Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but there is really only one thing an aspiring author needs to do to get published. Honestly. Forget studying the market, researching publishers, keeping up with all the industry gossip. It’s completely unnecessary. There’s only thing you need to do and the rest will sort itself out. Are you ready? Here it is:
- GET AN AGENT
That’s it. That’s all you need to know about the publishing business. Now I know there’s a large contingent of people out there who are convinced that agents are the scourge of the earth. They’ll tell you that you’re much better off sending your work directly to a publisher and keeping that steep 15% commission to yourself. I’m sure there are a few people who have managed this feat with success, but for the vast majority it simply won’t happen this way. And, frankly, it’s better for them that it doesn’t.
Perhaps I should declare my bias—I worked in a literary agency for six years. I was a clerk in the accounting department, where I basically filed and photocopied contracts and royalty statements. Even though I wasn’t working with agents directly, I still learned a lot about how the publishing industry works. Long ago, writers could submit their work directly to publishers, but not anymore. There are just too many submissions to sift through. To alleviate the volume, publishers now turn to agents as their first readers. They build relationships with different agents, find out what their specialties are, and look at submissions from those whose tastes they trust.
For those of you who resent the idea of having a “middle-man” cut into your profits, let me assure you that good agents work extremely hard for their commissions. The extra advance money agents can get for you will more than pay for their cost. And their job extends well beyond just selling manuscripts to publishers. Here’s a partial list of some of the roles an agent plays in a writer’s career:
- Negotiator—We all know that an agent’s job is to get you the highest advance possible, but there are other points to negotiate, too: sub-rights, electronic and audio rights, foreign rights, royalties, payout schedules and deadlines, and free copies, just to name a few.
- Accountant—Attached to the agency will be an accounting office that will examine all incoming royalty statements (including foreign publishers) for errors. They will also keep track of and follow-up on all outstanding payments owed to you.
- Educator—Don’t worry if you don’t know the first thing about the publishing process—your agent will fill you in on all the details.
- Lawyer—Agents understand every inch of that 25 page contract. They know your rights and will defend them.
- Editor—Even before your manuscript is submitted to a publisher, your agent will suggest changes that may need to be made to improve your chances of getting a sale. Once the sale has been made, your agent can add another point of view in the editing process, if needed.
- Informant/Networker—Agents have lots of business lunches so they can build relationships with editors and be on top of what’s going on in the industry. They keep on top of all the dish so you don’t have to.
- Publicist—Even before your book hits the shelves, it’s likely your agent has already sent the manuscript out to movie scouts and has talked you up to everyone he knows. It’s all about buzz, baby,
- Cheerleader/Shrink—Bad reviews, poor sales, writer’s block…your agent has seen and heard it all. She’ll guide you through the rough patches and celebrate your victories. (Note: This role should be used sparingly.)
- Good Cop—If your manuscript is rejected, or some other bad news comes your way, your agent will be there to soften the blow and help you keep your perspective.
- Bad Cop—This is my favorite reason for having an agent. When any dispute arises (and trust me, there’s always something that comes up) your agent will be the one to vigorously defend your side. This allows you to maintain your professionalism and likeability while she does the dirty work.