Thursday, January 10, 2013

On Shortcuts, or, Do I REALLY Need an Agent?

I get asked this question many times a week via twitter, in emails, at conferences, at the bookstore... Here's how it goes:
[scene: a podium in a random hotel conference room in Anytown USA]


Me: Probably. Depends what you want from your career. I'd get one, personally... but of course, I'm an agent, naturally I'd say that.

Stranger [impatiently]: NO. I MEAN DO I REALLY NEED AN AGENT?  

Me: Oh man. Since you asked with that inflection... wow. I guess I have to give it to you straight. You got me. There's a little something that everyone else knows except you. Every time somebody suggests you "query agents" they are really trying to TRICK you. Because they don't want you to know the secret!  *Muwhahaha!*
Oh. You can tell I'm poking fun, and you don't like it. Sorry. I'm going to be totally serious now. When you ask that question, it sounds to me like "but I don't want to read the manual, instructions are for suckers, I'm gonna find the shortcut and do this the fast and dirty way!"

And I get that. I'm impatient too. The fact is, much like putting together the elaborate entertainment center from Ikea, getting an agent is usually difficult, or at least inconvenient on some level. There are almost always some bruised egos and frustrations along the way. It can take a long time. It can be a lot of work. And even when you have it figured out, that is only the beginning. Ugh what a pain in the ass.

So look. It DOES depend on what you want from your career.

* If you want to go the self-publishing route and would never consider traditional publishing... you may not need an agent. (You'll find that it is a lot of work to be successful at this game, but hey -- it happens. Elbow grease, baby!)

* If you have a very "niche" type of work -- highly technical, educational, religious, or specialty-type content... novellas, chapbooks, and other things that are not usually found in regular bookstores... you may not need an agent.

* If you want to be traditionally published and are a super-type A personality, know a ton about the vagaries of publishing, have lots of insider publishing connections, know contracts well, understand the market for your work specifically, enjoy talking about money and don't mind things like asking for a raise, know how to sell subrights and foreign rights, want to spend time pounding the pavement on your own behalf... you may be not need an agent.*
Otherwise? An agent is going to be hugely helpful to you. 

In fact, here's the secret. As big a pain as it is? GETTING AN AGENT IS THE SHORTCUT.
Recognize this? It's called an allen wrench, or a hex key.

You can put the Ikea entertainment center without it, but dear god, it's a hell of a lot easier with it.

Consider an agent your hex key.

* (Though I do know people like this, and after a certain number of books... guess what, they got an agent. Because it is a huge time-suck to do all these things for yourself, the time-suck gets exponentially worse the more books you have out, and that is time you could be spending writing. Or, you know, lounging in a hammock drinking mocktails. Whatever.)


  1. The actual secret they don't tell people is that most (you know, like 99.99999%) writers who try to get an agent will not succeed. Of course, this is not really a secret if you read enough agents' blogs and tweets and realize what a long-shot traditional publishing actually is, vis a vis the number of writers who want in.

    This is a good thing, I believe. I am all in favor of gatekeepers, frankly. I don't want bookstores--online or off--to become giant slush piles for the average consumer to wade alone.

    But I feel for the many writers out there who simply aren't going to make it in that particular corner of publishing.

    So maybe the real answer is "yes, you REALLY need an agent to do this the traditional way. But if you have tried and tried and can't get an agent, maybe traditional is just not going to work for you and it's time to shift your career plans/hopes."

  2. Hex key?? I've never heard that phrase before. I like it. I mean, you pretty much do need to perform black magic to put together Ikea furniture. (Excellent post as usual, agree with it all :)

  3. You know, I made this video about three years ago and yet I never thought of it as a metaphor for self-publishing until just now.

  4. I love your posts, thanks for taking the time to answer a question that you have answered many times before. We really do appreciate it, and sometimes it's good to hear it again when we've spent too long in the query trenches.

  5. In my case, one other thing is like Ikea: one person working, sad face. Two people working, thumbs-up! Everything is so much more manageable with a partner. <3

  6. It is not often that hexing is something one wishes for in life ;-)

  7. Great post. I got an agent for my 10th book. I would hate to be without one now. (Kind of wish I had one back then....)


  8. Fantastic post! I am a first time author in the process of trying to get the word out about my book as well as get the attention of that perfect agent for my story. Your post is wonderful and I have sent you a query letter. Thank you.

    Christopher Bryant

  9. I agree, Literaticat. When I began writing with the idea to publish, the CW was that for PBs you may be better off subbing directly.
    But things have changed, and continue to change as we type. I've come to see that a *good* agents is a *good* way to go about the business side of this, well, business.
    No, you don't NEED and agent to write and write well. Agents are about selling.

  10. When I started writing many years ago, I tried very hard to get an agent. Most of them didn't even have the courtesy to reply, though I did all the right things you're supposed to do when you send an inquiry. Those few who did said their books were full. Then I did get one for about six months, till she closed down to concentrate on her own writing - and by the way, the only printed slip I ever got for that manuscript was when she was representing me. ( I eventually sold it myself, without an agent) So I gave up. I did have some help from a writer friend who introduced me to an editor at Allen and Unwin, when they were looking for writers for a non fiction children's series. After that, publishers were willing to look at my manuscripts without an agent. Now I am back to looking for someone to act as an overseas agent for an existing book, because my publishers haven't gotten very far with this - and again I am receiving a dead silence in response to my inquiries. What would you suggest, Jennifer?
    And by the way, how do I follow this blog on my Blogger dashboard? There doesn't seem to be a "follow" option, even a contact email! :-)


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