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Do Writers Need Literary Agents? Tips From a Bestselling Author

Yes, writers need literary agents (in most cases). These tips are from bestselling author Maeve Binchy, who says writers can’t get published without agents. But, happily, there is an opposing viewpoint! At the end of this article is a link to a another bestselling author’s perspective — Lionel Shriver, who landed a publishing contract without an agent (her own agent didn’t think her manuscript would sell).

Having an agent isn’t all moonlight and roses…

“In an agent-author relationship there’s plenty of room for a minefield of misunderstanding,” she writes in The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club. “The agent thinks the author should be speedy in the writing and the rewriting, yet endlessly patient regarding waiting for responses and results. The author thinks the agent who is, after all, getting money for old rope, like 10% of everything here and 15% of transatlantic deals, should be back in 20 minutes with news that the Hungarian rights have been sold for a fortune.”

Despite the potential for a rocky agent-writer relationship, Binchy argues strongly in favor of agents — and even says that successful writers can’t live without literary agents. If you’re looking for representation, check out Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents.

And, read on for Binchy’s reasons writers need literary agents… 

Maybe Writers Do Need Agents

“I believe writers do need literary agents,” says Binchy. “Badly. And here are six reasons why…”

Publishers listen to literary agents

“An agent gets a track record of offering readable, saleable stuff, so the publisher will look at it more favorably than at our tremulous, tentative offerings where they can almost smell the quivers of hope and fear in our submission letters,” says Binchy.  Fellow scribes, I totally disagree with the part about writers being all scared and timid! What if you’re a confident writer who doesn’t submit “tremulous, tentative offerings”? Further, what if you have a bad, unmotivated, or dim literary agent? But yes, successful literary agents have track records that can benefit writers.

An agent knows the right place to send a manuscript

“We could waste months submitting to people who only buy poetry when we are trying to sell science fiction,” says Binchy. Again, I disagree with this reason writers need agents! Writers won’t waste months if they read the publishers’ guidelines and submission procedures…it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what kind of books the publisher sells. Binchy makes agents out to be gods of the writing and publishing world, which they’re not.

The publisher is inclined to respond more swiftly to a literary agent

“Publishers don’t want to alienate agents; after all, even if they hate our manuscript, the agent could quite possibly be representing someone marvelous next week,” writes Binchy. I think this could possibly be true depending on the agent, the publishing house, and other factors. If this convinces you to seek representation, you might find 12 Steps to Finding a Literary Agent helpful!

Writers don’t understand advances, rights, reversions, remainders

“Why should we? Our job is to write. Agents are more than welcome to their percentage in exchange for taking all that off our shoulders,” says Binchy.  Oh boy. What are we — dum dums who can’t read a contract and research its terms?? Come on. Successful writers can learn about all those things – and/or hire a lawyer to help us negotiate the best terms. Plus, freelance writing is a business, and if you don’t know how to run your business, then you’re not gonna be in business for long.

It’s in the agent’s interest to get a big financial advance and royalties

“Any sane agent would prefer to have a percentage of 20,000 euro than 500 euro. An agent will talk us up rather than sell us short,” writes Binchy. This isn’t exactly a reason writers should have agents. Writers can talk themselves up – though admittedly it makes some writers uncomfortable. But again, that’s just part of doing business, and the sooner we learn that, the more successful we’ll be as bestselling authors.

A literary agent can be a writer’s greatest ally

“They can say that the lead character has become a pain in the face or that our coincidences are ludicrous…Often we can take criticism from an agent more easily than from a loved one,” says Binchy. Why would she compare agents to loved ones? What about writers’ groups, objective readers and editors, friends, etc?? This again isn’t a strong reason successful writers need literary agents.

Learn how bestselling author Lionel Shriver sold her book without an agent (after her own agent — and many others — rejected it).

Whether or not writers have literary agents, they still have to promote their books! Read 6 Ways to Promote Your Book for Free – Book Promotion Tips.

What do you think — do writers need literary agents? Though I believe there are good reasons writers have agents, I don’t think Binchey captured many of them here.

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5 thoughts on “Do Writers Need Literary Agents? Tips From a Bestselling Author”

  1. Hi Claudia,

    Congratulations on almost finishing your novel! That’s quite the accomplishment.

    Yes, I believe you can get a literary agent in the US even if your book is written in Spanish. It’s just a question of finding the right agent, and being clear from the start that your book is written in Spanish.

    You might also consider approaching literary agents in Spain as well. It can’t hurt to send out a few extra query letters in Spanish…you never know what could happen. Query far and wide.

    Good luck!

    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog post ..Example of a Query Letter for Unpublished Writers =-.

  2. I´m a new writer i almost finish a novel thinking in young people of my comunity in Monterrey Mexico.
    Can i have an agent in US if a write in spanish?
    or have i to think in Spain?


  3. Last November, I signed on with Special Agent Jon Sternfeld, of the Irene Goodman Agency. While I LOVE having an agent – he’s doing an amazing job promoting my work – I still think Binchy’s reasons that writers need agents aren’t the best ones.

    I’m glad to have an agent because he’s a great sounding board, source of support and guidance, business parter in a sense, and opener of doors that I couldn’t have found on my own. An agent doesn’t just help you write your book proposal and sell the book, he or she gives you a long-term vision of your professional future, such as future books and career moves.

    A good one, that is! And good ones are hard to hook up with….but not impossible…

  4. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Wow, what an interesting road you’ve taken, Mel! Congrats on on the radio spot — and yes, I think writers can achieve alot without agents.

    In fact, I spoke with a writer of 5 young adult novels yesterday who said she didn’t like the direction her agent took with her books. The writer and agent had different ideas on which publishing house the agent should submit the book to, and the writer ended up unhappy with the house that published her work.

    I’m surprised this particular agent didn’t listen to her CLIENT, but I guess she knew who would publish the book…..and she succeeded, at the expense of her client relationship.

    Anyway, thanks for you comment, Mel – and good luck on the radio!

  5. Hi Laurie,
    I haven’t read Maeve Binchy for a long time, but I used to enjoy her books. However, I have to agree with you on Nos.1 and 2 above, and some more besides. Anyone with an ounce of common sense is going to look at a copy of Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook to see which publishers to send to. As for the other points . . .
    My first few books were published without an agent. In fact, after the first three or four, one of the mainstream publishers approached me and commissioned me to write the next two books (one of which became a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller). I then took on a top London agent for the next book, which went to a different publisher.
    Following that, for various reasons, I had to take what turned out to be a ten year break. This year I’ve just published a new novel and set up a website and – guess what – without an agent I’ve been Googled by the producer of a BBC radio station, my stepfamily book (now 13 years old) was found and I’ve been asked to participate in a live radio debate on stepfamilies. You can bet that I’m going to make sure that the novel gets a plug too!
    So I say, if you’ve got an agent good. If you can succeed without better!
    Mel Menzies: author of A Painful Post Mortem