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Question: Im an unpublished author, and I have several editors who are willing to look at my manuscript. Ive heard I should get an agent, but at this point, Im wondering why I need one since Ive 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 theyre really asking is for a better explanation of what an agent does, because submitting to editors is only one small part of an agents work.
First, a good agent often helps a writer edit and polish their manuscript. This doesnt mean that a writer should expect an extensive edit, as agents look for work thats 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, its 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 relationshipsoften people theyve 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 whats happening with different publishing companies, and will use that knowledge in targeting their submissions. On the editors side, they know the agents 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 dont have a strong established relationship with the editors theyre submitting to, and they lack inside knowledge of the market. For instance, if theyve written a health book, they probably wouldnt know that Publisher A has just launched a new health imprint and is eagerly looking for manuscripts in that areaespecially if the information hasnt been made public yet. On the other hand, its quite likely that the agent might know about the health imprint. Another problem for the unagented author is that it will take monthsor even as long as a yearfor 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 theyre 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: Were trained to offer low, and unagented authors dont understand thatthey 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. Theyre 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 projects 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 wont have the proper means to market them on their own without an agent. Additionally, most writers dont 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 agents work has only begun. A contract follows in a few weeks, and the agent negotiates the language with the publishers legal department, reshaping it until the contract represents the writers 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 minefieldsome contracts are as long as twenty pages. Of course, they can hire a lawyer, but without one who specializes in publishing/entertainment law, theyre going to have problems. Also, theyll have a hefty bill at the end of the day, which might even surpass the agents original 15% commissionand this without all the other services an agent provides.
The agent is an authors ongoing advocate throughout the publishing processwhich 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 agents direction during such transitions.
Once the manuscript has been delivered and the publishing agreement fulfilled, the agents 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