9 Reasons You Need a Literary Agent (and 5 Reasons You Don’t)


Literary agent reviewing a manuscript in his office

For decades it’s been widely assumed that authors need representation from an agent in order to get their books published. While that may be true in many cases, there are instances where book publication can occur without the guidance of an agent.

You need a literary agent if you want to see your manuscript published at one of the big publishing houses or one of their imprints. Most editors prefer to work with agents and they will not accept unsolicited queries from authors.

Still not sure if you need an agent to publish your book? I’ve put together a list of reasons you may want to consider working with an agent, and a list of reasons you might not need an agent at all. Once you’ve considered the pros and cons it’s up to you to decide.

9 Reasons You Need a Literary Agent

There are times when having a literary advantage can give you an advantage, and others when it is an absolute must. Here are nine reasons that you may want to consider working with a literary agent.

1) It increases the odds that your manuscript published by a Big 5 Publisher

Fair or not, nearly every editor at a Big 5 publisher refuses to review manuscripts who aren’t presented by an agent. They rely on agents to act as gatekeepers in order to ensure that they spend time reviewing the best possible candidates for publication.

Most editors work a minimum of sixty-hour workweeks, and in many cases, they work a lot more than that. Reviewing manuscripts is an important part of what they do, but it isn’t the only thing they do.

Like most people working in corporate America, they have to contend with internal meetings, corporate training, and personal issues like doctor appointments or sick kids.

They also already have a full roster of books that they’re in the midst of editing, and even though authors rely on their agents for moral support, they look to their editors for support as well.

I still haven’t mentioned the writing conference they attend on a regular basis, or the agent lunches and dinners they attend. Oh yeah, and the dozens of agents who are hitting them up via phone, text, and email in an attempt to pitch them a new manuscript.

Needless to say, editors have their hands full. Even if they wanted to, they don’t have time to sift through the literal tens of thousands of queries they’d receive from unagented authors on a yearly basis. So, if you want to see your book published at big publisher, you’re going to need an agent.

2) Literary agents already own relationships with the editors at the Big 5 Publishers

Boxes of middle grade books from Hachette and Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Like it or not, if you don’t want to self-publish your primary job shifts from author to sales executive once you finish your manuscript. You’ll either need to sell to an agent or you’re going to need to sell your manuscript to an editor.

We already discussed the fact that editors at larger publishing houses don’t have time to review unsolicited manuscripts. Unless you are personal friends with an editor, they won’t even look at the submission without an agent.

So why try?

Besides, sales are much easier when you already have a relationship with someone—and agents are in the relationship business.

It’s their job to earn the trust and respect of editors so those same editors will listen when an agent presents them an opportunity to review a new manuscript—even if it’s from a new author without a track record of sales success.

3) You wrote a book with broad sales appeal and you want it to reach its potential

Books are a bit like movies. There are summer blockbusters that have a broad appeal and massive sales. There are also quieter films that show in a limited number of screens.

They don’t make as much money, but they have passionate audiences and they tend to win a lot of awards.

If you think your book has the chance to be a blockbuster—or at least to appeal to a wide audience, it may be a fit for one of the Big 5 publishers. If that’s the case, you’ll want an agent so you can maximize the potential and reach a large audience.

But if you have written a quieter, more literary book that you think will find a smaller but passionate audience, you should consider approaching smaller publishers where the editors accept unagented queries.

4) You write a book for the middle grade market

Girl reading a middle grade book before she goes to bed

Though there is no doubting that a handful of middle grade authors have managed to find success through self-publishing their books, it’s still a tough market.

The most viable way for self-published authors is to sell digital copies of their books through outlets like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Program. Unfortunately, middle grade readers primarily read physical copies of books.

Until electronic readers find wider adoption with the eight-to-twelve-year-old demographic, your best bet as a middle grade author is to traditionally publish your book. That means you’ll need an agent to help you sell your manuscript to a larger publisher.   

5) You are hoping for a book auction to drive up the price of your advance

I bet this one got your attention. My first book wen to auction, and it was both nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time.

I was flattered that my agent thought the book was good enough to go to auction, but I was nervous that no publishers would bid and we’d be left without a deal. Thankfully we had a few takers, and we ended up picking Scholastic for two reasons:

  1. Thanks to Scholastic Book Fairs and their Book Clubs, they have enormous reach with the middle grade market.
  2. We loved the editor. Her name is Lisa Sandell, and she showed enormous enthusiasm for our manuscript.

An auction typically happens when three or more publishers are interested in making an offer on a manuscript. It’s important to note that an auction doesn’t guarantee that a book will end up as a bestseller, but it certainly helps drive up the advance a bit.

It also helps you hear all the offers to determine which publisher is the best fit for you.

The only way your manuscript will have a shot at going to auction is if you work with an agent.

6) You want help with contract negotiations

Contracts with publishers can get complicated and you don’t want to take them lightly. Even if you’re willing to take them time and read a contract thoroughly, there is still a good amount of legal jargon that will be unfamiliar to the laymen who never attended law school.

Having an agent can give you a certain sense of comfort knowing that you’re working with someone who is familiar with every nook and cranny of a publishing contract.

7) Editors don’t like negotiating directly with authors

There was a time where I was considering handling my own representation with publishers. I had a great relationship with my editor and my first book sold over 850,000 copies.

I figured that after I finished out my first contract, I’d save the 15% agenting fees and just represent myself.

So, I asked my editor what she thought. She paused for a very long moment, and then she told me that she didn’t think that was such a good idea. She explained that most editors prefer to work with an agent as a buffer for when things get tough—like contract negotiations.

That means if you want to work with an agent at a large publishing house, you need to ensure you have a literary agent.

8) Career advice from a business insider

Navigating the publishing industry is no easy thing. This industry has been in a massive state of flux since the first Border went into bankruptcy and electronic readers started to gain popularity.

Authors like James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and Rick Riordan continue to make millions of dollars every year, but the middle class (or “midlist”) has started to disappear.

I have several friends who are New York Times bestselling authors who are unable to make a livable wage from their book sales alone. I have other friends who can, but not nearly as many as there were just ten short years ago.

An agent can help guide your choices. Should you focus on your writing career or get a part-time job to help pay the bills?

Should you spend time marketing your current books or focus on writing your next manuscript? And perhaps most importantly, will publishers be interested in your next book idea or should you go a different direction?

You’ll have to make the ultimate decisions, but it’s nice to have someone with wisdom and experience to help guide you along the way.

9) Emotional Support

A middle grade author who is stressed out

A career in the publishing industry can be emotionally taxing—especially for an author. You only get paid twice a year—and only if you’ve sold enough books to recuperate your advance.

The average advance is shrinking and instead of two installments, there’s a trend where publishers are paying it out in four installments.

Let’s not forget the frayed nerves that come from awaiting reviews—particularly from a mean-spirited organization like Kirkus Reviews. Or the stress of wondering what will happen if you don’t earn back your advance—does that mean you’ll never get published again?

There are plenty of other reasons that this career is difficult, including self-doubt, imposter’s syndrome, and petty jealousy that occurs when you see peers hit the bestseller lists or get massive advertising campaigns while you’re left to fend for yourself.

Having an agent to support you through the tough times is just about work their 15% cut of your royalty check alone.

5 Reasons You Don’t Need an Agent

1) You want to self-publish your manuscript

The stigma attached to self-publishing your book is fading. Look at the success of authors like Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, E.L. James, Jennifer Wilson, Andy Weir, Wiliam P. Young, J.A. Konrath, and Dean Wesley Smith. Heck, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon started out as a self-published book.

More than a few people in that list have made millions from their books, and I sure there are dozens more who have enjoyed huge success.

If you decide to go the self-publishing route I’d encourage you to consider a freelance editor to ensure your book is error.

I’d also think about a professional graphic designer so the cover looks as good as any book coming out of the New York Publishers. But other than that, you don’t need an agent to find success as a self-published author.

2) You are willing to submit your manuscript to smaller publishers

Several smaller publishers like Holiday House, Chronicle Books, and Persea Books take unsolicited submissions. That means you don’t need an agent to pitch to one of their editors.

3) You write short stories

There are several periodicals and websites that take unsolicited short story submissions. Having an agent would not give you a leg up on the competition when it comes to querying those publications.

4) You write poetry

Man writing poetry on the streets of New York City

Querying literary magazines to publish your poetry is a lot like querying agents to represent your fiction. A quick Google search will lead you to top literary magazines that accept unsolicited poetry submissions.

It’s important to follow their submission guidelines to improve your chances at publication. You do not need a literary agent to get your poetry published in a literary magazine.

5) Your current editor is open to working directly with you on contracts

This is going to be a rare occurrence, but I know one author who has circumvented literary agents. His name is Dean Wesley Smith and he sells his manuscripts directly to his editors.

Few (if any) editors at the Big 5 are willing to work with their authors—even if they’ve had a track record of success together. Still, if your editor is willing to work directly with you, you won’t need an agent.

If your curious to find out more about Dean’s philosophies on the publishing industry, including his interesting takes on agents, I encourage you to check out his blog.

Additional Resources to Find Middle Grade Literary Agents

I wanted to share some of the top resources on the internet when it comes not just finding an agent, but truly researching to find the best agent for you. Start with The Definitive List of Middle Grade Literary Agents in the United States (2019) and then work your way down the list.

Related Questions

Do You Have to Pay a Literary Agent? Authors do not directly pay literary agents. Agents typically earn a 15% commission from the domestic royalties earned by the authors they represent, and 20% from foreign sales and translations. Reputable literary agents do not charge money to review query submissions or manuscripts.

Do Literary Agents Edit Manuscripts? Literary agents are not required to edit manuscripts, however most literary agents will edit the manuscripts of the authors who they represent. Perfecting a manuscript improves the odds of a sale to an editor.

Jon Lewis

Jon S. Lewis is the bestselling author of nine novels, including GREY GRIFFINS (Scholastic), CLOCKWORK CHRONICLES (Little Brown), CHAOS (Thomas Nelson), and a few comics for DC. He is also an award-winning digital marketing executive.

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