Updated May 2023
Literary agents aren’t perfect. They’re not superheroes. They can’t cure cancer. They can’t relieve droughts or put out forest fires. But literary agents—good ones—can make a HUGE difference in a writer’s career. So, what if a writer doesn’t have (or want) one? What if a writer would rather keep the 15% commission that agents take for themselves?
Normally we like to keep this blog positive (we talked before about why we feel that querying literary agents first is the best way to begin the process of publishing a novel, memoir, or other nonfiction book).
And while we don’t want to run around like Chicken Little and shout, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling,” we do want to make it clear that literary agents can be worth what they’re paid.
So Here’s A List Of Things That Can Go Wrong When A Writer Doesn’t Have A Literary Agent
Your publisher acquires more rights than you are willing to give (aka, your contract stinks). Unless you hire an intellectual property lawyer who knows the publishing biz, not having an agent might do serious harm when it’s time to sign a book deal contract.
For example, suppose your contract indicates that your rights revert to you when fewer than 100 copies a year are sold. What types of books are we talking about here? Your digital books might sell 101 copies a year for the next fifty years—and you’ll be stuck, even if you suspect you could make more on the book if you were to self-publish it. A good agent has your future in mind.
Your publisher lowballs your book deal. As much as you want to think that your editor is your friend, it’s almost always going to be in an editor’s best interest to acquire a book with as little “green” as possible. And that’s bad for you.
Agents are trained negotiators; they know the going rates, and they help ensure your book gets the advance its worth. For example, if you hire a general lawyer who looks at your contract and decides your 15% royalty rate for e-books is fine, you’ll never know that 25% is the industry standard.
You have to play the bad cop and the good cop at the same time. Writers who have agents have the distinct advantage of getting to play the “good cop” when things get sticky; the agent can do the chain-smoking and the table pounding and the pointed interrogation.
When the smoke clears, the writer’s relationship with the editor is left intact—which is hugely important. If you don’t have an agent, you have to be your own bad cop. You have to belly up to the bar and say the things you don’t want to say—the things that could damage your long-term relationship.
You could miss out on foreign rights sales. Some agents have strong foreign rights departments, which means they can nab deals to get your book translated into other languages. Some publishing houses will do this for you too; but if your publisher isn’t aggressive about foreign book sales and translations, you’ll need an agent to seek that additional income on your behalf.
You have to negotiate your own option. Most publishers have an option clause, giving them a kind of “right of first refusal” for your next book. But what if things didn’t go as smoothly with your publisher as you’d hoped? It may take some fancy footwork, diplomacy, and timing to negotiate your way out of option territory and into a land where you can obtain another (better) book deal.
So, Do You Really Need A Literary Agent?
We’ve voiced our opinion time and again. If you’re looking for a traditional (paying) book deal, having a literary agent is an asset. Writer’s Relief can help you identify the best literary agents for your unique book. But there are authors out there who do not have literary agents and will attest that they’re doing fine. We believe it’s almost always in a writer’s best interest to secure agent representation.
Believe me, I don’t doubt I need an agent — I am NO way near versed enough in the industry or business in general to do handle it on my own. I tend to be one to want to buck the system, but, in this case, I’m totally on board with your logic. Assuming, of course, that the agent is legit… =)
I know personally if I quit the self-publishing I would go straight to an agent since I was never good at playing the bad cop role. This just helps me realize how much I would get screwed over if I didn’t have one.
I think it depends on your audience and who your ideal publisher is. I tried the agent route, getting some nibbles but ultimately never reeling in the fish. My memoir is a fairly quiet story and I knew landing an agent (many of whom are based in NYC and work with major publishers) would be a long shot. My memoir was ultimately picked up by the University of Minnesota Press. Most of their authors are unagented. I hired a lawyer to review the contract on my behalf. For me, a small, Midwestern press was the ideal home. However, if I were aiming for a bigger publisher I probably would have kept trying to get an agent.
I self-published my book, ‘The Ex Left Hander’ a couple of years ago with Createspace. I’ve sold over 300 copies, so far. However, I feel I could do better with an agent. I’m planning on re- writing it, and perhaps changing the title.
Foreign rights dept? Heh. The majority of agencies consist of maybe 2-3 people working out of a home office. If anything, they have a foreign rights GUY.
Option clause is not poison. It means they have the right of a first look; it doesn’t mean you have to accept their offer.