Amy wrote to ask, "In your opinion, does a beginning writer need an agent?"
It depends on the writer. There are some authors who are well connected in the industry, don't mind dealing with contracts and negotiations, understand career direction, and can survive without an agent. But in my view, it's rare to do those things well while maintaining a writing career. I used to tell people that I'm not an evangelist for agents, and over the past 15 years or so I've tried to maintain a balance -- I haven't always believed that every writer needs an agent in order to succeed. But I'm now changing my tune. Most publishers require you to have an agent or they won't look at your material. Things have changed significantly in the past few years, so that publishers are moving toward relying on agents to be the first line, reviewing proposals and weeding out the chaff. Working with an agent professionalizes the relationship -- an agent is not as emotionally tied to a work as an author, so he or she can be more dispassionate about discussing a project, and the agent is going to be more familiar with the business of contracts, so ostensibly things will move along better for both sides. I recognize that some have said the future is in self-publishing, so that means authors won't need agents. I think that's completely wrong-headed. If you're going to be responsible for your book, you should think about working with someone who knows what they're doing and can help you. Think of the way realtors have changed the home buying market: You can still sell your home by owner, but it's gotten considerably more complex to do so. You've got to know the market, understand how to show your home, know how to get the word out, feel comfortable negotiating a price, and perhaps most importantly, understand how to fill out the mountain of paperwork that goes along with every home sale. (My wife and I sold three homes on our own, and another five homes through realtors, so I understand the difference a professional can make to a deal.) There are still plenty of small publishing houses that prefer to work directly with the author, but any publisher of size will want to work through an agent.
Donna wants to know, "How will I know I need an agent?"
If you're a novelist, but you don't have a completed manuscript yet, you probably do not need an agent. (And, to be completely honest about it, you'd have a tough time landing an agent.) If you're a nonfiction writer, having a great idea and great writing in a proposal is essential, and bringing some sort of strong platform to the table will help a lot. The bottom line is this: if you have something that is worth selling, then unless you know how to sell it and who to sell it to, you’re out of your depth and need an agent. If you have a great book idea and a solid proposal, you probably should at least consider interviewing potential literary agents. Again, you can learn to do some of this on your own, if you want to put the time in.
Jon wrote to ask, "What should an agent do for me?"
Again, that depends on your needs. My relationship with one of my authors (say... bestselling novelist Lisa Samson) is quite different from my relationship with another one of my authors (let's say a first-time nonfiction writer). Each author is going to have a unique set of needs. But, generally speaking, an agent should help you evaluate ideas and discuss publishing trends and the salability of your manuscript. He or she should help you create a dynamite proposal, tweaking it as necessary and working with you to make the writing as strong as possible. (You get one shot with a publishing house... so don't turn something in that's only 80% ready.) A good agent will help you improve your work, understand the industry, suggest editing or writing help if you need it, introduce your work to key acquisition people, and sell your proposal for you. He or she will negotiate a good deal on your behalf, paying special attention to key contract issues, and help you create a partnership with your publisher. The agent should ensure contract compliance, help you maximize your marketing opportunities (something that's becoming more important in the current marketplace), be a pain when you need someone to kick things into gear, read a royalty statement and spot errors, be your biggest fan and encourager, assist you with career planning, champion your projects, and grow with you over time.
So the follow-up question probably needs to be, “What do YOU need in an agent?” Because your needs may be very different from your friend’s needs. And every agent is different. Some are great editors. Others are great contract people. Some are basically sales people. Others are negotiators. And still others are life coaches. If you figure out what you need most from an agent, you’ll be better equipped to find the agent that’s right for you, Jon.
Tammy states the obvious roadblock: "I feel stuck -- you can't get an agent unless you're published, but you can't get published without an agent. Help! What's the best way to go about finding an agent?"
You're right -- it's not fair, and you're screwed. Sorry! The most important step in finding the literary agent that's right for you is to make sure you've got a great idea, expressed through great writing, and you can back it all up with a strong platform. Those are probably the first things you need to have completed. Once you're ready to start looking for an agent, you can begin by looking in any of the "find an agent" books that are on the market. Check with Writers Digest books, and look at B&N for a book that lists literary agencies. Next, you can meet agents at writer's conferences, book shows, or at publishing functions like BEA or ICRS. These are still the best places to get 15 minutes of face-time with an agent. It allows you to get a feel for him or her, and see if you think the two of you might work together. At some writers' conferences, you can send in your material ahead of time and sign up for an appointment. If you're going to do that, remember to create a good presentation -- after all, you are selling yourself. Put together a cover letter that tells about your life and work. Include your previous writing and book sales. Show the agent a great proposal, and make sure it's as strong as you can make it. Be ready to talk about yourself, your books, your ideas, and your platform. An author who shows huge potential for the future is much more likely to garner interest from a good agent.