Why Do I Need An Agent?

Part Two in a Series of Three Special Articles

by Deidre Knight

The Knight Agency


Why pay an agency commission if you can submit directly to an editor?

Question: I’m an unpublished author, and I have several editors who are willing to look at my manuscript. I’ve heard I should get an agent, but at this point, I’m wondering why I need one since I’ve been able to elicit interest from publishers on my own.

Answer: I hear this question all the time: writers wonder why they should pay an agent 15%, when they can submit directly to editors they meet at conferences, online, or find through different directories. What they’re really asking is for a better explanation of what an agent does, because submitting to editors is only one small part of an agent’s work.

First, a good agent often helps a writer edit and polish their manuscript. This doesn’t mean that a writer should expect an extensive edit, as agents look for work that’s pretty much ready to go. However, an agent will often give input on proposals and manuscripts, making them stronger and more marketable. After all, since the agent is working on straight commission, it’s in their best interests to make the work as strong as possible. The new author often lacks this objective viewpoint, and tends to submit their work to publishers before it is truly ready.

Trying to find your way around this submission maze on your own has disadvantages.

Once the manuscript is ready for submission, then the agent contacts appropriate editors with whom they have established relationships—often people they’ve sold good work to in the past. The agent knows the market, and knows which editors are looking for just that type of book. Often, the agent will have an inside track on what’s happening with different publishing companies, and will use that knowledge in targeting their submissions. On the editor’s side, they know the agent’s taste, and if the agent is sending them a submission, they know it will be worth looking at as soon as possible.

The unagented author trying to find their way around this submission maze on his or her own has several disadvantages. They don’t have a strong established relationship with the editors they’re submitting to, and they lack inside knowledge of the market. For instance, if they’ve written a health book, they probably wouldn’t know that Publisher A has just launched a new health imprint and is eagerly looking for manuscripts in that area—especially if the information hasn’t been made public yet. On the other hand, it’s quite likely that the agent might know about the health imprint. Another problem for the unagented author is that it will take months—or even as long as a year—for the editor to get to their manuscript, whereas an agent will typically have an answer to the writer in about six to ten weeks.

Once an editor is interested in the project, they will let the agent know they’re going to present it at their next editorial board meeting. The agent is prepared for the offer, and once it comes in, knows what negotiating points to cover. From experience, the agent knows whether the offer is a good one for their client, and also where they can push for more from the editor. An editor once told me of the house where she works: “We’re trained to offer low, and unagented authors don’t understand that—they often accept whatever we offer.” For this very reason, most editors prefer to deal with agents as opposed to directly with authors; otherwise, they find themselves in a quandary. They’re paid to buy books as cheaply as possible, but they also want a good long-term relationship with their authors, and an agent helps them to maximize that relationship.

An agent will work to retain as many rights as possible.

An agent will work to retain as many of the project’s subsidiary rights as possible, including foreign translation, motion picture/TV, audio, first serial, electronic, and commercial. The unagented author, on the other hand, will have a very difficult time retaining any of these subsidiary rights on their own, because the publisher will argue (quite rightfully, as a matter of fact) that the author won’t have the proper means to market them on their own without an agent. Additionally, most writers don’t understand these various rights enough to gauge what a fair offer would be. In fact, the most common refrain I hear from authors who sold their early work by themselves is, “I was so thrilled they wanted to publish my book, I just took whatever they offered me.”

Once the deal is concluded, an agent’s work has only begun. A contract follows in a few weeks, and the agent negotiates the language with the publisher’s legal department, reshaping it until the contract represents the writer’s interests as fairly as possible. From experience, the agent knows what clauses to change, and which are standard. The unagented author trying to review a publishing agreement on their own is entering a minefield—some contracts are as long as twenty pages. Of course, they can hire a lawyer, but without one who specializes in publishing/entertainment law, they’re going to have problems. Also, they’ll have a hefty bill at the end of the day, which might even surpass the agents original 15% commission—and this without all the other services an agent provides.

The agent is an author’s ongoing advocate throughout the publishing process—which only begins once the contract is signed. There are myriad issues which might arise once the ink dries: cover errors, editorial changes, changes in editor. Recently, a mass-market line for which several of my clients write was bought out by a large corporate entity, and there have been a number of issues to deal with, including an upcoming change in editor. An author can feel orphaned without an agent’s direction during such transitions.

Once the manuscript has been delivered and the publishing agreement fulfilled, the agent’s job is to negotiate the next contract, and hence the process begins all over again: time to handle the offer, haggle over sub-rights, review contract language, and so forth.


About Deidre Knight Deidre Knight is the owner of The Knight Agency. In just four years, the aency has built a solid client list, selling nearly 100 books to major publishing houses in a broad range of categories, including personal finance, business, music, popular culture, African American history, self-help, religion, health, parenting, romance and literary fiction. Ms. Knight is among agents included in the special online agency directory for Authorlink-listed writers. Also See Part 1: Attracting An Agent by Deidre Knight