NaNoWriMo Tip #25: Do you really need a literary agent? Maybe. Here’s when.

Ari Gold

Now that National Novel Writing Month is almost over and your novel seems so real to you (50,000 words will do that, right?) you must also be thinking about how your book will find readers.

Traditionally, you'd be tossed onto a publishing editor's slush pile and pray to be discovered. 

With the shrinking of publishing house staffs, that slush pile is now the domain of the literary agent.

But many an author will ask: are agents still necessary in a day and age of independent book publishing? 

I've been published both ways, and my thought is this:


Many of the authors I know feel this way, too. Like me, they have their feet in both worlds: they still sell to “New York” (where most of the major publishing houses have their offices) but they also independently publish their solely-owned backlists, or novels that have never found homes, or a variety of experimental projects.

Frankly, it’s the best of both worlds.

Why? Because to publishing houses, you are only as good as the sales of your last book. I’ve known previously best-selling authors who have been kicked to the curb by their publishing houses, just because their sales numbers fell short of what they had done two years before.

Is it fair to blame the author? I don’t think so, considering all the marketing factors that are out of their control. Most don’t get any say-so on their covers. And the publishing industry isn’t as progressive as other industries in creating brands for their authors – let alone developing brand awareness with key target audiences. Rather, they have relied on a narrow retail channel (big chain bookstores for most books; and independent bookstores for a smaller, select group of books).

And sadly, they have been slow to build awareness to their own brands: their name, and the various imprints within their houses.

In the larger marketplace of the Internet, branding and name awareness is key. Knowing your audience and reaching it will make or break a brand.

Every author is a brand. You are the biggest cheerleader for your brand and your manuscript.

But no writer is an island. It takes a village to sell a book: you (to write it) an agent (to sell it) and an editor, or producer, or whoever to buy it, and (prayerfully) market it properly—

So that you sell lots of copies to readers.

Which brings up the question of the day: what is the role of the agent in this brave new world?

Here’s how I see it:

First and foremost, your agent will be making your deals with publishing houses. 
Doing so is an agent's bread and butter. They work on commission. The more sales they make – and the more costly the acquisition – the happier they and their clients will be. It is also the best way for them to grow their own reputations.

Agents know what editors are looking for.
Agents know what genres are aging out, and which genres are getting hot (again). For example, if you write westerns, you’re probably hitting the reader zeitgeist just about…


Well, guess what? Even if you were bought today, your book wouldn’t be hitting the bookshelves for another eighteen months —  just when you’re genre is, hopefully, due to be hot again.

Your agent will have great insights on what will make your manuscript even stronger.
The best agents read what you write, and give copious notes on how to make it stronger. Why? Because you don't need a yes man. You need a partner in selling your book to an editor.  

Your agent will be making your deals with other media platforms.
The explosion of television networks is a great opportunity for authors. Even if your agent hasn’t sold you to a publisher, s/he may be able to get you in the hands of a producer who is actively seeking to adapt books for film or TV. In fact, most literary agents are smart enough to network and co-venture with talent agents who work in the fields of movies and television.

Here's a perfect example: my wonderful literary agent, Holly Root, thought my novels would translate well in other media. There were several talent agencies — and agents within those agencies — she could have paired me with. She felt the best match was CAA. She was right. My agent there was diligent in sending my novels out to producers whom he felt would see their potential. A year and two months after my novel, Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives, hit bookshelves, it was optioned by movie and television producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who promptly pitched it to ABC television as a dramatic series. It will be hitting the airwaves next year. That is pretty quick turnaround. Some novels take years to get that kind of notice from Hollywood. 

A great agent is a great sales person. S/he will always be looking for opportunities to sell your book. And your next. And your next. 

As technology forces the world of publishing to change, the role of the agent will change as well, too. The services they provide their clients will have to get broader. My guess is that these services will include all other things that help expand brands in other industries: name awareness (promotion) and  product positioning. 

So how do you get an agent? That will be tomorrow’s post…

(c) 2011 Josie Brown. All rights reserved.

Picture: You may not want ENTOURAGE'S Ari Gold as your agent, but your literary agent might co-agent with someone like Ari who can help you sell  your manuscript into television or the movies. It's the way we live now.




I've got a question for you: Have you already tried to get an agent? How did that go?

— Josie


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