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DIY MFA: Why You Need an Agent (Part Four)

Welcome back to your Do-it-Yourself MFA program.

Your fiction manuscript is complete or your non-fiction proposal is done.  Now, you need to find an agent.

I think it’s really important to understand what an agent does and why you need one before we talk about how to get one.  Because the first bit of information will inform the second bit of information.

You’re going to work with a lot of people as you publish your book–your editor, publisher, copyeditor, designer, publicist–but the only one who always has your back and is always on your side is your agent.  They are always looking out for you, guiding you, and helping you make good decisions.  An agent may take a percentage of your profits, but they will also usually get you more money (and protect your rights) than you could get on your own, so losing 15% of $10,000 is much better than getting to keep all of $500.

Here’s the point of an agent: the big six publishing houses and many of the smaller, independent presses, will not accept unsolicited manuscripts or queries (meaning, they didn’t ask for them) because in order to run their business, they can’t also field the requests of millions of writers all clamouring to get their book published.  But it’s easy for a publisher to keep a relationship with several hundred agents (rather than several million people) and have them act as the gateway, separating the wheat from the chaff for them.  If an agent is representing your project, they are essentially vouching for your writing abilities.

And it’s not just the filter affect: most publishers do not want to deal directly with authors.  They want to work with someone who understands the industry and so much of the initial contact is in negotiations and contracts.  A publisher does not want to negotiate directly with an author and wants that middle person so they can frankly define the relationship.  In other words, publishers want someone they can actually talk to and that person will be your agent.

That relationship with publishers is why an agent can’t just take on anything (an explanation if you know an agent personally and are frustrated that they’re hemming and hawing when it comes to your project).  They only make money if they sell a project, so their reputation is on the line.  If they keep bringing things to a publisher that would never fit their list, they will damage their own reputation and that publisher will cease to work with them in the future.  Agents take those relationships seriously and they will only pitch to a publisher if they think it’s a good fit for that publisher.

Each agent has focused on building relationships based on what sort of project excites them.  One agent I know has made a living representing a ton of vampire romance books.  If you’re writing one, she is the person to have represent your book because she rocks at selling those.  But while she has a few other types of books on her list, she wouldn’t be a great person to represent a sports title.

Which is why, when we get to the next installment of your DIY MFA, we are going to work on finding the best agents for your project.  Because it matters.  Just because someone is an agent doesn’t mean that they are going to be able to represent your project.

Agents also need to diversify their list while making those strong connections with publishers (agents, frankly, sound like they have an exhausting job, so thank your agent profusely once you get one).  Think of it like the stock market.  If they only represent vampire romance novels and the general public stops buying vampire romance novels, they’re screwed.  So they diversify by taking on similar, yet different types of books.  That same agent may do well to represent other types of romances, or other types of genre fiction–thrillers, mysteries, etc.

At the same time, publishers are making those types of diversified investments too: they are building a focused list while being flexible to go with the market.  So there are two layers of investing that is taking place–an agent needs to see your project worth their time AND a publisher needs to see your project as adding to their list.  Agents (and publishers) are essentially making an investment in you.  Agents are investing time with the pay-off being money and publishers are investing money with the payoff being that they make money by investing money (more on that when we get to publishers).

If agents make no money off of you, their investment has kept them from other investments.  So they pick carefully.  They are also looking at the long-term.  Once you sign with an agent, they are representing your future projects.  They don’t want to keep finding new clients; they want their current clients to keep producing new books.  So show them that you’re also looking at this as a long-term relationship, something worth making an investment on with long-term gains.

Last thoughts, an agent represents you–they are your voice out there in the world of publishing.  Make sure you understand that because it should be your guide in picking an agent that will work well with you.  Who will have a lot of connections and do well by your book.  After all, you take the time to surround yourself with friends who support you; you should think of your agent in the same way–they should be excited about your project and have your back.  A good agent is worth their weight in gold.

Okay class, any questions on what was discussed here? Please leave them in the comment section below and I will answer them in the comment section below. Keep in mind that I have a lot of topics to cover so your question may be answered in a future installment (see below). So keep your questions about what agents do and next time, we’ll talk about how to get an agent.

Heads Up and Looking Back: topics that will be covered in future installments or that were covered in past installments

1. Before You Even Get Started

2. Are You Ready to Be an Author?

3. How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal


5. How to Find and Sign with a Reputable Agent

6. Querying Agents

7. What Happens Next–Waiting for a Book Sale

8. No Agent? Other Paths to Publication

9. What to Expect After You Sign a Book Deal

10. Be Your Own Publicist

11. A Mishmash of Leftover Questions and Answers


1 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 07.03.10 at 2:38 pm }

Great post! So many authors seem to try to do it themselves and set themselves up for failure before they even start.

Just wanted to mention that unlike real estate agents, who often want to take the first offer and get it over with, from what I’ve seen many literary agents will keep negotiating until they get the best deal, even though they personally stand to make very little extra money from the increase in the deal. And the best agents truly make your pitch and proposal better.

2 Gabi { 07.19.10 at 3:06 pm }

I was thinking about doing a comprehensive cookbook I was working on as an ebook so it would be more accessible, but after diving into your series (especially about agents and the doors they can open), I am starting to think of it as a print book.

Thank you for you very specific and detailed advise! I really look forward to the forthcoming installments in the series.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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