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Considering Getting a Literary Agent? Why You May or May Not Need One

Publication Advice: Fiction

Whether you’ll need an agent or not is largely dependent on which path you choose for your work. If you’re interested in pursuing a traditional publishing house, then an agent may well be beneficial.

As a writer, the road to publication can be fraught with a mix of unexpected opportunities and challenges. Like anything else, though, the more you know about what could happen, the better prepared you'll be to overcome setbacks and move forward to success.

A Novelist's Story

Novelist Derrick Craigie, also the associate dean of faculty for creative writing and literature online at Southern New Hampshire University, shares his experience and offers insights into the world of publication for fiction writers.

Craigie took the initial steps by self-publishing his first novel in 2013. "I had been signed with a literary agent out of Boston right after earning my MFA through SNHU," he said. "It was a great experience, but my agent changed career fields, and there wasn't another agent who did my genre at that agency."

He spent a year or so reaching out to other agents, but also began researching self-publishing. "I was intrigued by the possibilities of technology, how far it's come and decided because of the independence and freedom it allowed to go that route," said Craigie. He's since been published in literary journals and continues to hone his craft with new stories.

What's Right for You?

If you're trying to decide whether or not to pursue traditional publishing with an agent or to self-publish, Craigie said to consider this:

  • What are your goals?
  • What's the best fit for you?

"Right now, the industry is a very eclectic place and publishing houses, while there are still some major entities in place, a lot of independent publishers are becoming prominent as well," he said. "Agents can assist in the process of getting a manuscript in front of a publisher." Should that manuscript receive an offer for publication, an agent has the experience and knowledge with publishing laws to ensure legal protection for the writer.

What to Expect from an Agent

"When you are accepted by an agent, you often sign a literary agreement that shows you are working with this agent," Craigie said. "Typically speaking ... an agent does not receive any sort of payment until your book sells to a publisher."

He compares the relationship to that of a real-estate agent, who receives a percentage from a home sale. If an agent charges a fee upfront, such as a reader's fee, Craigie advises to stay away from that agent - there's a likelihood the agent is not fully legit.

"After you sign with an agent, you'll go back and forth often," he said. "They'll have read your manuscript. There may be some revisions, some changes, some suggestions where they know what a publisher might be looking for."

Once a manuscript is in a place where both the writer and agent feel it's ready to move forward, the agent will reach out to publishing houses with the manuscript and see what happens.

"If there are not bites, another round of submissions," Craigie said. "Maybe you need to go back to work on the story some more. And they'll keep on that process, hopefully, until your book sells."

If you decide to work with an agent, he said to do the research to create a polished query letter, and then begin sending it out until you find an agent who is interested in your work and responds.

"You are going to get rejected a lot. That's the reality of this market," said Craigie. "The key is to not give up, to not let it dissuade you. If you keep persisting, you will be successful."

Should You Self-Publish?

There is also self-publishing to consider, as he eventually did. Craigie said if a writer is comfortable in taking on a lot of the marketing as well as the creation and formatting of a book, then self-publishing is a viable option.

"There used to be a time where if you self-published, it would preclude you from traditional publishing," he said. "They looked at it as a vanity press or you're not a serious writer." That's no longer true.

"Technology has blown everything up," Craigie said. "If you are a good writer who puts out a polished, well-written story, and if you take the time to format it well to show that you have a care for quality, publishers can be very interested."

He notes that "The Martian," a 2011 science fiction novel by writer Andy Weir, was originally self-published. Several years later, the rights to the book were purchased by a traditional publisher and it went on to become a blockbuster movie.

Your Path, Your Choice

Whether you'll need an agent or not is largely dependent on which path you choose for your work. If you're interested in pursuing a traditional publishing house, then an agent may well be beneficial. If you're intrigued, as Craigie was, by the possibilities self-publishing offers, then get ready to roll up your sleeves and get involved in some work beyond the writing. Either way, it's important to understand your own goals and which method of publishing best meets your needs and skills.

Pamme Boutselis is a writer and content director in higher education. Follow her on Twitter @pammeb or connect on LinkedIn.

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