A few thoughts on literary agents.

There’s a thing going around on Twitter, from a US small press saying that they only work with unagented writers now, and any agented writers they accept will be required to drop the aforementioned agent.

My guess is this outfit want to tap into the ‘real indie authors go it alone and stick it to The Man by making a fortune’ mythology that never mentions the millions of writers with shattered dreams to set against the very few high-profile successes.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, this is a huge red flag, as umpteen people have pointed out, and has more usefully, started conversations about literary agents.

Are they essential? No. Are they extremely useful? Most definitely. Are the majority of writers well-advised to work with one? Absolutely. This is one reason why publishers who take on unagented writers usually recommend they get an agent at that point. It works out best for everyone in the long run, in most cases.

I did my first deal without an agent but I knew a fair bit about contract law from a professional qualification, plus I had back up from The Society of Authors. Anyone with a contract offer should get advice from them or a similar professional body.

In passing, I’ll just mention that I walked away from a publishing contract I was offered about a year ago, when SoA advice confirmed my misgivings. It was a perfectly legal and legit offer – but a lousy one in terms of who would earn what, and the backing the book could expect. If you’re working unagented, you need to be ready to walk away.

Back in 1997 I replied to that first offer letter/contract with 3 pages of clauses to add, clauses to amend and clauses to strike. This is not typical debut author behaviour. This is where most new writers find having an agent is essential, because if publishers can get away with minimising their obligations, they will. This is business and authors need to understand that. Agents do understand that, and that’s why reputable publishers are happy to work with them.

As my career progressed, I got a literary agent to handle all the more complex stuff like foreign rights etc to free up my time to write. That decision earned me far more than paying the agent’s commission cost me. It’s good business sense.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve worked succesfully without an agent and with different agents, as has suited me at the time. That has always been my choice. I will never work with a publisher who insists I drop an agent. There can be no good reason for that.

Yes, there are crooks and charlatans out there calling themselves literary agents, just like crooks and charlatans calling themselves publishers, Authors must always do their research and be alert for scams or bad deals. That’s a different conversation.

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