I live in a college town, so I’m neighbors and friends with a few students. One of them learned I’m a writer and told me she was enrolled in a class that anyone was free to audit. Thanks to her, I’ve been taking a class from Brandon Sanderson. Yes, THE Brandon Sanderson. If you’re not sure who he is, it’s about time you got your hands on one of his books. Even if they’re not your cup of tea, you’ll still be appreciate the level of detail that goes into his worldbuilding.
Anyway, for most of the semester, Sanderson taught about worldbuilding, plot, and character, which are all well and good. But the last couple of weeks were focused on the business of writing--who the Big 5 are, things you should look out for in a publishing contract, royalty rates, and how to get an agent--or if you even should. This business info was exactly what I needed, and since I’m looking to get myself an agent this year, I was especially grateful to hear the facts about them. As a #1 New York Times Bestselling author with a handful of different series in the works at any given time, Sanderson knows a thing or two about the industry and what it takes to navigate a book deal, so I took furious notes on the topic.
Why get an agent at all? They’re supposed to give authors a leg up on their way to traditional publishing, but a writer can approach acquisitions editors and make it through the slush pile without one, and they do it all the time nowadays! Our writing group has been just fine without them thus far: Rachel Huffmire got her foot in the door, traditionally publishing “Shattered Snow” without an agent by pitching it at a writing conference. Bree Moore, the president of our writing group, is self-published (and doing a marvelous job of it, by the way), so she doesn’t need an agent to represent her interests to a third party.
If you can go without an agent, shouldn’t you?
You certainly can. In fact, if you're self-publishing, you may never need one. But teaming with an agent is something you should at least consider, whether it’s right or wrong for you as an author, so let’s go over some pros and cons.
What can an agent do for you?
An agent’s job, first and foremost, is to be your advocate. They make sure your best interests are protected when your work goes to a publisher, and they can clue you in on what your best interests might be if you have no idea.
An agent should know the ins and outs of the industry. They’ll have an established network of acquisitions editors you can tap into, so they should know who will be most interested in your manuscript and be able to send it to them. If they have a reputation for representing talented authors, you might even be able to skip the slush pile altogether, or at least get more focused attention on your work than you would have otherwise.
Once a publisher sends you a contract to purchase the rights to your story, an agent can help you understand that contract and advise you on changes that could be made in your favor. Agents are negotiators, so they’ll do their best to get you the highest advance possible, retain the rights the publisher doesn’t need, and point out any red flags they find. As an example, a contract may state that, upon signing it, the right to publish any sequels to your story is given to the publisher, so they wouldn’t need you to keep your plot and characters going. This isn’t a common thing, but Sanderson listed this point as something to keep track of when navigating a contract, so I made sure to jot it down.
One of my biggest fears is getting a giant contract so filled with legal jargon that it means almost nothing to me, so having an agent that will know what everything means and negotiate terms for me sounds amazing.
What are the downsides of having an agent?
The most obvious downside is that agents have to be paid. But with as much work as they should be doing for you, they definitely deserve that payment. You’ll have to decide if 15% of your earnings is worth it to you.
The biggest problem is finding the right agent for you. Just as each author has their own way of writing, each agent has their own preferences and ways of doing things. Some may only want an easy deal and won’t do any negotiating. Some may give too much feedback on your work, stepping into the role of editor and trying to change your story from what you want it to be. Some of them may not listen to you or care about your preferences, preferring to make all of the decisions themselves.
Having an agent agree to represent you is so exciting! Still, you need to be wary. Oftentimes, authors connect with an agent and never question whether they’re the right fit for them because the author sees them as an authority. Some authors worry they’ll never find another agent who will work with them, so they commit to the first one they find. That’s where our attitude really has to change. Authors do not work for agents, AGENTS work for AUTHORS. If your agent stops representing your interests in the ways you need for your business, don’t be afraid to change things up. You will find someone else, and you’ll be better off.
If you associate with writers, you’ve probably heard your share of agent rejection stories, and you’ll likely experience rejections of your own. Is there an easier way to find an agent who will agree to represent you than sending your manuscript to as many agents as you can find and hoping someone picks it up?
Sanderson’s advice is research, research, and more research. Start by finding someone who works in your genre. Agents get a lot of queries for manuscripts in genres they never claimed to represent. Hundreds of them at a time. Many people get rejected because they’re guilty of this very thing. Don’t send a query to an agent you know next to nothing about; if you send a cookbook to someone primarily working with fantasy, you’re not going to get very far.
Talk with other people who have worked with the agent you’re considering. What has their work relationship been like with them? What do they like about it? What would they change? Be sure to answer what questions you can to make your efforts efficient.
Once you’ve found the agent that fits you best, partnering with them is as easy as emailing them a query letter, right? Well, querying itself is a different can of worms I’ll save for another time.
Rachel White has lived in Utah all her life, and has been writing fiction nearly as long. “Starsworn” is her debut published work, but as long as her husband, three children, and over-anxious dog cooperate, there will certainly be more to come. Be sure to watch for "Shattered Snow," her first audiobook narration project, coming soon!
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.