All this talk about querying and agents (okay, two posts so far) may have left you wondering, why bother with an agent anyway? Can’t I just take my precious manuscript directly to a publisher, or self-pub the thing? Absolutely! There is no law that says you can’t. And undoubtedly, such approaches have worked for some people.
There are, it seems to me, two main reasons why people might avoid getting an agent: 1) Time. 2) Money. First, getting an agent takes time (or, I should say can take time–you may have a killer query that resonates with the first agent you send it to–but 99.9% of the time, this doesn’t happen). Not only do you have to write a query letter, you have to research agents, you have to e-mail your query to them, then wait for a response… and if they hate the query, you have to re-send to more, and then maybe months later you get a bite, but then they want pages, and then maybe a complete, and then they have edits… or not, and they decide they hate it, so you have to go back and query again, until finally, perhaps months, perhaps years later, an agent actually sells your novel to a publisher. As I understand it, this is real life in the publishing world, and not everyone wants to go through that.
Second, there’s the money thing. Now, no agent worth his or her salt will charge you anything up-front either for reading your work, or for the honor of having them represent you. That’s what I’ve read and been told, and I tend to believe it. As a rule, agents make money through their clients’ publishing contracts. For each book sold, you get a cut (hopefully the biggest), the publisher gets a cut, and the agent gets acut. The temptation for the author, then, is to cut out the agent and reap the extra money.
Why not go straight to the publisher? Again, there’s no reason not to. Except, perhaps that, from what I’ve read, most publishers will only work with authors through an agent. Publishers are busy, and so they tend to rely upon agents to come to them with work that a) is finished, polished, and ready to go (although they will go through their own editorial process with the author once they’ve bought the book); b) is the kind of book they tend to publish; and c) is something that the agent has convinced the publisher he/she needs to take. The longer an agent has been working with a publisher, the greater trust the publisher will have in that agent’s judgment. The simple fact is, unless you are an established writer, the publisher doesn’t know you, and unless he/she has the time to read your manuscript (which is usually not the case–that’s what agents are for!), you are going to be ignored.
Some other points to consider about going straight to the publisher. It won’t necessarily save you time, because the publisher will want to work with agented clients before even considering you. And even if the publisher looks at your manuscript, they are still going to tear it to shreds until they are happy and willing to publish. As for money, well… unless you are familiar with contracts, and especially publishing contracts, or you can afford to hire a lawyer to help you, you are at the mercy of the publisher and the contract he/she draws up. Publisher contracts will, naturally, favor the publisher. You may not end up with as much money as you hoped.
As for self-publishing, this is becoming an increasingly popular option, even for established writers. I am not really well-versed on the ins and outs of self-pubbing, but it is my understanding that, for the most part, going this route involves a) expense on your part, b) little professional editorial feedback, and c) reliance upon your own marketing efforts to get your book into the hands of readers. There are some self-publishing companies that will work with you, and some agents will even work with such companies. But on the whole, it seems that while this path may give you a quicker road to getting a physical book in your hands, it may still take a long time before it makes any money, and you may find yourself expending energy doing sales and marketing that you could be using to write your next masterpiece.
From the above, you may already get a sense of what it is that agents do for you. They help you get your book spit-and-polished, and ready to go before a publisher. They advocate for you and your work to all the publishing houses they know, and others they want to get to know. They negotiate contracts on your behalf and try to get you the best deals possible. And if you work together well, they could end up helping you manage your career–merchandising and film rights, and so forth. And all for a mere 15% (see above caveat).
Should you bother getting an agent? I think you know how I feel about the subject. Hopefully this has given you some food for thought. Next time, back to the process of actually writing a query letter! 🙂