In our previous “path to publication” piece for aspiring authors we outlined the first three steps writers would do well to take after finishing their novel. Having followed those (take a break, revisit, re-work), and you feel ready to share your work with the wider world, it’s pretty much a given that you’ll need to find a literary agent (NB this applies to writers looking to have their novel taken on by a publishing house. If you’re self-publishing, you’re effectively your own agent, designer, production manager, marketer, and so on - the whole kit and caboodle, Uncle Tom Cobley and all).
Why can’t I just submit to publishers myself? you may ask. Why do I need a middleperson who’ll just take a cut of my potential earnings? Well, the reality is that most publishers - particularly the bigger ones - don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, which means your book won’t get read if you send it yourself. Most editors only consider books submitted via an agent. Alongside that pretty big barrier, there are a host of reasons that make having an agent a very smart idea indeed. Here’s an outline of those reasons through the lens of the different roles agents play, from insightful editor, to indefatigable ally.
1. Editorial expert
While you’ll have already re-worked your novel countless times, an agent interested in your work can help you improve it further before it’s submitted to editors. Agents can provide invaluable feedback on what isn’t working, so you can fix it. Maybe your book is too long, or too short. Maybe that plot point isn’t needed. Maybe that character isn’t convincing. Maybe you need to re-work the structure, or shift the tone. In short, agent input can help you make your novel as ship-shape as possible before it’s cast-off onto the high seas of submission. It will give your novel the best possible chance of being bought.
2. Industry expert
Agents know the market, understand industry trends and, most important of all given the unpredictability of trends, they know what kind of novels particular publishers and editors are looking for at a given time. Contacts and relationships (with both authors and publishers) are the backbone of agents’ success. They know which editor is desperate to discover, for example, a hot historical saga, or who’s on the look-out for new political thrillers, or who’s in the market for an entertaining romantic comedy (conversely, they’ll also know who’s sick of certain genres, which can save a whole lot of false hope and time). Perhaps most important of all, agents know editors’ deeper-rooted personal tastes. All of which means your agent will know who’s best placed to read - and hopefully buy - your novel.
Agents know how to strike the best deal for your book (which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean going for the biggest buck advance - in some cases picking a publisher who commits to a brilliant marketing and publicity campaign counts for more than a contract offering more upfront cash). An agent’s job is to negotiate the best possible contract for your book. So, unless you’re an expert in the likes of territorial rights, digital rights, translation rights and high-volume discounts, negotiating contracts is best left to someone who is (i.e. you’ve guessed it, a literary agent).
What happens when you’re not happy with the cover your publisher is proposing? What if the level of publicity and marketing around publication isn’t what you were promised? Or maybe you’re struggling with edits or deadlines and feel anxious about telling your editor. Having an agent means you can breathe deep and let them handle tricky situations. Agents can act as a go-between so you don’t have to have such awkward conversations with your publisher. Or perhaps these conversations don’t even need to be had - your agent is there to offer advice, to decide which battles are worth fighting, and to fight them as necessary. All of which means you can focus on what you’re best at - writing.
A good agent is there to nurture their authors’ work and career long-term. To champion them, look out for them and offer support. It’s a relationship built on trust and respect, with a mutual aim of creating the best book possible, to secure the best possible deal. Being with the right agent is like having a friend who’s always got your back, but the kind of friend who’ll also tell you tough truths when they need to be told (like, for example, that your new idea isn’t working). Agents are an ally in writing sickness and health - and hopefully for richer too.
Joanne Owen is a writer and publishing professional with over twenty years’ experience of the book industry. Alongside writing and reviewing books, she hosts writing workshops and is an Editorial Expert for Love Reading.