Do You Need a Literary Agent to Get Your Book Published?
One of the questions I'm most frequently asked is, "Do I need a literary agent to get my book published?” Invariably, my answer is, “That depends.” On what? Well, it’s complicated—as all things worth pursuing are. So to better answer that question, let’s dive headfirst into the topic and take a look at the benefits and considerations of enlisting the help of a literary agent to become a published author.
First Things First: What are literary agents?
Literary agents have long been regarded as the gatekeepers of the exclusive world of traditional publishing. Agents are the people who guide authors through the often rocky terrain of the publishing industry. The most experienced among them boast a wealth of insider knowledge built through years of cultivating relationships with editors, publishers, and other industry professionals. The best book agents have their fingers on the pulse of the publishing industry and are skilled at spotting trends, understanding market demands, and predicting what readers are going to be hungry for tomorrow.
What is the role of a literary agent?
One of the big advantages of landing a literary agent is that they can be your everything. Well, just about. An agent can fill the role of a career strategist, contract negotiator, and advocate on your behalf. They can not only land you a publishing deal, but they can also secure you a favorable contract that safeguards your rights and makes sure you’re paid what you’re worth. Agents are the bridge between the creative and business ends of writing, and they provide a valuable buffer for the author who just wants to be left alone to write.
What will a literary agent do for you?
Literary agents have industry connections that can open doors and may lead to opportunities that would otherwise remain out of reach. Publishers see book agents as filters that ensure only polished, marketable manuscripts make their way onto an editor’s desk. In fact, the vast majority of traditional publishers will only read manuscripts that are brought to them by a literary agent. In this way, having an agent’s endorsement can significantly improve an author’s chances of getting noticed in a highly competitive industry.
When do you need a literary agent?
Determining if you need a literary agent depends on what you want to accomplish in your writing career. While that differs for everyone, there are a handful of common scenarios where having an agent in your corner might be advantageous.
You might need a literary agent if:
. . . you want to be traditionally published. If your goal is to secure a deal with a major publishing house, a literary agent is an essential ally. Agents possess the connections that can get your manuscript read by a major publisher. Without an agent, most traditional publishers won’t even consider your work.
. . . you need help navigating complex contracts. Publishing contracts can be daunting. Most require you to sign your book’s publishing rights over to the publisher for a period of years, sometimes as many as seven. This is often the case with both traditional and hybrid publishing contracts. There are also royalty splits to decipher. An agent’s expertise in negotiating advances, royalties, and subsidiary rights can protect your interests and ensure you’re paid fairly.
. . . you’re looking for someone who’s an expert at market knowledge and brand building. Literary agents bring a unique perspective to the table. They help authors identify their target audience, hone their brand, and tailor their manuscripts to meet market demands, increasing your likelihood of attracting a publisher’s attention.
. . . you’re dreaming of international editions and film adaptations of your work. Literary agents possess the knowledge and connections to make these dreams a reality and can prevent you from signing your life away just to see your name on a screen.
When do you NOT need a literary agent?
Having a book agent has its benefits, but it’s not a necessity. Thanks to self-publishing platforms like Amazon KDP and IngramSpark, authors are empowered to take control of their publishing journey—and with this newfound autonomy, having a literary agent for some is no longer even necessary.
You might not need a literary agent if:
. . . you want complete creative control. Publishing houses are famous for producing books that authors are unhappy with—designing a cover that's not what you envisioned, making sweeping editorial decisions, and even changing your book’s title. Self-publishing puts you in the driver’s seat so that the end product is exactly what you envisioned it to be.
. . . your book falls within a niche or non-traditional genre. One of the first things a publishing house looks at aside from the quality of the manuscript is its marketability. If you’re writing in a niche genre that a major publisher has no experience or interest in, it might be wise to consider exploring alternative routes through self-publication.
. . . you want to earn more money. Having an agent comes with benefits, but those benefits cost money. Typically, a literary agent will take 15% of your book’s total earnings (before taxes). But self-publishing a book also means self-financing a professional edit and book cover design, both absolute musts to ensure your book stands out in a competitive field. Not having to split your profits with an agent makes sense here.
. . . you’re focusing on building a following. Most authors don’t make a killing on their first published book, and one of the best ways of eventually achieving financial success through writing is by building a loyal fanbase through multiple books. In a scenario like this, the 15% you’d normally pay your agent might be better spent on marketing campaigns, professional editing, cover design, and other elements that contribute directly to your book’s quality and visibility.
One Uncomfortable Truth, and a Hack
Getting an agent isn’t easy. There are literally thousands of qualified agents scattered across this vast landscape we call Earth, but many of them are busy with existing clients, and getting their attention can be a feat in and of itself. To make things a touch more difficult, getting an agent sometimes requires you to already be published. If this sounds like a catch-22, it is. Sort of. The trick is to build a portfolio of published works through publications that accept independent submissions. It also helps if you’re a brilliant writer. But that should go without saying.
Ultimately, the answer to the question "Do I need a book agent to get published?" depends on a number of factors, not the least of which include your motivations for getting published, your overall aspirations as a writer, your personal preferences with respect to creative control, and even the genre you're writing in. Literary agents offer a wealth of advantages, but the changing publishing landscape provides authors with an array of viable and financially attractive alternatives. Whether you choose to embrace the guidance of a book agent or blaze your own trail, remember this: The path you tread is uniquely yours, and your story deserves to be told in the way that resonates most with you.
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Vince Font is the owner and chief editor of Glass Spider Publishing. He is the award-winning author of American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman and the Shadows on the Page book series.