Traditional Publishing — “Do I Need an Agent?”

One of the first questions writers considering traditionally publishing ask is “Do I need an agent?” There’s a lot of misinformation floating around about agents. Let’s set the record straight, starting with…

How much do agents cost?

Agents cost NOTHING upfront. If an agent tries to charge you any sort of fee, run the other direction. There should be no reading fee, no retainer, and no fee for editing.

  • Your primary agent is paid 15% of your earnings. The publisher pays the agent (usually), and the agent pays you.

Example: You are given a $1000 advance. The publisher sends the agent a check for $1000. The agent keeps $150 and sends you a check for $850.

TO BE CLEAR: Your agent doesn’t get paid unless YOU get paid. The agent’s money comes from your advance and/or royalties. This motivates the agent to sell your work.

What do agents do?

Agents do FAR more than sell manuscripts. Different agents have different strengths depending on their backgrounds and interests, but some of the tasks they commonly perform are:

  • Edit and evaluate manuscripts to ensure they’re ready for sale.
  • Network with editors to stay on touch of their preferences and current wish list.
  • Negotiate advances and royalty percentages.
  • Negotiate contracts to make them as author-friendly as possible.
  • Sell secondary rights like audio, foreign, and movie rights.
  • Act as intermediary between editors and authors. This ensures no one says anything stupid and destroys a good working relationship.
  • Review royalty statements to ensure authors are getting all the money they’re due.

They don’t do everything, though. Here’s a great list of what an agent WON’T do for you.

Is it worth it?

It’s pretty much universally accepted that agents will get you a better publishing deal than you would get for yourself. They negotiate higher royalties and advances, they reach publishers closed to writers, and they are able to sell rights you cannot sell yourself.

Yeah, they’re worth it.

If you want to publish traditionally, honestly you have nothing to lose by querying agents instead of approaching small publishers directly.

  • If you land an agent, and your agent is able to sell your manuscript, you’ll make more money than you would have if you had sold it yourself.
  • If your agent is unable to sell your manuscript (or if you are unable to get a manuscript), you can STILL approach small publishers. Your agent may be able to get you a better deal, but even if not, you will likely have a much better query package to present.

Again: If you’re going to query agents, don’t query small publishers — not until your agent has exhausted all possibilities or until you give up on trying to get an agent.

Do I need an agent?

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