Do I need an agent?

With the rise of self-publishing, many authors are wondering whether they need an agent. Here’s a dialectic which might help you decide.

I’m earning a 70% royalty on Kindle compared to maybe 10% via a traditional publisher. There’s little bureaucracy to deal with, and giving 15% of my earnings to a third party just eats into my earnings, right? What am I paying for?

Let me explain what a literary agent does. She is a publishing professional who looks after your best interests. I can’t remember the exact quote, but Charles Dickens was positively ecstatic when he appointed John Forster as his agent. At last, he was free to concentrate on his writing, and not be encumbered with the distraction of dealing with publishers. He considered the fee ridiculously low for the freedom it gave him.

But that was then, and this is now. I’m happy collecting 100% of my 70% royalties on Kindle, thanks! I don’t want to deal with a traditional publisher at all.

Yes, the publishing model has changed somewhat. Sure, you might well not want to bother selling yet more books in physical form via traditional publishing – but quite why you’d give up a potential income stream is beyond me. With regards to income, talk to any working novelist about the economics of writing and you’ll soon find that the money isn’t in the novel: it’s in ancillary rights – film and TV. One best-selling, Booker-long-listed novelist I know earns around £25,000 from each novel in the first year of its publication. One of her contemporaries sells a similar amount but earns more because her work has been serialised on television. Film and ancillary rights turned J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter from a series of novels into an industry the size of a developing economy. Would you have what it takes to negotiate with Warner Brothers?

Don’t be facetious. Of course I’d get an agent at that stage. Who wouldn’t?

Wouldn’t you want one before that stage?

Before? Why would I want one before?

An agent is well-connected; not just in the literary world, but also to companies who deal with television and film adaptations. A good agent will actively market your work to these companies. I know a couple of Kindle-only novelists who have engaged agents and are desperately pushing for these income streams. In marketing terms it’s called product extension. You’re getting paid again for the same content, but without repeating the long hours, tears and sweat.

Yes, but they’ll charge 20% for that!

Ah, economics clearly isn’t your forte. You would rather have 100% of nothing than 80% of something.

Okay, you’re converting me to the economics of the market. But if I’m just starting off my career, why would I ever want an agent? To use your business comparison, things will be tight if I’m a start-up business, and that high-margin Kindle business sure looks good to me.

A reminder: an agent is a publishing professional who looks after your best interests. Few Kindle authors make fabulous amounts of money. Some may even make losses because they need professional editing services to get their work to a publishable standard. A good agent will spend months, if not years, nurturing talent they think is marketable. They do it for free, in the expectation that it’s an investment that will pay dividends to themselves and the writer. They’ll also negotiate an advance on your behalf. It’s also in their interests to give you good career advice, since they want you to have a career lasting decades. They can save you from a lot of wrong turns. Do you want to waste five years developing something that doesn’t sell or, worse still, damages your career?

I see. One last question, though. I might want to do a couple of non-fiction books. That’s pretty straightforward, right? No TV or film rights. Bada-bing – straightforward contract. Surely I don’t need an agent there?

Ah. So you’d not be interested in serialising your book on radio, or becoming an expert on TV?

I said forget all that stuff. Let’s assume I could do it myself. Can I just sign on the dotted line?

A close friend wrote an excellent self-help book a few years ago. She had a great platform, before that was even a popular term. The relevant division of one of the top publishers offered her a contract with a decent advance. I told her to get an agent, but she was having none of it: she signed, took the money and had a bestseller.

Aha! Proves my point!

Erm, no. Yes, she had a bestseller and she earned out her advance. Unfortunately, the publisher ran out of copies just when she was entering the top 20 – right in the middle of the peak pre-Christmas buying season. She went from potentially massive sales to… zero for several weeks. The story’s a bit more complex than that, but a good agent would not have let the publisher mess things up so badly. Furthermore, an agent would have forced the publisher into making concrete plans for foreign markets. Instead, they dillied and dallied for years – and it’s still not published in the US. (As a side-note, it was only the c.$50k US advance that allowed J.K. Rowling to survive on her novel-writing.)

That’s awful.

Oh, it gets worse. She signed a two-book deal, which is fairly standard practice. However, the publisher rejected the second book. They want a very specific kind of book that she doesn’t want to write, and she can’t get out of the contract.

Ouch. So what’s her remedy?

Expensive recourse to lawyers.

Oh. And an agent…?

…would have never let her get in that situation. Saving a few hundred pounds has cost her thousands in potential lost revenue, and years from her career.

Okay. Tell me how to get a literary agent.

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