Karen Wester Newton

Current Topic: Why Agents Are Worth the Money


 I write science fiction and fantasy, some of it for adults and some for young adults (YA). My agent is marketing my YA novel Turnabout, but I have posted a short story that is a prequel to another novel as a “Free Sample,” (links are in the left frame). For more information on me, see my bio; for more information on speculative fiction, writing, or ebooks, see the Other Topics link or my blog.

 Literary agents are an interesting breed. Almost all of them love books. Many of them used to be editors. A few of them are or were writers. Some of them toil in solitude, working out of their homes, the living embodiment of “The Jane Doe Literary Agency.” Other agents work in agencies with two, three, four, or more agents, usually supported by a small but devoted cadre of assistants (many of whom aspire to be either agents or authors). Each agent has a “list” of clients, some already published and earning them money, others new authors trying to make that first sale. If an agent is reputable, he or she makes no money from a client until he sells the book.

 In the good old days, before word processing and PCs, aspiring writers often sold their first book themselves, and only then contacted agents to find someone to represent them before they signed a contract with a publisher. That doesn't happen nearly as much anymore. Back then, most publishers had slush piles, stacks of manuscripts sent in by those writers dedicated enough (or rich enough) to produce a clean, typed manuscript using an actual typewriter, and maybe some Whiteout. Somehow, once the actual production of a tidy-looking m.s. got exponentially easier, the number of people producing them increased exponentially, too. Many publishers responded by closing their transoms and refusing to even look at unsolicited, a.k.a., unagented, submissions. That's when it became really important for aspiring writers to get agents.


 Agents: Good and Bad


The tricks is, you have to be sure your agent is a real agent. There are so many aspiring writers in the world today that we've become an industry. People write books to tell us how to get published or even how to write a best seller. They put on writers conferences, some of which charge for “pitch appointments” where writers can try to persuade editors or agents to read their books. Some of the people who call themselves agents are really just sharks scenting aspiring writer's eagerness. If an agent asks for money up front, a smart writer will run like heck the other way.

 Once you get an agent, it doesn't ensure your book will sell. But it does greatly increase the chances that editors will at least read it. Unlike writers, agents can make simultaneous submissions. Instead of waiting a year or more for an answer from one editor, an agent can send your book to four or five or more editors. This helps a lot. Plus, they often get an answer much faster than a slush pile submission gets, and they may be able to pass along specific feedback.

Caucasian Shepherd

 But selling the book aside, the agent represents the writer's best interests. He can look through a contract and point out the things that really need to change before the writer signs it. He can negotiate, and he can give advice on what, realistically, a new author can expect (like not having any say about the cover). Instead of a shark, a good agent is like a shepherd, guarding the writer's career from the many dangers that can beset it.

Your agent is the one person who not only wants you to succeed, he knows how to help you get there. If you're a new writer, you really don't want to be out there alone, not even if you actually found a publisher on your own. And if you did that, I can promise finding an agent will now be easier.

Helpful agents blogs: 

Nathan Bransford, of Curtis Brown

Jennifer Jackson, of the Donald Maass Agency

Kristin Nelson, proprietor of the Nelson Literary Agency.

Other Useful Sites

Writer Beware!

Preditors and Editors

Guide to Literary Agents blog


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