Love them or hate them, literary agents are a force to be reckoned with in the publishing world. Just about all the big-name authors have one, and any online search you do for book publishers will likely bring up some agency names as well. So, who are these mysterious entities who do so much behind-the-scenes work, yet rarely get recognition for it? And more importantly, why would you want to have one? Both questions I shall attempt to answer here.
Literary agents are essentially folks who represent authors and their works to potential publishers in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. They are generally folks who have a good deal of experience in the publishing world (as some combination of author, editor, and/or publisher), sometimes possess degrees in publishing/copyright law, and are frequently–though by no means always–women. Like publishers themselves, agents usually have a certain genre or genres they’re looking for. If you submit outside those genres, you’ll get the same automatic rejection.
Agents attempt to build up lists of clients, whose work they then go on to represent to publishers. Each agent will have his or her own quota of authors to take on at any one time, and therefore close to submissions from new authors on occasion just like publishers. It has been my experience, however, that agents do tend to respond more quickly to submissions than do publishers. What they are NOT is editors, even if they were at some point in the past. Unless they’re feeling especially generous, they will not provide any more feedback on how to improve or alter a rejected story any more than publishing houses will.
Now, one might well ask what the benefits of acquiring an agent are. Well, there are several benefits to having one. First and most obvious is the representation they offer. Some big-name publishers (and even middle-sized ones) will not even accept unagented submissions, and so are inaccessible if you don’t have one. Those that do are bombarded with hundreds if not thousands of submissions a day. One of the things that can make a submission stand out amidst all that is if it is sent by an established literary agent. And the bigger the name of the agent, the more the publisher will be willing to listen.
In addition, agents tend to be experts when it comes to contracts. On the off chance a publisher accepts your manuscript for publication, they will send you a lengthy contract with a load of legalese that some authors find burdensome and even frustrating to try and make heads or tails of. These deals often end with a loss of publication rights or royalties to the publishing house. A good agent, however, should be able to negotiate a more favorable outcome in terms of payment, rights, and sometimes even publicity. It is for this reason that good agents can truly be worth their weight in gold.
But is an agent absolutely necessary?
No. It is still possible for authors to go it alone, and even come out quite well for it in the end, whether through submitting directly to publishers or self-publishing. And it is certainly true that there are a few agents out there who are in it for themselves. These pseudo-agents are not afraid of stealing the works of authors or even skimming more than their share off the top of royalty payments (or in extreme cases, withholding them entirely). That is why, if you seek out an agent, you should always check their credentials and references, and avoid those who charge ‘reading fees’ completely.
So no, it is not absolutely essential that you have an agent. However, an author without one can expect a much heavier workload and a longer road to publication. But if you think you’re up for the challenge, then by all means go for it!