Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Why Do I Need an Agent?

Deb excited about her book in the window of Cracker Barrel
I received a question this week that I thought might interest my writer-buds. My answer is included below. 

Q: A friend of mine has just self-published a book and is having a debut with lots of people and publicity. I remember you talking about your agent. My friend does not have one. He does not know how an agent works or how it may help him. Would you be able to share your agent's number so he can get advice from him/her?

A: If your friend has already self-published his book (or is in the process of doing so), it's too late for an agent. The job of a literary agent is to represent a literary work in seeking a traditional publisher, much like a realty agent (realtor) does in selling a house. Once a book is out (as in self-published), it's considered "sold," and is unlikely to interest a traditional publisher - or agent - in wanting to publish it for their company.

The exception is when a self-published book sells well within the first 2-3 months of its release (we're talking 10-20k copies here). Those numbers will turn an agent's head (and publisher's). Otherwise, the time to query an agent about representing your work is after the manuscript is completed, professionally edited and ready to be shopped around to traditional publishers. 

If you intend to self-publish, you don't need an agent. 

Most traditional presses will only deal with agents - not the authors themselves - so the only way to get a better (bigger and more lucrative) book deal is by having an agent. But sadly, they're VERY hard to get these days. You don't audition them, they audition you, and are generally very picky about whom they sign on - they only make $ when a publisher wants your book and offers to pay for it (agents make 15% of your advance and royalties). If they can't sell your book, they make zero.

I strongly believe agents are worth their weight in gold. 

My first three books (with the best marketing I could do myself) all together sold about 10k copies. In contrast, I've had three different books published (through my agent) by a traditional publisher that have sold over 30k each. The difference is largely because of distribution. They had a system in place to market on a national level. I didn't. 

And 3-4 of my other books have sold between 5k-10k each. One is nearing 60k. The difference is the wider distribution you get with traditional publishers (my books are in WalMart, B & N, Cracker Barrel, Sam's, airports, grocery stores, convenience stores (just saw one of my titles at a nondescript “Food Mart” in rural Georgia when we stopped for gas on a trip recently) and Christian bookstores everywhere, besides being sold online as e-books and print books).

It's very difficult to get widespread distribution like that when you self-publish or publish through small presses (small presses pay for everything but the marketing is pretty much up to you; self-publishing means you pay for everything and do the marketing yourself).

I had three books out with a small press before I was able to interest an agent in representing my 4th book. His name is Greg Johnson of WordServe Literary Agency - your friend can Google Greg and the agency if he likes, but I don't feel comfortable giving a recommendation to Greg unless I've read part/all of the book myself and know that it's ready (meaning it's thoroughly edited and polished and of the highest quality).

Finding an agent is not something to be taken lightly. It's actually a lot of work - your manuscript must edited, re-edited, and edited some more so that it absolutely shines. You need to have your book proposal (about 10 pages long) ready too. Then you send prospective agents a query letter (which must be of excellent quality - there are books out there on writing a query alone) just like you would to a publisher. If the agent thinks it's good enough, he/she then offers to represent that work (JUST that one manuscript), you sign a contract, and you're off to the races. 

When your agent shops the manuscript around and finds a prospective buyer, you talk turkey and hammer out the details of the deal (date the final m/s is due, royalty percentage, advance - if there is one - who owns which rights, number of author copies provided, etc.). Then you sign the contract and the real work begins: Preparing to sell your book. 

Agents nowadays specialize in particular genres, so when your friend completes his next book, he needs to do a little research on literary agencies that specialize in his genre and start sending out queries right away. It's a huge bonus if you can meet your agent-match-made-in-heaven at a writing conference face-to-face. (Many conferences offer personal meetings with agents as well as publishing house editors - take advantage of this!)

I hope this answers your question sufficiently. I can be reached through my website if you or your friend have further questions. 


cherylbethjohnston said...

Thanks for this great post, Deb! I've shared it and plan to save the link for times others ask me this same question...hopefully, one day, I'll need an agent! Love your success. Happy Thanksgiving, dear friend.