agents · editorial · publishing · strategy · writing

To agent or not to agent

One of the things people sometimes email me about is getting a literary agent, and whether or not they should. Nowadays, with so many new publishers doing exciting things and the self-publishing industry booming too, I can completely understand why you might feel as though you don’t need an agent. However – and this is just from a personal perspective and might not be applicable to your own experience – I do think a good agent is very much worth your time (and their % of your earnings!)

A good author-agent relationship can last a lifetime, and one of the key things that agents can do for you is open doors. Whilst there are publishers and imprints that take unsolicited submissions (we’re having an open subs window at Avon right now, here!) it’s still the case that the majority of publishing imprints do require you to have an agent before they will look at your work. If a submission comes into me from a literary agent – especially from an agent I know well, or have worked with before, I will prioritise it, often because I might have bought books from that agent in the past and feel as though we have similar tastes, i.e. there’s a good chance I will like the new book they’ve just sent me too. Your agent will be able to assess what kind of book you’ve written and decide who are the best editors to send it out to – if they’ve been in the industry for a while, they will know the different tastes and methods of editors, and will do their best to find your manuscript a home with an editor they think will love your work, and champion you in their publishing house (which is so important for your book!)

Another thing agents can do for you is fight your corner. When my latest book deal was being negotiated, my agent did all the back and forth with my publisher and ended up having to have slightly sticky conversations (nitty-gritty of royalties etc) which are definitely not conversations I would have been comfortable having about my own contract. It’s like with any part of life – it’s so much easier to fight someone else’s corner than your own! An agent should also know the ins and outs of a book contract (more on this here) and this is essential – especially if you are a debut author and have no idea what the various clauses on the paper you’re about to sign are!

So how else do agents earn their 15%? Well, if you’re signed up to an agency they’ll also have a foreign rights department, and if your agency keeps your world rights, they’ll be able to sell your book into other territories and negotiate the best deals for you overseas. If the rights lie with your publisher, they will also do this for you, but the process is slightly different. The foreign rights teams work incredibly hard, attending big book fairs such as Frankfurt, Bologna and London, and again, your agency will have built up good relationships over the years with foreign publishers, meaning they’re in a good position to pitch your book out. So much of the publishing industry is about relationships, and it can be very tough for an author to build these on their own. Equally, a good agency will be better placed to sell your film and TV rights – of course this doesn’t always happen, but they will have the right connections to give it the best possible chance!

Some – not all – agents also provide editorial feedback for you on your manuscript before they send it out on submission. With my debut, I worked with my agent on it for probably over a year before we actually sent it out, and her advice undoubtedly made it a stronger book. By the time you’re in a position to email your book to agents, you’ve probably read it a thousand times, and having a fresh pair of eyes is essential, as it really does need to be in the best possible condition before it lands on editors’ desks.

But it’s not all about the initial stages of the publishing process. Your agent is also someone who can act as a sounding board throughout your career, helping you make key decisions, negotiating new contracts for you, and keeping an eye on your publication process – from marketing to publicity and pricing, there are so many factors that go into publication, and your agent will always be there to check that your publisher is doing everything they’re supposed to be doing! On the flip side, a good agent will also rein you as an author in if you’re perhaps feeling overly anxious or expecting too much for your publisher – it’s always good to keep your expectations realistic, and an agent will have experience and be able to help you navigate through choppy waters. Publishing can be a really up and down industry and I think it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone – a good agent will always have your back and be there to provide you with an honest opinion when you need one.

So as you can see, there are a huge amount of benefits to having an agent and the above is my personal opinion. But this wouldn’t be a fair blog post if I didn’t explain the other side of things. If you don’t have an agent, you obviously don’t have to give them a percentage of your earnings, meaning you do get to keep more of the income for yourself. But on the flip side of that – a good agent is more likely to secure you a better deal in the first place, so you can also think of it that way. If you don’t have an agent, you don’t have to wait for them to respond – agents are busy people and the waiting time can be agonising sometimes. If you take that out of the equation, you might feel as though you have a little more autonomy over the process.

The other thing worth noting is that all of the plus points above are only relevant for good literary agents – of which there are many. However, as with any industry, there are unfortunately some agents who might not be acting in your best interests – who might be inexperienced, unreliable, or even who might charge you money – and these are best avoided! You should never have to pay a literary agent an upfront fee – the way it works is that they take a percentage of your sales once your book is sold to a publishing house. Before that, you are not paying them, so if you see otherwise on an agency website then please proceed with great caution! I’m sure if you’re at the point where you’re considering sending your work to literary agents, you’ve already put a huge amount of work into it and therefore you deserve to find a brilliant person to represent you. Take your time to do your research and make sure you get in contact with legitimate, respected agents who will act in your best interests. That’s not to say you have to go with long-standing agencies – there are lots of new agents popping up all the time who will have bags of enthusiasm and more space for you on their list, but remember, before you sign with anyone, you’re well within your rights to ask to meet them in person or speak on the phone, find out about their way of working, their other clients, and why they want to represent you – and doing this will hopefully ensure you create a long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationship with someone lovely who will guide you through your writing career.

If you want recommendations for literary agents feel free to get in touch, and for more tips on this kind of thing you can subscribe to my new newsletter!

Thank you for reading!

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4 thoughts on “To agent or not to agent

  1. I agree with everything you’ve written here, Phoebe, and, as someone who wants to make a career of writing, I’d love to have an agent. However, this is something that eludes me, despite many, many submissions and ‘near misses’. I will keep pushing on, though. Thanks for sharing your insight!


  2. Is the 15% agent fee a ‘set-in-stone’ industry standard? (reading the W&A Yearbook lists, it seems so.) Couldn’t find where it’s derived from, but the cost basis of so much has changed over the years (e.g. screen vs typewriter, email vs post, phone bills), it’s odd it hasn’t fluctuated at all. Agents don’t therefore seem to compete on a fee price basis and any ‘try before you buy’ seems tricky 🙂 But all good to know and interesting. Thanks again.


    1. I think it’s standard yes, but always check your contract before you sign with anyone. Agents take different percentages based on the format and the territory, and it would all be outlined in a contract.


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