Sunday, February 25, 2007

Get an agent

After the self-publishing question (which I answered a couple of weeks ago), the next most common query I get from wannabe business authors is whether they need to hire a literary agent to get published. Strictly speaking, the answer is no. You can pitch and sell your own manuscript and/or proposal. (It's especially easy if your book is good, by which I mean it's clear that the book will sell a lot of copies.) But get a good agent anyway. Here's why:

One, agents provide authors with a critical early take on a book's potential in the marketplace. Better an agent tells you your book is a waste of paper than a publisher. You've lost nothing -- agents don't acquire books. Better yet, ask why and you may get valuable advice about how to make your book more marketable.

Two, publishers see agents as early indicators of a book's potential. Publishers know that agents earn commissions on advances and royalties. They also know that it doesn't makes sense for agents to invest time in authors and books that won't produce commissions. Ergo, if an agent is pitching a book, at least someone besides the author thinks there is some value in it.

Three, it's highly likely that publishers will pay more for your book if an agent is pitching it. Agents know all the publishers worth knowing and can get to them; you probably can't. Agents know who's buying and who's not in the constantly shifting marketplace; you probably don't. Agents know the going rates and when a publisher is undervaluing a book; you probably don't. Agents can aggressively negotiate without jeopardizing the deal or the ongoing author-publisher relationship; you probably can't.

Four, agents know book contracts. Most publishing contracts are filled with clauses that serve the publisher at the author's expense -- unpaid options on your next book, copyrights in the publisher's name, lousy royalty rates, collateralization clauses (in which some publishers will try to satisfy the advance on your previous books with your future books), etc, etc. All publishers call their contracts "standard" and act as if they are written in stone. Agents know what is and what isn't written in stone; you probably don't.

There are more reasons to get an agent, but that's enough for now. We'll take up how to get a good agent in a future post.

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