To get an agent or not? This decision is a crucial one in your writing career so in this article we'll examine some of the 'fors' and 'againsts' of agents for fiction writers.
There is no doubt that getting a good agent can have a significant impact on your literary career. There is also no doubt that a bad agent can have an impact too - but not the kind you want. Any agent that you may contact must feel 'right' for you in the first place or the chances are good that the relationship will at best be strained and at worst be useless to you. To help you decide, we'll examine what a good agent should do for you - and what you shouldn't expect them to do for you.
A good agent should keep you in front of the right kind of editor for your kind of writing. They should be able to negotiate the best possible deal for you, the writer, and ensure that the business side of things runs as smoothly as possible. This allows the writer to get on with what they should be doing - writing. The agent should also be able to oversee your book as it goes through the publication process, then keep an eye on such things as foreign right, radio rights, TV rights and the writer's holy grail - film rights.
A good agent has a distinct advantage over a writer in that they have - or should have - far more contacts within the publishing industry. This allows them to 'think outside the box' of your existing publisher - who may only have negotiated or wanted limited rights - and approach other members of the publishing world to offer them the remainder as mentioned above.
The role of agents has expanded over recent years, partly due to the fact that editors inside publishing houses tend to change around far more frequently than in years gone by. The activities of many agents now include those of business partner, concept editor and trusted friend, who helps the writer's career forward over the years by being an active part of it.
On the other side of the coin, there are some things that a writer shouldn't expect an agent to do: in fact any expectation from the writer in the following list may well strain the relationship to breaking point. Agents therefore shouldn't be expected to:
Sell bad or unsaleable work Lend the writer money or give him or her 'advances' Be a legal representative for the writer Be a secretary or 'gopher' Become involved in the writer's personal life and problems Be at the writer's constant beck and call - especially outside office hours Teach the writer how to write Be the writer's private taxicab driver Arrange publicity stunts or campaigns (that's down to the writer and/or publisher)
As a writer, you should remember that, although your agent may well become your friend, the writer/agent relationship should always be regarded as a professional one. Keep this in mind when tempted to make it otherwise - unless by mutual agreement, of course.
A bad agent will not only not do any of the things mentioned above - they may well do very little or nothing at all to get you into print. It may be that they simply don't possess the contacts or the skill required to persuade a publisher that you're the Next Big Thing. It may be that they are inherently lazy or habitually do just enough to keep you hanging on - though goodness knows why as it earns them nothing.
Finally, it may be that the personalities of the agent and writer just simply clash. A very businesslike writer may not get on too well with an agent who has a laid-back approach to their work, or vice versa. Although it may well be difficult for an unpublished writer to get an agent at all, it's no good signing up with someone you cannot 'get on with'. The temptation may well be great to grab any offer of having an agent with both hands but beware - it could turn out to be a case of 'marry in haste, repent at leisure' - something any writer can seriously do without.
So, before approaching agents, ask yourself this question - is this agent the one for me? Do they handle my kind of work? What reputation do they enjoy? Will I be able to work with them? And - do they 'feel' right? Getting an agent is an important business and career step for any writer to take, so don't take it lightly.
There's a myth in writing circles that you can't get published without an agent - and that you can't get an agent without being published. True, getting an agent may be no easy task - there are many aspiring writers out there vying for agency status and notice. However, if your work is good and your approach professional and businesslike, any writer can get an agent - although it may well take a whole mountain of persistence and self-belief.
Ask people you know who have links into publishing - no matter how tenuous - if they know any agents. Ask members of your writing group. Ask bookshop owners, publishers' salespeople, librarians. Someone, somewhere will know an agent, or someone who knows one. Then, if the agent fits with what you want from them, approach them with your reference - you'll be a lot closer to having the agent read your work than another writer who has gone in 'cold'.
In conclusion, the decision to get an agent is one only the individual writer can make. Just remember that writing is one task, publication another. A writer's job is frequently hard enough as it is without the added pressure of dealing with a publisher. A good agent bridges the gap between the creative and commercial process and should, in my opinion, be regarded as an invaluable asset to any writer wishing to make a career for themselves.