To Agent Or Not To Agent

Does A Writer Really Need An Agent?

That’s a loaded question if I ever saw one.


Chances are, if you write short fiction or are published in Small Press, an agent can’t do much for your career.  The internet and publish-on-demand technology allow authors to bypass publishers altogether.  But they don’t get the mass distribution of large publishers.  Nor do they get the respect.  Unedited books often look it and rarely attract large readerships.  Some do.  Odds are highly against it.

If, however, you are writing longer fiction and submitting to mass market publishers, an agent can ease the road for you quite a bit.  Agents spend a great deal of time talking to editors, finding out what kind of projects appeal to them, what is selling, and what they can’t market no matter how well written.  Knowing which editor at House X likes dragons and which one loathes them is important.

Agented material goes into a much smaller pile of manuscripts to be read than the proverbial slush pile.  I once saw a cartoon in a writers magazine that depicted an eager author clutching his precious manuscript to his chest standing in front of a receptionist.  Behind the receptionist was a door marked Editor.  The caption:  Of course, sir, I’ll see that the editor gets to this as soon as he can.  Then you notice that the desk, the chairs, the lamp tables, plant stands, all are made up of manuscripts.

This cartoon is barely an exaggeration.  Publishers probably don’t make furniture out of unsolicited manuscripts, but they do fill dumpsters with them.  Editors grab whatever’s on top to take home and read over the weekend.

When I sold my first 3 books to DAW in 1993, my agent more than earned her 15% in the difference between first offer and the advance we settled upon.

Agents can do more than negotiate a higher advance.  Little things an author might not think of can add up in a contract.  The placement of a book in the publisher’s monthly catalogue is almost as important as the advance.  If your book is the 12th of 12 offerings that month, fewer than half the bookstores and distributors will advance order the book.    Moving the book to 4th or 5th place improves the chance of sales remarkably.

Then there are movie rights, foreign rights, and audio rights.  An agent should have the ability to market those rights for you with a higher percentage going to the author than if the publisher retained those right.  Few authors have the contacts to market those rights themselves.

A little over a year ago my long time agent and I severed our business relationship.  Both our careers were going in opposite directions and she could no longer service my work with the attention it deserved.  What to do?

I half panicked.  I still owed DAW a couple of books.  I wasn’t totally stranded even though I had several new projects I wanted to market.  So I continued writing while I sent got recommendations to a number of agents.  I queried, I sent out my unsold projects.  I waited.  My reputation and 21 book contracts along with over a dozen short stories didn’t count for squat.  Each agent was only looking at the new stuff.  They’d only earn money from me if they sold new works.  They have no claim on old advances and royalties.

One by one all of my hopes fell by the wayside with rejection after rejection.  They all liked my writing.  BUT they couldn’t see any of my proposals as blockbuster material.  Therefore, in today’s tough market I wasn’t worth their time.  Personality fit is another issue.  Imagining myself working closely with some of the agents I queried looked difficult.

During those months I turned in 2 outstanding projects.  I only had 1 left.  The bank accounts dwindled.  What was I going to do?

I submitted a proposal on my own to the editor who had eagerly bought almost everything I’d ever written.  After revisions and questions she finally made an offer.  I negotiated.  I’ve been around long enough to know what I should and could not get out of a contract.  I breathed a little easier.

What about those other projects?  I looked at other publishers and realized I was a stranger to them.  I might have 21 books under my belt but I’m still an unknown at other houses, especially if I want to do something different, like YA or hard science fiction.

I needed an agent.

And I found one.  I signed on with this agent just this week.  He’s not one of the heavy hitters who had been recommended to me but only wanted blockbuster bestselling authors.  I went with a newer agent who is still hungry, an agent who loves my work and will push it.  We’ve known about each other for a while and respect each other’s work.  During our phone call interview I learned that I can get along with him without walking on eggshells.  I’m happy with my choice.

Choose your battles.  I could have sent my stuff to small press and probably been accepted.  But then I’d spend much or more of my time and money marketing the books at conventions and on the internet.  Writing time would diminish.  Small presses rarely give advances, granting a higher percentage in royalties instead, with no Reserve Against Returns–another topic worthy of its own blog.  I could have serialized the new work on the internet and made some money on subscriptions.  Neither option appealed to me.  Neither option would replenish the empty bank account soon enough so I could buy groceries.  Both options would require me to spend far too much time handling the business of being an author rather than writing.

My new agent will need time to market my work.   I’ve got that now.  I trust him to get the best deal possible for me.  He’ll earn his 15%.  And I can devote myself to writing, the real object of this business after all.


About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


To Agent Or Not To Agent — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for such an honest appraisal, Phyllis. Not that I’m even close to being in that situation :), but at least I’ll keep your insights in the back of my mind if I ever am.

  2. Phyllis, I’m currently a long ways from re-appraising my agent relationship. I haven’t sent anything to her in a long time, and that’s not her fault and I realize that. But this was both sobering and encouraging reading, and I thank you for it.