To Agent or Not To Agent…That is the Question

Apologies for missing my post time last week. My computer crashed Tuesday night, so blogging on Wednesday morning wasn’t an option. I now have a brand new hard drive, and thanks to an excellent external back-up, I’m back in business!

I was interviewed over the weekend in preparation for an upcoming speaking engagement and thought we might discuss one of the questions.

The Question:

Do you need an agent to get started [in publishing], and if not, at what point do you think one is most useful?

My answer (modified somewhat since I haven’t reproduced the entire interview here):

It depends on your path. You don’t need an agent to sell short fiction or for e-publishing, which is a totally different business model from traditional publishing. If you’re writing novels and your heart is set on one of the big NY publishing houses, then you need an agent.

The best time to find an agent is when you have a novel that’s polished and ready for submission. Here’s the sticky point: you may not recognize when that criteria has been met.

I wrote my first novel without benefit of craft knowledge. My husband read it. My best friend read it. My daughter read it. They were all so proud that I’d written this massive story they couldn’t see straight. They certainly couldn’t give me knowledgeable critique.

Based on their benediction and my own glow of pride, I queried numerous agents. Looking back, I am totally unsurprised that I received only form letter rejections, but at the time I was frustrated beyond belief.

But you know what? That frustration proved to be the catalyst that turned me into a real, honest-to-God writer. I had two choices: throw up my hands and wail, “It’s not fair! No one will give me chance!” or suck it up and figure out what I’d done wrong. I chose the second option. I found OWC [Oregon Writers Colony and began taking classes]. I accepted the invitation to Wordos [a Eugene, Oregon critique group]. I drove to and from Eugene [two hours each way] every Tuesday night for eighteen months. I accepted contracts with a brand new nobody-has-ever-heard-of-them e-pub. I listened to every comment my editor made and absorbed as much as I possibly could. And…I wrote.

When I finished my first contemporary young adult novel, I decided it was time to try for an agent again. I sent my novel out to beta readers. Not my husband, best friend, and daughter. Oh, they read it and loved it, but the readers who helped me decide if it was ready were writers with NY contracts and unpublished writers who understood plot and characterization.

When my query letter and synopsis had undergone a similar vetting, I began my agent quest, and this time I received personalized rejections. But I also received requests for partials and fulls, and one fine day…an offer of representation.


So what about you? Do you agree with my assessment of the agent question? I’d love to hear your thoughts.



Filed under writing

10 responses to “To Agent or Not To Agent…That is the Question

  1. I totally agree with not knowing when your manuscript is trully ready to submit when you are starting out. When I finished what is now my first draft (five years ago I thought it was the finished draft) I sent it straight to Harlequin. My mom had read it, sister too, but that was it. Um, no, Harlequin didn’t send me a “where have you been all of our lives?” letter. It’s hard to know what you don’t know. I’ve learned by reading, taking classes, going to conferences, joining critique groups, and of course writing. It’s like anything else–to get good, you have to practice.

    For me, it was harder to get an agent than it was to get published. Go figure.

  2. I think you’re absolutely spot on-you followed a very similar path to mine and I made similar mistakes along the way 🙂 One thing I always suggest to newer writers is that they slow down and let a ms sit for a while and get good feedback before they rush in and query.

  3. I think you covered it pretty well. There are still a few houses in NY publishing that don’t require agents (HQ, for one, at least with some of their branches), but I still think it’d be wise to get one. They can sometimes get you better deals and better contracts. Plus, personally, I think it would be nice to have a buffer between yourself and an editor.

    Well done, Debbie!

  4. Thanks, Kate. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who “rushed in where angels fear to tread” *lol*

    Good point, Maya. There are definitely houses you can submit to without an agent, but for NY I want that buffer…not to mention savvy advice.

  5. Yep. I totally agree, too. 🙂

  6. Great thoughts. I queried my first ms, too. Then had to learn what this craft thing meant. I’m working on my fourth ms, and this one I’ll send out to agents again. Because it’s better.

    I agree, though. Getting an agent is worthwhile if you’re looking to get to the NYT bestseller list. 😀 For now, anyway. Maybe that will change someday.

  7. If you can land an agent, great. I bet editors read manuscripts with a more open mind when they already have the backing of a reputable agent.

  8. I studied books of craft for years (like 10). I’ve attended 3 writers conference. Two since I’ve been writing seriously. This past year I paid for an editor critique at the conference. Worth every penny. (Also because she liked the story!). And finally, I’ve been a member of an awesome 4 person critique group for the last 4 months. All women I’ve met at the conferences. They’ve critiqued more than half the ms. The difference is awe inspiring.

    I’m revising my first manuscript now. And I’m planning to query agents. I’m hoping I’m ready. I’m hoping my manuscript is ready.

  9. My opinion on when to look for an agent: when you have a piece of work that’s polished and ready to sell. That’s the time to start hunting for an agent (you can research them while writing the book).

    If you want to write e-books only, an agent isn’t a necessity. For traditional publishers, you don’t 100 % have to have one either, but it sure helps because the number of major publishers willing to look at work from an unagented author is shrinking.

  10. Sounds like a good road map to me! My agent search will begin pretty soon… *breathes deep*.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s