Book Writing and Publishing FAQ – Do I Need a Literary Agent?

Many aspiring authors are confused about whether or not they need a literary agent in order to get their books published.  The short answer to this question is no, you don’t have to have a literary agent to get a publishing contract.  However, it’s not necessarily that simple.  This post helps you understand the pros and cons of having a literary agent, so you can determine whether or not you want to try to secure an agent before you try to sell your book to a publisher.

The Pros of Having a Literary Agent

There are two primary benefits to having a literary agent represent you in trying to sell your book to a publisher — access and knowledge.  Let me explain both in more detail.

First, established literary agents have relationships with acquisitions editors at a variety of large and small publishing houses.  They know the right publishers for your book and the right person to contact at each publishing house to present your proposal.  When they send a message or reach out to an acquisitions editor, that editor knows who the agent is.  Having that kind of access to the right people can work wonders in terms of not only getting your proposal in the right hands but getting the right person to actually look at it.  Publishers receive a huge number of manuscript solicitations each day, and yours has a chance at standing out if it’s coming from an agent that is known and respected for delivering great work.

Second, experienced literary agents help their clients polish their proposals to ensure they have the greatest chance at catching an acquisition editor’s eyes.  Keep in mind, if an acquisitions editor likes your book idea, you’ve only crossed one path in the process of selling your book to a publisher.  That editor typically has to present the proposal to his or her superiors and sell it to those decision makers.  He or she has to prove that your book will sell and help the publisher make money.  A good literary agent can point you in the right direction in terms of creating a proposal that will help that editor get the job done and seal the deal.

It’s also important to understand that good literary agents know who their writers are and are always looking for new opportunities for those writers.  The best literary agents are actively involved in the publishing world and have relationships with the right people at large and small publishing houses to receive requests for authors, which that agent can then match up with his or her authors.  For example, I’m in the process of writing my eighth nonfiction book.  Two of those books were my own ideas.  Two of those books came to me by way of publishers who found me online and contacted me directly, and two more came as the result of one of those publisher relationships.  The other two books came to me by way of my literary agent who received messages from publishers asking for an author to write a book about a specific subject, which he brought to me.

Once you have a relationship with a literary agent, you can bounce ideas off of him or her to get feedback before you invest too much time into a book concept that needs to be tweaked or abandoned altogether.  When you do have a concept that the agent believes can be sold, that agent can get it in front of the right people at dozens of publishing houses within minutes.

Finally, an experienced literary agent knows the publishing business.  He or she knows what to ask for in negotiations and knows what to look for in contracts to ensure your contract is not unusual.  Good literary agents can also refer publishers to prior deals to ensure you’re getting at least comparable contract terms.

The Cons of Having a Literary Agent

The negatives to having a literary agent are primarily related to money.  A literary agent has to get paid for the knowledge and access he or she gives to clients.  Therefore, most agents earn at least 15% of the royalties an author makes.  Those rates might be higher on foreign rights contracts.  Many writers don’t want to give up that 15% believing they can sell their books to publishers or simply self-publish.

There is some weight to that argument.  There are some publishers that accept unsolicited submissions, meaning you can send your proposal directly to the publisher without needing an agent to represent you.  Self-publishing is also an option open to all writers (you can follow the link to read about the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing).  However, your proposal is more likely to get noticed by a publisher if it’s submitted by a known literary agent.

There are also many publishing houses that do not accept submissions directly from writers.  Therefore, even though you can keep all of your earnings when you don’t use a literary agent, your book is less likely to get picked up by a large publishing house (although not impossible), and if you self-publish it’s likely to sell fewer copies than it would if a traditional publisher prints and distributes it.  In other words, giving up 15% to a literary agent and having your book published through a traditional publishing house usually means more copies of your book are sold than self-publishing provides.  That means, your earnings with an agent and traditional publisher are probably going to be more than self-publishing could deliver.

Finally, if you are fortunate enough to secure a publishing contract with a traditional publisher without the use of an agent, you’ll be on your own in terms of negotiating payment and ensuring the legalese in the contract matches typical publishing contracts.

Each aspiring author has to make his or her own decision as to whether or not he or she wants to try to secure a literary agent or forge ahead on their own.  Just review the pros and cons listed above before you make your final decision to ensure you’re following the path that is best for you and will help you reach your goals.

Click here to read more articles in the Book Writing and Publishing FAQ series.


2 responses
  1. Randy Peyser Avatar

    I’ve got 13 clients under contract with literary agents right now. We edit their books, then I polish their proposals and pitch their projects to the agents. One agent told me she gets over 150 unsolicited submissions a month. She doesn’t have time to go through them. People like me, and probably you, have become trusted gatekeepers to the agents. So, the agents are gatekeepers to the publishers, and we are the gatekeepers to the agents.

  2. John Avatar

    finishing book about two buddies that starts with visions in 1971 and ends with guilt after one of them give their life for the other

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