Agents – when do you need one?
Okay, so you’ve written something. You’re proud of it. You think you might want to get it traditionally published. You’ve heard about literary agents, but not how a writer finds one — or what kind of written works customarily need agents. Here’s how to determine whether you NEED an agent.
If your work is one of the following, you won’t need to start an agent search, because reputable agents don’t handle: poetry, short stories, articles, or essays. Any agent that claims to specialize in poetry or short stories is an amateur or a scammer. Agents make 15% of what the author makes — so for a poem, or a short story or article or essay, it’s simply not cost-effective for a literary agent to handle that kind of work.
(Before someone chimes in to say that they heard that Famous Author’s agent handles his poetry or short stories, this can be true…for Famous Author. But in a case like that, the agent is not doing it for the commission; the agent is doing it as a favor to his or her client. That doesn’t mean it’s true for you, with your first sale yet to come.)
You also won’t need an agent if your work is aimed at any of the following: self-publishing, niche or specialty publication, regional publication, and most small presses. These kinds of companies will read un-agented work, and you can submit to them yourself, with no third party involved.
In the case of some non-fiction, an agent may not be necessary either. Publishers publish more non-fiction than fiction, and I know of some non-fiction authors who did fine submitting their work un-agented, even to big NY commercial publishers. When in doubt, read publisher guidelines and research books that fall into the same category as yours. Also, keep in mind that an agent will almost always get a writer a better contract, advance, etc.
In the case of genre novels, there are still some big commercial publishers that will read un-agented manuscripts. Category romance is one such, and there are still a couple of science fiction and fantasy markets that accept un-agented work. HOWEVER, their slush piles are huge, and it can take six months, a year, or even more for your work to be read. So you’re still better off having an agent, because you’ll get a quicker response.
In general these days, if you’ve written a novel, or what they call “creative non-fiction,” (which includes works like memoirs — think Angela’s Ashes), and your goal is publication with one of the big publishing houses, you really need to sign with a reputable literary agent with a decent track record of sales.
If You Have Determined You Do Need an Agent:
For the sake of this article, I’m presuming that “you” (the universal “you”) have completed a book. I’m presuming that the book has been revised and edited until it’s as good as you can make it. I’m presuming that you’ve asked a couple of writer friends to beta-read the book, and then used their feedback to improve the book even more. And I’m presuming that the book has been proofread and polished until it’s really ready to go out.