Writers generally accept the fact that to get a contract with a major publisher we need agent representation. Combining common sense and humor, E. Hanes summed it up the best: “The question is something akin to: Does a human being need a doctor? The answer, of course, can be ‘no,’ but it begs the question: why would you want to doctor yourself?
It’s the same with writing. At a certain level, a writer does not need an agent. Placing a short story in a journal? No. But selling a novel? For me, the answer is yes, because: Agenting is not my profession. Just as I expect to be paid for rendering my professional service — writing — I have no problem paying others for rendering their professional services, whether agenting, doctoring or car fixering. In fact, not only would I be willing to pay in good old-fashioned greenbacks, truth be told, I’d practically give my right arm in exchange for agent representation. OK, maybe not my arm. Definitely a portion of my spleen, though.”
In the vast publishing world, agents serve a purpose, as described by V. Laherty: “It seems to me that an unagented manuscript lacks having been through some kind of screening, and in a ‘perceived value’ environment, marketability is key to people keeping their jobs based on their recommendation, as well as time spent sorting through manuscripts for fatal flaws.”
When M.B. Miller collaborated on a book with a friend, she learned the advantages of having a good agent: “We got an agent, but after a few months, the agent declared she wasn’t going to try again with our book for six months or more. We fired her. Then, finally, without an agent, we succeeded in getting the book published, by what we thought was a good publisher. Talk about languishing. We received one royalty check, which might have paid for paper costs and another small one that didn’t cover postage. Not only does a writer need a good agent, he or she also needs a good publicist, and an editor, not just a publisher that prints whatever a writer sends.”
But what happens when the agent doesn’t sell your manuscript? S.F. Lick shared her story: “It’s a sore subject for me right now because my agent just informed me that she has tried every publisher that seemed likely to her and she can’t do any more for me. Ouch. Our relationship is over unless I can pull a blockbuster out of my file cabinet. Let me look. Nope. Don’t have one. But in three months, she queried 23 major publishers that don’t accept un-agented submissions. It would have taken me years to do that on my own. She also forced me to rewrite my proposal and sample chapters until they were flawless. So it wasn’t a waste of time.”
Lick comes away from her experience with a positive attitude and stresses the importance of keeping it all in perspective: “I have published three books without an agent, and the new books I’m working on now are so specialized in topic or geography that I don’t believe an agent would represent them, and I don’t need an agent for the smaller publishers I’m contacting. I think one should definitely try for an agent for novels and for nonfiction with widespread interest and best-seller potential. But for poetry or books with limited audiences, go ahead and sell it on your own. Although we would all love to have that million-dollar contract and a place on the bestseller list, with an agent handling all the negotiations, I think most of us are just happy to have our books published, with or without an agent.”
In a perfect world every writer would have an agent and every agent would sell his client’s work. Since this is far from a perfect world, even if you don’t have an agent, writers agree you shouldn’t let that deter you from moving your career forward on your own.