Do I need an agent?

Slush piles aren’t usually as colourful as this…
  • If you’re self-publishing, no.
  • If you want to approach mainstream publishing houses, then probably yes.

There’s nothing to stop you sending your book to as many publishers as you can think of, but the chances are that your precious manuscript will languish in a toppling slush pile to be read (if you’re lucky) by a bored intern. It is unlikely to reach the attention of anyone who commissions books unless it’s rescued from this pile and thought exceptional. This has been known (cf J K Rowling) but isn’t usual.

The agent is your intermediary. They know the business and will more than likely have worked at a high level in publishing. They have a well-established network of commissioning editors and publishers so they know who is most likely to buy your book.

A good agent will:

  • Take you on if your work is potentially saleable to a publisher.
  • Help you shape your book to make it more so.
  • Check and advise on your proposal (pitch).
  • Know which editors/houses to pitch your book to.
  • Contact them directly on your behalf.
  • Negotiate the best deal for you for e.g. the advance, royalties and rights.
  • Advise on and suggest new ideas and support you ‘between books’.

For this they will take between 10% and 20% of everything you earn from the deals they negotiate for you.

Money well spent, I say.

My agent has sold four books for me so far; two ended up in modest auctions with three publishers bidding. But my chances of grabbing the attention of a single publisher without her would, I suspect, have been close to zero. I owe her a great deal more than the paltry percentages she’s earned from my work over the past decade.

Getting Published

Why publish at all? Most people write because they love it. But if they’re honest, they’d all like as many people as possible to read what they’ve written. To share your work is to allow others into the world you’ve created with words.

That means finding a way to get your book to the public that matches your budget and your aspirations for it.

The traditional route – pitching to agents and publishers, contracts, advances and the whole paraphernalia of marketing, publicity and distribution teams – was never easy. In today’s crowded market a newcomer has a better chance of winning the Lottery. But more of that anon…

So the default choice for many is self-publishing.

In 2012 I helped an elderly friend self-publish a diary of his time working on the Great Northern Railway. The story of the book, Ghosts of Steam, our aspirations for it and how we got it out there, is told here. We used one route. There are others. The WikiHow guide How to Self-Publish a Book is a good starting point.

When looking on the net for guidance, you’ll find the majority of sites are a) American and/or b) thinly-disguised ads for companies that want to ‘help’ you publish your book. For an impartial UK view The Society of Authors has a Quick Guide to Self-Publishing and Print-on-Demand for £7.50 and there’s a useful starter summary on its website.

This must be the way to go for many new and aspiring writers, but my direct experience (with two mega-publishing houses and one small one, so far) is with the traditional route.

If you can get a mainstream publisher – even a small one – there are significant advantages:

  • They pay you to produce your book, not the other way round.
  • A professional team of editors, graphic designers, proofers, marketeers and publicists is at your service.
  • You’ll learn a lot through the attentions of a good editor.
  • In due course your book will appear as if by magic in your local Waterstones.

There are downsides:

  • Although you have copyright, they will retain many of the rights that will restrict what you can do with your own work.
  • You have input but ultimately they will choose the title, cover, look, extent (length), print-run and publication date.
  • They will decide how – and to what extent – it is marketed.
  • Your editor can be a delight. Or not.

Not all publishers are equal, just as not all books are best-sellers. They can do a great job for you or a disappointing one. This may depend on how much faith they have in your book’s sales potential. The editor who commissioned it may love it, but if the marketing team don’t get behind it, it won’t get the push it needs to be noticed in a crowded market.

Want to try the time-honoured route to putting your book before the public?

To get a publisher, first you really need an agent.