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Should You Get an Agent? … and How to Hire A Good One


BY ROBERT W. BLY | While it is possible to sell your book to a publishing house without the help of a literary agent, having an agent represent you will greatly increase the odds of success.


“Publishers decided years ago that it was uneconomical for them to read unsolicited manuscripts.” That’s the opinion of Arthur M. Klebanoff, president, Scott Meredith Literary Agency. “Publishers rely on agents for recommendations,” he says.


That being the case, I recommend you initially concentrate on selling yourself and your book idea to an agent.


If you can convince a good agent to take on the project, then the agent will have primary responsibility for selling the book, saving you time, and increasing your chances of acceptance.


If you cannot get an agent to represent you, then you can represent the book yourself and try to sell it on your own.


I’ve done it both ways, and based both on personal experience and the state of the publishing industry today, my advice is to get an agent, if you can.


The exception might be if you have a pre-existing relationship with a book publisher (or know someone who does) and feel your book is exactly right for that particular publisher.


Why having an agent gives you an edge

Most editors today will not read your material unless it is submitted by an agent. Agents act as “screening devices” for editors. Although submission by an agent does not guarantee a sale (far from it), the editor will at least look at the material. The editor’s logic in doing so is that if the agent thinks the book is good enough to represent, it is at least worth taking a look at.


As a rule of thumb, the larger the publishing house, the more vital it is to have an agent. The smaller the publishing house, the more likely they are to look at unsolicited proposals not represented by an agent. University presses can also be approached directly by potential authors without an agent.


Another area where agents help is in negotiating favorable book contracts for authors. A book contract has dozens of clauses in fine print, each of which is negotiable and can greatly affect your total income from the book.


The basic function of an agent is sales. A good agent is one who is able to sell your writing and get you the best deal in terms of advance, royalty, publisher, promotional budget, and quality of editor and publisher.


Getting your first agent

The best place to start is with your own personal contacts. If you don’t know someone who has published a book, chances are a friend of a friend, or a relative of a friend, may know someone. Ask that author for a referral. Does he have an agent he can recommend to you? Does he have any suggestions on which agents to contact?


Go to a bookstore or library and look at recent books on topics similar to the book you want to write. Now, read the acknowledgments at the beginning of the book. Many authors will thank their literary agents by name in the acknowledgments. Write down the names of these agents, look them up in a directory such as Literary Marketplace, and contact them.


This technique of looking for agents in book acknowledgments works well because agents, like other people, have their own particular interests, and an agent will be more receptive to your idea if it fits in with the type of books she likes to work with.


Send a brief letter of introduction. Explain where you got their name, who you are, and briefly describe the type of book you want to write. If you have writing credentials or are an established expert in the subject matter of your proposed book, say so.



The agent’s percentage

An agent collects a percentage of all advances, royalties, and other income (e.g., sale of serial rights, movie rights, etc.) generated by your book. Typically, this ranges from 10 to 15 percent.


You do not pay any fees to your agent until he or she makes a sale for you, at which time the agent receives a commission as discussed above.


Agents typically absorb phone expenses, postage, travel, lunches with editors, and other expenses involved in marketing your book and running their agency. However, it is traditional for the author to pay for the cost of photocopying book manuscripts and provide the agent with as many copies as required (usually 3 to 5 copies for simultaneous submissions to multiple publishers).


Some agents do charge to read and critique manuscripts, but such services are often worthless.


Most legitimate agents, if interested in your idea, will review your material and immediately tell you whether they’re interested in representing you, without charging an up-front fee.


There are some legitimate agents who, if uncertain about your idea or your qualifications, will agree to review the proposal or manuscript for a fee. Many will refund the fee if they go on to represent and sell the book for you.


If the agent is favorably impressed, and agrees to represent the book, congratulations — you have a literary agent!


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BOB BLY is the author of 40 books including the just-published Secrets of a Freelance Writer: Revised Second Edition (Henry Hold & Co.). For a free catalog of Bob’s books, tapes, and reports for writers, contact: Bob Bly, 22 E. Quackenbush Avenue, Dumont, NJ 07628, phone 201-385-1220, fax 201-385-1138, email: Rwbly@aol.com