After my recent post on agenting, a couple people said they didn't see why anyone would need an agent. One author suggested that all you need is a good proposal, and another asked, "What can an agent do for a writer that s/he can't do for him/herself?" I have some answers...
First, I'll admit that not everybody needs an agent. If you think you have the relationships and knowledge needed to succeed, then go ahead. There are authors who make that work. In my experience, most authors simply don't have the access to editors or the knowledge of contracts and negotiations they need to maximize their careers, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. It can.
Second, there is almost always wisdom in experienced counsel. That means a good agent should bring something to the table to assist with editing, writing, reading, negotiating, checking royalty statements, and marketing. I'm sorry to say I've heard from several authors who had bad experiences. Hey -- it happens. The huge growth in Christian fiction over the past ten years led to a whole slug of people calling themselves "agents," but who didn't know what they were doing. One of the few good things that has come out of this lousy publishing economy we're experiencing is that many of those agents have dropped out, since they can no longer make a living at this business. As I noted previously, there are about 15 agents doing 95% of the CBA books.
Third, a good agent will have relationships that will get their authors' proposals looked at by decision-makers... something that many authors simply don't have. (A clue when selecting an agent: find somebody who is well-thought-of by ack editors. Ask around. See who your agent has worked with, who he or she has done deals with, and if others in the industry respect them.) A good proposal often isn't enough...it's got to get through the filters and be seen (and sometimes SOLD) by a person with experience.
Fourth, some publishers simply won't deal directly with authors. As we become a more specialized society, that will be more true, not less. As an author, you may not like that, but it's the way things have gone in this industry.
Fifth, a good agent should know about contracts and be able to negotiate you a better deal. If he/she can't, find another agent. Or learn those skills yourself.
Sixth, the MOST IMPORTANT thing a good agent should offer is career guidance. Most of the authors I represent aren't starting out -- they are published authors who have had some success and realized they need help to achieve bigger success. Rather than thinking they are "giving up 15%" to me, they think of it as investing in their business in order to achieve greater success. If you aren't there, you probably aren't a good candidate to work with an agent. (And let me state for the record, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Sometimes I get this feeling from a few agents that "when an author finally gets right with Jesus, he or she will hire an agent." Rot. I believe in the value of realtors, but my wife and I have sold five homes on our own -- we used a realtor on the two we couldn't seem to sell, and it was worth it to us. On the other hand, when it was time to create a will, I went right to a lawyer, so that I wouldn't screw up a legal document. And when I set up my retirement, I did some on my own, and used a professional for some of it. Hiring an agent is not a matter of maturity, it a matter of choice, and sometimes a matter of competence.)
This isn't a commercial, just a fact: at MacGregor Literary, we have some tools we use to help authors make career decisions. When I was in my doctoral program at the University of Oregon, I had a Graduate Teaching Fellowship that stuck me in the role of Assistant Director of the Career Planning and Placement Office, and I specialized in working with students who were graduating in the arts (music, dance, theater, fine arts, writing, etc). That doesn't make me a miracle worker, but it DOES give me some good experience for helping authors figure out how to move forward in their writing careers. A good agent provides something to help you with that portion of your professional life.
Seventh, I’m already tired of people coming to me and arguing, “In the future, we’ll all do e-books, so nobody will need an agent.” Balderdash. As I noted above, you can sell your own house, but you might find the best deal by using a professional. You can create your own will, but you might find it’s better to let a professional handle that for you. You can create your own retirement portfolio, but most people are more comfortable having a professional assist with the process. All those people who are insisting e-books are going to cause the death of the industry by making them rich and famous? Um… to this point, I haven’t recognized any of your names. Come back to me after you’ve made a living, okay? The fact is, the advent of e-books has given writers more opportunity to be published than ever before -- so there's more bad writers getting published, and therefore more competition. Therefore a good writer needs a wise adviser if he or she is really going to move forward. The delivery mechanism for a book has changed, and the systems in publishing are changing to accommodate that, but the need for wise counsel and career guidance is still important.
Got a question about writing and publishing? Send it my way and I'll pontificate some more.