's a story that you could easily have sold yourself.
Think about it--why should an agent put his reputation on the line by submitting an inferior piece of work? How is that going to help him? If the novel's lousy but shows great potential, an editor is just as likely as an agent to see that potential.
About the only way you're going to find an agent who's willing to take on an unpublished author with a mediocre first novel is if the agent is no better than mediocre himself. An agent who's desperate for clients, grasping at straws, might do it--but do you really want an agent like that?
Do you know what you need to do to be a literary agent?
Nothing. Just announce that you are one.
Agents aren't licensed or registered or certified; there's no bar exam, and since most are freelance they don't need to pass any hiring qualifications.
Anybody can be a literary agent.
There are some "agents" who do nothing but collect reading fees.
There are some "agents" who will, for a fee, have your novel "fixed"--without any guarantee that it'll then sell. They split the fee with the guy who does the rewrite, and make enough money off that that they don't care if the thing never sells.
I know of agents who have lost manuscripts, who have taken three years to get around to submitting stories, who have simply disappeared, taking manuscripts and money with them.
So you don't just want an agent, you want a reputable agent, a competent agent--a good agent.
And that's exactly the sort who doesn't need you as a client.
So the only benefit of finding an agent before you sell your first novel is that it might save you a couple of months waiting time--and quite likely you'll waste at least that much time in finding a respectable agent who will handle you.
So I recommend going straight to the editors.
But does this mean you don't ever want an agent?
Hell, no. I have an agent, and I'm glad I do. I didn't for my first four novels, and it cost me. Most writers have agents. A few don't--Isaac Asimov didn't, for example, and Bruce Coville doesn't. In general, though, a good agent earns his ten percent (or more commonly fifteen, now) by getting you higher advances, better contract terms, faster responses from editors, foreign sales. An agent may find work for you that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise, doing movie novelizations and the like. So yes, I think you probably want an agent--after you sell your first novel.
So here's the procedure I recommend, and which is also recommended by many other writers: Sell your first novel yourself, sending it to editors until one accepts it. When you get that letter or phone call making an offer, don't immediately grab it; instead politely say, "Could I get back to you tomorrow?"
Then get an agent. You should have a couple in mind--get names from writers, if possible, or from the "People and Publishing" column in Locus, where every so often it will report something like, "John Smith has just sold his new novel Death Bunnies to Extreme Publications for $150,000 in a deal handled by Fester Leech of the Hookham Literary Agency." Phone your first choice--you don't want to take time to write, the editor might change his or her mind--and explain that you have an offer from a publisher, and you'd like him to take you on as a client.
At that point, most agents will be interested in at least handling the one deal, and even if it doesn't become a long-term client-agent relationship, at least you'll be able to see what changes a pro demands in the contract.
If your first choice can't take it, have a second choice, and a third. And by the end of the day, you should have an agent and a first-novel sale.
How do you choose the agents to ask?
Ask writers who represents them. Ask if they're pleased with their agents.
If you can't do that, read Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle and keep an eye out for mentions of agents.
If the agent you want won't handle you, maybe you could ask him to recommend someone--agents must know the competition.
And at an absolute minimum, you want two things in an agent:
He should know the field you're writing in. If you're writing science fiction, you do not want to sign up with an agent who specializes in romance, you want someone who already knows all the SF editors, knows which line publishes what, knows what ideas were done to death twenty years ago and can recognize a fresh approach when it comes along.
And he should be based in New York.
This second requirement may seem arguable, but I think it really is necessary. It's far more important that your agent be close to the editors than that he be close to you. Agents in New York can drop in at editorial offices, take editors out to lunch, use New York's messenger services to send manuscripts and contracts back and forth. They can spend hours on the phone without worrying about running up long distance charges. American commercial book publishing is heavily concentrated in New York City--particularly genre paperback publishing, which is where SF writers are most likely to break in. Yes, there are specialty houses and university presses all over the country, but the major publishers are all in New York.
And beyond that, choosing an agent is a matter of taste. I have heard people bad-mouth my agent at great length, but I'm quite pleased with him, and so are the other clients of his I've met. There's one agent who makes my skin crawl, and who has even been sued by disgruntled ex-clients--but I've heard a couple of her other clients rave about how good she is.
So find one you're happy with.
But first, sell the novel.
All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
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