Do You Need a Literary Agent?


In my nearly three decades of book publishing, one of the the most common questions I get is “Do I need a literary agent?”

The answer isn’t completely black & white, but it is pretty close:  you may not always need one, but you are always better off with one (and in some book categories, like fiction, an agent is an absolute must) .

A literary agent is important because of the myriad things he or she  can do for your writing career. This is especially true for first time authors (assuming you have the prerequisites to sign on with an agent, but we can save that for another post). 

Here, in no real order, are the things that a top notch literary agent can do for you:

* First and foremost, works with you to develop a viable book idea—one that matches up nicely with your particular expertise and passion(s). The key is to identify your strengths and match them to the strengths of a particular book market or niche. 

* Shapes those ideas into a compelling and marketable book “package” that has a high probability of attracting interest from publishers (the package refers to the title, subtitle, a book’s reading line, etc.). 

* Works  closely with you to develop a strong book proposal: The proposal is everything when it comes to getting a good book contract. Having an experienced agent (or similarly, a former veteran business book editor) makes a huge difference.  

* Develop the cover memo that will go to publishers—one compelling enough to capture the imagination and interest of book editors and publishers. Most cover letters are boring, failing to arouse interest or differentiate the book from all of the hundreds of others in a particular category or niche.

* Works with you to develop a strong book outline: A part of the proposal, but worth highlighting here. It’s a key component and can also make the difference between a good offer and no offer. This is where you show your book to be well thought out, to have depth, texture and dimension.

Once the proposal is complete—usually after several iterations between author and agent—then there is a whole new set of activities to perform:

* He then sends the proposal to various publishers:  This is the book’s “coming out” party,  as it is viewed by outsiders for the first time. “Fit” is a big issue, as the agent tries to match your book with the most appropriate publisher. Then, if all goes well, he….

* Fields initial offers from publishers. If the stars are aligned, the project will garner multiple offers from top tier publishers. However, there are no guarantees. Many books that seem like “can’t-miss-projects” often fail to bring in any offers at all. Some of the great business books in history have been rejected by countless publishing houses before one finally agreed to take it on. 

* Then the agent has to decide on how he will sell your book: He has to figure out if he will sell the book via auction: if there are more than say, two offers/bidders, then the agent will be able to sell the book via auction, helping to maximize the author’s advance  for the book. The agent and author can decide on the rules of the auction. One “rule” that should be stated up front is that the author need not accept the highest bid. There are instances in which a lower bidder will “feel” like the right offer—usually because of the chemistry that exists between the author and an editor from another house. These are the kinds of things that a veteran agent will assist in from the earliest days of the project. 

This is enough information for one post. Tune in Thursday for Part II featuring additional things that an agent can do to help you in your book writing career.


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