Agents: Got one? Need one?

In a lot of the book forums I frequent, I often see posts by newbies asking plaintively how one goes about getting an agent. The traditional publishing segment, of course, continues to bleat out its timeworn advice to writers: get an agent, get validated by being traditionally published. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the only way to get “validated” is by doing things their way, playing by their rules? But that’s another post.

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A much more interesting note is the fact that recently traditional publishers have found that combing through the growing ranks of indie writers is yielding a double bonus for them: these writers have already gambled on putting their voices out there and for some the public has responded positively. The traditional publishers are now taking a new look at the indie boom, since they’re finding (1) good books, already vetted by the public, with (2) a built-in following. The publishers are definitely seeing—and jumping on—the opportunities of the growing indie movement.

But the ones who are still dead-set against it? You got it. The agents, the very ones who are being marginalized by this new tete-a-tete. After all, if you can put your book out there, gather a following and possibly, eventually, get picked up by a traditional publisher, who needs an agent?

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I had one once, through sheer serendipity. Eons ago, back in the middle Paleolithic, I used to write my books in longhand on blue line. By the time I got done with one, I was pretty well sick of it and I had no interest in typing it up (on a typewriter [electric, not manual. It wasn’t THAT far back!]). Luckily my mom was a good typist and volunteered to do it for me, so I shipped my 15-pound manuscript off to her.

Unbeknownst to me, she not only typed up my book but liked it well enough to shop it around to a literary agent she knew. He liked it, as well, and agreed to represent me.

All of a sudden **bam** I had an agent!

Initially things went well. He dutifully made copies of my ms and mailed it out to various publishers. He would let me know when he received a response of note, usually a rejection letter with nice encouragement, i.e., “Doesn’t fit our program at the current time, but has promise and we hope you will keep us in mind on future projects,” or something of that nature. As he was pitching the first book, I was writing the second. When he notified me that he had negotiated a contract for the first book, I was, understandably, over the moon.

Unfortunately my book took a little longer to make it through the process to publication than it should have. The company that originally bought my book went under; it was bought out by another. In the aftermath, the second company had to go through the backlog of contracts and decide which ones it wanted to keep and which ones it didn’t. I was lucky; it kept mine.

But it took four years before the book came out. In the meantime, of course, I was writing and figured my agent was earning his keep by sending out my second book. It was a jolt when I got a letter from my publisher asking if I had any other books they could see. Well, yes, of course I have other books. I promptly sent them my second book. They liked it and bought it. So now I’m thinking: what the heck is my agent doing?

Come to find out he was busy looking for properties for movie projects. He told me to quit writing westerns (both my first two books were western romances) because they didn’t translate well to the big screen. He had many ideas for what I should have been doing, but no interest in promoting what I was doing.

Needless to say, it was time to go our separate ways. That was back in, um, 1987. Since then, I’ve published 9 other books by various means, both traditional publishing and self-publishing. And I haven’t had an agent for any of them.

Do you need an agent? Only you can answer that question. The answer for me has been a resounding NO.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

25 thoughts on “Agents: Got one? Need one?”

  1. I had an agent years ago for my children’s writing. Because of him, I found publishers, got good contracts, and sold internationally. I went agent free at first in my SP phase bu then I went back to him with Ripple. By this time he was 92 yrs old, but he did his level best for me all the same, negotiated my Czech contract, sent my book to a film-producer but died before he ever found out that the book was accepted for an animated movie.That was just a few months ago. He was our country’s most loved publishing professional and literary agent. We all miss him like crazy, especially me.
    At the funeral I found out that when he was young he fought in WW2 as a fighter pilot and was a real war-hero.
    But there is no-one in this country who can really replace him.

      1. He was beloved by the entire literary scene here in New Zealand. He almost single-handedly changed the face of our literature. If you had Ray on your side the world was your oyster and you could come to no harm. He was a small baby-faced man with the spirit and power of a tiger.

        Picture this. This story was told at his funeral. A group of over-confident new publishing professionals were around a table clearly convinced they could do well against the scruffy young Maori author before them. They spoke first, confident in their power and superiority, unaware that the quiet little man in the corner was the young Maori’s agent. The author’s group politely sat and waited til the publishers finished speaking. But then Ray stood up to speak and the moment he opened his mouth, those publishsers knew they were screwed! That young Maori was Witi Ihimaera, who is now one of our most respected authors and the author of Whale Rider book and movie which were both negotiated by Ray. It was Witi himself who told the story at Ray’s funeral.

  2. Thank you, I will now stop looking for an agent. I have self published, and my book has excellent reviews and is starting to sell well. However, how do I attract a Publisher? That way one can enter various competitions and get accepted by bookstores.

    1. Jacob, it sounds like you’re doing quite well on your own, but if you still want to connect with a traditional publisher, you have options, including getting an agent. You can also revert back to the old tried-and-true query letter. Research publishers online and in the Writer’s Guide, choose publishers who publish books similar to yours and explain how your book would be a good fit. Including samples of reviews and talk about your improving sales. Back in the day, I used to post excerpts on writers’ showcase websites like writing.com and rosedog.com (now defunct). It’s a rough road, filled with lots of time-consuming work and little reward, but it is one option. Good luck!

  3. About eighteen months ago I wrote an article on the changing face of the publishing industry in light of the eRevolution, where devoted a paragraph to the literary agents, which wound up with:

    ‘Personally, I believe that literary agents will have to do a considerable amount of morphing during this revolution if they want to survive.’

    I’d just like to add, eighteen moths later, ‘they don’t seem to be coping too well!’

    Excellent post, Melissa!

  4. You’re right, Melissa — the new paradigm pretty much cuts agents out of the mix. I gather some of them are offering their services these days as editor/publishers. Unfortunately, their fees for editing are generally so high that almost no indie can afford them — but last I heard, many hadn’t quite cottoned on to the idea that they would have to start charging not what a publisher would pay them, but what the market will bear. The shakeout will be interesting to watch.

    1. I agree, we haven’t seen the last of the morphing of the publishing industry. Where it ends up is anyone’s guess. But you’re right–the smart ones are the ones who are expanding their options into other areas of service. Those who refuse to leave their ruts will stick their heads up one day and realize they’ve been left behind.

  5. Nice article, Melissa. The publishing industry has changed so abruptly that few of those who should notice and adapt did. General reaction is to scorn and berate instead of embracing. Publishers and agents reactions mimic the software development industry and giants when the Open Source movement started. We all know how it ended, there’s little chance that the same won’t happen in publishing.

    1. Massimo, thanks, and you’re absolutely right. Anytime there’s a push to a dynamic system, knocking it off balance, there’s always a push back and very often it’s aggressive, offensive and bullying. The good news is that we indies can ignore all the scorn and just keep on doing what we’re doing. Nothing drives a bully nuts quicker than being ignored (and proven wrong!). While the entrenched oldtimers continue to moan and scold, we’ll just keep expanding and getting better!

      1. The gatekeepers see everyone scurrying happily in the prairie and don’t know what to do anymore with their gates. Today, I’ve seen another example of a publisher announcing they are open to submission from Indies via a contest, the winner will be published and enjoy editing and cover services plus marketing training so that selected writers can market their book after publications.

        Although on paper it looks decent, the reality reads: Give us the majority of your 70% royalties so we do for you what you’ve done already, and we train you so to bring in more sales which will increase our revenue. Am I too harsh saying that publishers are bumping into obstacles as they wander in the dark of a new reality?

        1. LOL; I love your imagery. But this is an interesting development. Where for years trad publishers have been narrowing their focus down to tried-and-true writers with name recognition and completely ignoring indies, now they are courting us? Throwing open the gates (not realizing that we can see that the gates are not attached to any fence, and it’s easy enough to go around them!) and repackaging their “services” to sound appealing. I can’t help but think we indies are sitting in the catbird seat now, even if not everyone sees it that way or recognizes it yet. Thanks for sharing that.

  6. Great post, Melissa. It’s interesting to watch the scramble as literary agents try to remain relevant to the indies who are departing the paradigm. I saw some “handwriting on the wall” a couple years back when a few prominent agents quit agenting for other pursuits. Some still in the game are offering selective rights to authors; some offer special “value-added” features. Fascinating to see what happens next.

    1. That is for sure. And so nice to know that we’re on the vanguard of this burgeoning army of indie writers. I don’t know if any of us knows exactly where this is all going, but we’ll be there when it happens!

    1. Kathryn, that is one of the very biggest advantages to being an indie in this day and age; we connect with our readers directly. We hear what they say. We don’t have to depend on a penthouse gatekeeper to guess what’s trending; we can see it daily. I don’t believe there has ever been a time when readers and writers have had such open access to each other.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I’ve never had the opportunity for an agent, but now that I’m self-published, I’m not sure I want one anymore. I guess I’ll decide if I ever get approached, but I won’t be hunting one day anytime soon 🙂

  8. Nice to know you haven’t missed out on too much, huh? Altho I’m sure there are plenty of writers out there who had a better experience than I did; still, that was in the “old days.”

  9. Originally when I entered this writing business, I thought it necessary to have an agent. Now 10 novels later, naw, not needed! But should one of my screenplays get picked up, then I may be looking for a manager or agent that deals with that aspect of the business. But for my books. I’m happily on my own.

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