Is hiring a literary agent a MUST? Then versus now.
Twenty years ago, the answer to the question I’ve posed in the title would be “Yes, definitely—”but only if you were writing a book. With the exception of established literary lions like Joyce Carol Oates or John Updike, agents don’t handle short stories or non-fiction articles. There’s no money in it. Even if they sell a story to a high-paying market like Playboy or The New Yorker, the standard 15% cut might amount to only a few hundred dollars.
With the exponential growth of the Internet and the technology it allows, the answer to the title question has now changed slightly to, “Yes, probably.” It’s possible to market and sell manuscripts on your own, but literary agents are trained to negotiate and have existing contacts in the publishing world. They can get you easier access to publishers, and can often negotiate a better advance and royalties. After all, they more you get, the more they get. Plus, some traditional publishers won’t even look a manuscript if it doesn’t come to them through an agent. But you can still do without an agent, simply by acting as your own (as Frederick Forsythe once did) or via self-publishing, if you don’t mind the extra work.
How to get published? The chicken and the egg problem.
Whatever you decide, it’s probably going to be difficult to acquire an agent; as the old saying goes, “You can’t get an agent unless you’re already published, but you can’t get published without an agent.” It’s not an ironclad system, of course, or no one would ever get an agent; but it’s certainly a Catch-22 that may have been deliberately designed that way to limit the number of manuscripts that publishers see. My clients who have acquired agents did so only after a systematic program of querying dozens before someone bit. It was worth the effort, because at least two (that I know of) have had their agents sell their books.
Don’t forget to check the smaller imprints of the larger publishers. This is often the way to get your foot in the door.
The fundamentals of working with a literary agent
There are certain things you must be aware of before you sign with an agent. The first is the most fundamental: the money should flow from them to you, not the other way around. They should collect your payments from your publisher, take your cut, and send the rest along to you. An agent who makes his or her money by charging a reading fee or a yearly “maintenance fee” isn’t an agent, they’re a con artist. The only exception I’ve ever heard of is the highly regarded Scott Mitchell Literary Agency, which charges a hefty reading fee to discourage all but the most serious of authors from submitting their manuscripts. Otherwise, they would be flooded with unsolicited works, since they represent some of the best known writers in science fiction, fantasy, and several other genres.
How to avoid being scammed
There are also agent-sharks in the literary waters who work with predatory editors. They automatically “recommend” that you send your manuscript to their editor for “polishing” before they will represent you, with no guarantee of doing so even if you do have it edited. They only recommend their editor so they’ll get a cut of the profits, of course. If you’ve already had your manuscript edited by a reputable editor, then this becomes immediately obvious. If not, and you honestly feel the manuscript needs editing, find a reputable editing network and submit your manuscript for bids. You can then choose the editor you want to work with, based on your own needs and their ability to fulfill them. (By the way, Book Editing Associates was formed in 1998 to protect writers from scams. See Birth of an Editing Network.)
Keep going or stop and reassess?
During your agent quest, you’ll probably get a lot of “nos” from prospective agents. Don’t let this get you down; they’ve probably got their hands full and can’t handle another client, or else your manuscript doesn’t fill their needs or match their interests.
But “nos” are often legit and relate to the quality of your submission materials. If you did not have your manuscript and submission materials reviewed by a professional editor with traditional publishing credentials, stop sending out queries and get a professional critique before you tarnish your name.
If a literary or acquiring agent asks to see all or part of your manuscript, precisely follow their instructions as to what they want to see, or they may kick it back unread. And if you get an offer for representation, carefully review the contract they offer, research feedback from their clients, and don’t hesitate to ask questions if you don’t understand something or fear you’re signing your rights away. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and your gut is telling you to not sign, have a literary attorney check the document.
You don’t strictly need a literary agent to become a selling author, but it’s a lot easier to have one than to handle everything on your own. Rather than spend time shopping your manuscript around, you can just turn the manuscript over to your agent and let them do it. After all, they have the contacts and experience, and are much more likely to “do lunch” with a publisher than you are. That way, you can focus on what you do best.