I get asked a lot of the same questions when I speak at writers' conferences. "How do I turn my blog into a book?" "Is it okay to sign an all-rights contract?" "Can I really make a living as a full-time freelancer?" And the ever-popular, "how do I get an agent?"
Actually I think the first question to ask is whether you need one. Then you can worry about getting one.
If you're planning on going POD, or acting as a true self-publisher (these are not the same thing!), you don't need an agent. Nor do you need one if you don't have a book to sell, or a book that you want to sell to a traditional publisher.
Even if you've written a novel or the proposal for a nonfiction book, you needn't have an agent--you can always approach editors on your own. (That's how I sold my first novel, Did You Get the Vibe?) But here's how I see it: a good literary agent is likely to know much more about the world of publishing (as in what editors are buying, and for how much) than you do. She's up on trends, has a feel for what editors are looking for, and has experience negotiating and working with book editors as well.
In addition to this market knowledge, a good agent also has experience negotiating and working with editors. As a result, she can almost certainly get a better deal than I can on my own. Sure, I was a lawyer in my former life, and I can read and understand what the language in a book contract means from a legal standpoint.
While I understand the language, that doesn’t mean I understand the significance or impact of that language—like if the publisher is requesting a certain type of foreign language rights. What are those rights usually worth? Is the contract reasonable for the industry or should it be changed? Is the royalty percentage standard? Is it better to be paid a smaller percentage on gross sales or a larger percentage on net sales? How much are e-rights worth?
I don’t know the answers to these kinds of questions, so I want an agent to represent me in this all-important negotiation to make sure I get the best deal possible. Before I started writing books, I freelanced, primarily for magazines. I knew little about literary agents and how they worked, but that changed when I wrote my first book proposal.
Sure, I could have tried to sell the book on my own. Big publishers may request agented-only material, but small publishing houses are always willing to work directly with authors, and there are thousands of them.
But I wanted an agent. I was serious about writing books, even if I hadn't actually finished one, and felt (rightly so) that having an agent would increase my chance of selling my proposal. I also wanted to spend my time writing, not marketing my book to publishers (I knew I'd spend plenty of time selling it after it was published), and I was willing to share the proceeds of a book contract with someone who could make that happen. I had a good idea and believed that it would sell. Now, I just needed to find an agent who also believed in it, so I started my search.
Stay tuned--next post I'll tell you how I found an agent, what factors you should consider as you evaluate them, and places to learn more about potential agents.
***This post was adapted from Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer's Guide to Making More Money (Kindle edition).