The Business of Writing

Do I Need An Agent?

By Lana Krumwiede

Questions about literary agents come up in exactly 100% of the writing conferences I attend. To get the definitive answer, let’s consult the modern marvel of decision making, the magic eight ball. The answer is: Yes. But quite possibly no. And  furthermore, it depends.

 
Let’s start with the yes answer. You need an agent because so many publishers are not open to submissions from unpublished, unknown,  untested writers. Even in the case where the editor does take unsolicited submissions, Mt. Slushpile is a pretty tough climb. When you have an agent, he or she handles all the submissions and therefore your manuscript automatically gets higher priority. That’s just the way things work. Additionally, most agents help you hone your manuscript, which gives your writing  an extra coat of professional polish. In this ultra-competitive market, you will need all the professional polish you can get. Believe me.
 
Now on to the no answer. Agent or no agent, a writer with the aim of becoming published must present a captivating manuscript, couple it with a cover letter, carefully research the person to send it to, and hope for the best. Agents can be as equally hard to attract as editors, so why not skip that extra step and go directly to the editor? That just might work for you. There are ways for unagented writers to gain access to editors; namely, attending conferences and workshops. Plenty of writers break in this way and that makes it a viable option.
 
And lastly, we have the ever-popular “it depends” answer.  It depends on the genre you write in. It’s hard to find an agent that is interested in representing picture book texts. Nonfiction writers often deal more directly with editors when it comes to proposals and idea development.  Your decision about seeking an agent should also take into account your goals as a writer and on how you want to handle your career. If you don’t have an agent, you have to be your own agent. You have to learn everything there is to know about contracts, publishers, the children’s book market, etc. Agented authors need to know the business end of things too, but a good agent can be a mentor and a guide through the complex landscape of publishing.
 
A strong work of caution: NEVER pay an agent any kind of up-front fee. Good, reputable agents earn their money from selling a manuscript. The shady kind of agent earns money from pulling a fast one on an inexperienced writer.  That’s where the research comes in. Check reputations of publishers and agents at websites like Preditors & Editors and Query Tracker.
 
When you’re starting out, the best thing to do is focus on your writing. Find a critique group, join professional writing organizations like SCBWI, go to conferences, and read, read, read! Work hard to become the best writer you can and in the process, crank out some incredibly awesome stories. When it comes down to it, that’s the only way to catch the eye of either an agent or an editor. And until you have a great manuscript, you don’t need either one.
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