Do You Have To Have An Agent?

Katherine Kurtz sold her first trilogy (all 3 books) to Del Rey in the 70's -- all by herself. It was the beginning of a long and still-going-strong career in the fantasy genre. Obviously times have changed since the 70's. But success without an agent is certainly something that CAN be accomplished by the well-informed, yes?

You don't have to have an agent.
If you capture Osama bin Laden, I guarantee you that you can have a book deal without an agent.
If you win the Nobel Peace Prize cause you settled the conflict in the mid East..same deal.

If you are trying to be published in the less esoteric realms, like genre fiction, or memoir, or prescriptive non fiction, you still don't absolutely have to have an agent. Most major publishers won't look at unsolicited work, so you're limiting your access to publishers with big money, but ok.

You can submit your work to medium size houses and small presses; no problemo.

Here are a couple things to ask yourself:

Do you know what an escalator clause is?

Do you know the difference between translation rights and foreign rights?

What happens if the editor who acquired your book quits? or worse..is fired?

Who gets your rights if the publisher goes bankrupt?

Do you get paid for books that are sitting in a distributor’s warehouse when the distributor goes bankrupt and his assets are sold off for pennies on the dollar?

What happens when the publisher wants the advance back because they changed their minds about publishing your tome?

Smart people know they don't know it all. Really smart people recognizeit's not a limitation to acknowledge gaps in knowledge. Really really smart people surround themselves with people who know a lot about specific things.

Yes you can do this on your own. The better question is, why would you?


Simon Haynes said...

Reasons I don't have an agent: First, I wasn't actively seeking a publisher, they just fell in my lap (long story).
Second, I live in Australia, and several years back I queried a US agent who still hasn't replied. (No names, but they're legit.)
Third, with a three book contract on the table, did I really want to put the publisher on hold for several months while I tried to snag an agent on the other side of the planet? Nope.
Those are some of my reasons. I often see 'first get an offer, then find an agent' bandied around forums, but in real life you feel like you want to sign that contract before it grows wings and flies out of reach.
Not that I signed it blind: before the paperwork arrived I consumed three books on literary contracts, made exhaustive lists of rights I would and wouldn't negotiate on, and wrote down everything I wanted to see in a fair contract. After it arrived I had only two queries, both of them resolved without any change.
I know, I know - authors write and agents negotiate. It just didn't work out like that in my situation.
Sorry about the long post ;-)

litagent said...

Why do authors always feel that if they take time to consider an offer, or to get an agent, or if they make any sort of a counteroffer, the deal is going to -- *poof* -- evaporate? Once a publisher makes an offer, they've shown their cards. They WANT your book. Yes, deals sometimes fall apart, but no publisher is ever going to rescind an offer because you ask for some time to find an agent. (Which isn't difficult, believe me, when you have the offer in hand.)

brainlesionssuck said...

Now, I feel extra smart...having an agent and all...no going it alone for me.
Kathie at housewifecafe.com

Existential Man said...

"litagent" makes a good point about the anxiety that makes writers feel they must hurry to close the deal when an offer is made by an editor directly to an author. Of course, it is not uncommon for many to feel the same way about quickly accepting the first offer made for representation by an agent. I think both come from the unconscious or conscious belief that one's work is basically unworthy of representation or publication. Therefore they want to grab the first offer presented out of the irrational fear that it will be rescinded as soon as the agent or editor comes to her senses and realizes the author/work really sucks.

A few years ago, after having an editor say yes to a non-fiction book I proposed directly to him, I then easily found an agent who was happy to begin circulating the proposal to other major houses. We made the original editor wait at least two months before finally coming back and accepting his offer.

Point is, if they say yes, they understand you may want an agent to represent you and they also understand that an offer may be topped by another publisher. That's how the game is played--editors and publishers understand it, but too many writers do not.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Miss Snark:

“Most major publishers won't look at unsolicited work, so you're limiting your access to publishers with big money, but ok.”

Based on paper and e-mail queries and one cold call, I got editors at a number of trade publishers to request my proposal. Without consulting my submission log, here’s an incomplete list, but it’ll suffice: Knopf, Wiley, Kensington, Source Books, Robson (UK), Pearson (publishers of the Complete Idiots Guide series), Simon & Schuster, and Rowman & Littlefield.

As for the other leg of your argument, understanding a publishing contract is not nearly as tough as agents make it out to be. Richard Curtis has an excellent book on how to do it.

Simon Haynes said...

The publisher who made me the offer is a small literary house. My books are comic SF, a complete departure from anything the publisher has done before.
Now, FACP have a distribution agreement with Penguin Australia which sees all their books included in the Penguin catalogue and sold by Penguin reps. That was a huge drawcard for me. My book was selected as a group buy by one of the major bookselling chains in Oz, and spent three weeks on their bestseller list, so that part worked out nicely.
Before I was offered a contract I spent six months with an editor from the Press, reworking and improving the first title in the series. (The original contact came after the publisher's local sales rep saw my self-published novels in a bookstore. They rang to ask whether I'd work with an editor with a view to re-issuing the result, conditional on the edited book being up to scratch. I backed myself to be able to do the work required. My reasoning was that if they turned me down, my book would have benefited greatly from the editorial input. I even went as far as preparing a cover letter and synopsis for another publisher, so that in the event FACP turned me down I would be able to mail my query out immediately. It was really just a prop, something to ease the disappointment if they said no.)
When they said yes and offered me a three book contract I could hardly employ an agent to shop the modified book around, could I?
I did warn you it was a long story ;-)

litagent said...

Simon -- I don't think that anyone is suggesting that you should have gotten an agent to further shop the book after you had an offer, rather that authors do well to get an agent BEFORE one shops the book in the first place. In your case, there was no "shopping". The publisher came to you. An agent would have been able to tell you whether it was in your best interest to take the deal, or to in fact shop the book around more for a better deal. In any regard, once you got the offer, it would have been prudent to have an agent do the negotiating for you. To your credit, you did a lot of homework and hopefully got a fair contract for your books, but most authors aren't as savvy as a good agent when it comes to negotiating contracts (and other issues that come up in the course of the publication process). Richard Curtis' book notwithstanding. (And no offense to Mr. Curtis -- I have and use his book as well -- but you're probably better off with Kirsch's Guide to the Book Contract and the Author's Guild's guidelines.)

BTW -- Miss Snark can address this at another time -- but there is a debate in the industry about whether multi-book deals are a good thing. Almost inevitably, someone ends up unhappy: either the publisher, who is stuck with the responsibility for a second (and even third) book when the first book's sales were disappointing, or the author whose first book does very well and then feels taken advantage of because he can't negotiate better terms for the second and third book.

Simon Haynes said...

Thanks for the reply. I realise my situation is slightly different which is why I posted a second time to clarify. Before that, you could only comment on the limited info I supplied. (I only posted because Miss Snark asked why an author would choose to go it alone.)
My three book deal is also a little different in that I've already written the books, so the publisher is buying a known quantity. I wouldn't have signed a six, nine or twelve book deal, and my contract doesn't have a first refusal clause on future work. (Same series or something else entirely.)
That still doesn't cover the situation where the first book tanks and the publisher is then stuck with books two and three. Fortunately it didn't work that way and book two is now in production for a March release.
I firmly believe authors should seek an agent and then allow the agent to find a publisher while the author writes more books. It just didn't work that way in my case.

Liz Wolfe said...

I have an agent because it just drive me nuts to deal with assimilating al the current info about publishing, about my genre(s) in particular, and a LOT of other stuff. I want to write. I want an agent who deals with selling my writing. Hopefully I have an agent who wil get me enough of an advance that I can hire a publicist so I can also write instead of thinking about publicity.
Note: I'm VERY wiling to show up in person or on-line to publicize my books. I just don't want to have to THINK about it. I'm personable. I can talk or chat or whatever. But what I really want to do is write. It's what I do best. It's what I do anyway.
Certainly I couldl do this without an agent. But an agent makes it ever so much easier on me.

Deanna Hoak said...

I have been employed in the editorial side of publishing for fifteen years, and I've been doing freelance copyediting for the major SF/F houses for the last decade. I'm an extremely intelligent, personable woman who has very carefully read Kirsch's Guide to the Book Contract and Handbook of Publishing Law. I am very well respected in my field and familiar with the tastes of many of the editors in the genre. Bestselling authors request me by name to copyedit their novels, and editors regularly buy me drinks and dinner at cons. An editor at one of the major SF/F houses that does not accept unagented submissions has already agreed to read my fantasy novel.

Am I looking for an agent to represent me? Hell yes I am. I have a partial out with one of the top agents in the genre now and will be thrilled if she accepts me. There are all kinds of reasons an agent will benefit a writer--way beyond the ones Ms. Snark mentioned.

First, let's be honest: Is the advance important to you? It is to most writers. For my genre, one of the authors has kindly compiled the statistics found here. Scroll down to the "Agented vs. Unagented" section. Not having an agent will likely cost you money.

Second, despite Winkler's assertion, it is absolutely true that most of the bigger houses don't accept unagented submissions. And the houses that do accept them have such huge slush piles that you're likely to wait more than a year for a response. Can an agent politely chivvy an editor who's taking too long with your manuscript and a) actually have the chivvying make a difference, and b) avoid getting the editor annoyed with you, the author? Sure. Can you? No, not really.

Which brings us to the third point: As an author, you want to develop a good working relationship with your editor, hopefully for years to come, and negotiating can interfere with that. You may not feel comfortable negotiating, and you most likely have no idea what you're really worth, one way or the other. Of course it's all business, but people are people, and resentments can still fester. An agent does a lot to protect an author from that.

Lastly (at least in this diatribe, though I'm sure there are reasons I haven't given), what price do you put on your time? If you're unagented, you will be spending plenty of hours on mundanities that your agent would have handled for you--hours you could have spent writing. Your time is neither unlimited nor valueless, and no one but you can write your books. Letting someone else handle the tasks for which you are replaceable only makes sense.

I'm in a far better position than most to sell my book unagented if I were so inclined. I'm not, precisely because I understand the industry so well. Signing with a great agent is one of the best career moves an author can make.

Miss Snark said...

could not have said it better myself. Thanks for an excellent comment, Miss Hoak!

Brady Westwater said...

Among my among past lives, I was in real estate agent in Malibu. I specialized in buyers but also had quite quite a few sellers, particularly since one usually became the other.

A major source of income, was representing other real estate agents, some of whom worked my office. It was not that they were not fully capable of representing themselves, but they also realized that having another person who was not emotionally involved in the process made it a lot easier to hande both the negotiations and the many details of a transaction.

And when I sold my first TV pilot (by myself)even though I negotiated most of the contract - I immediately hired an agent to finish the transaction and paid him a full commission.

Mr. Breese said...

Ms Hoak,

Thanks for the absolutely terrific comment. That's one of the best things I've read in quite a while.

WF said...

Another thing having an agent can do is act as go between AFTER the contract is signed.

This is a good thing~likely you will have questions after the contract is signed. I've had a lot. Many of the questions the agent can answer simply from experience and you're not driving your newly found editor insane. They are busy folks~some of us have incesstant non stop questions and if you can avoid irritating the editor, that's all good.

An agent can also get more out of the contract for you. He or she knows what they can get and what they can't. More free author copies, a better advance when the book calls for it, etc. Even if the offer has been made, you don't necessarily know if you could get more.

I agented after an offer had been made and I'm glad I did. She answered tons of questions, not all related to the contract itself, and that saved me from driving my editor insane.

She got me more free author copies, which isn't always the easiest thing, she got me a better deal on the advances.

Plus an agent is your own personal cheerleader. They believe in your book, otherwise they wouldn't have decided to represent you. I don't know about all writers, but the majority of us do need that.