Do You Need a Literary Agent to Get a Book Deal?

Oct 9, 2015


The benefits of having a literary agent are significant: they explain the publishing world to you, shape your book ideas and proposals, negotiate your deals and parse your contracts, and open doors to publishers that you might not be able to access yourself, among other things. Still, not every author needs an agent, and here’s why:

Authors on niche subjects don’t normally need an agent.

If your subject matter is really specific, there may be only a few publishers to consider your work, and if you look at the books on your own shelves, you can probably easily identify who they are. For example, we met someone recently who had written a manuscript about a particular kind of bicycle building. There are only a couple of North American publishers who might be interested in that topic, ones that specialize in transportation books. He already knew who they were, because he reads a lot about his passion.

Most literary agents won’t take on authors with such narrow possibilities, because the risk to the agent is also high: if one of those two publishers don’t bite, the agent won’t earn anything for her work. Most agents also don’t cultivate contacts within very niche publishers. In the end, we helped that author polish his query letter and proposal and he made the pitch himself. If he receives an offer, we can review the contract on a consulting basis and then he’s on his way.

Authors targeting small presses don’t usually either.

For similar reasons, if your manuscript seems most likely to land with a small press (for example, you’ve written a book of regional history), you may not need an agent. Smaller houses welcome inquiries from unknown writers. In fact, we’ve heard from some small presses that they prefer not to work with agents. They sometimes feel agents drive up an author’s advance, or that having agents act as intermediaries in a negotiation and during the publishing process prevents them from building a more personable relationship with their author. (We disagree on that latter point! Agents don’t usually get in the middle of things while the book is being edited and published, unless something goes off the rails.)

Large publishers won’t look at unagented submissions.

On the other hand, the larger publishers, particularly the multinationals (such as Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins), prefer their authors to have agents. In fact, most say they won’t accept unagented manuscripts. They know that an agented manuscript has been vetted by an industry professional and should be up to a standard that they would consider publishable. If they trust the agent, they know the fact that she is representing a particular work means that trusted person also believes there is a market for it. In other words, the manuscript comes with more credibility.

The editorial director of a major publishing house told us recently that she planned to offer a publishing contract to an author who didn’t have an agent. However, she told that author she wouldn’t proceed to an offer until she got an agent. She didn’t want to conduct a negotiation with somebody who didn’t understand publishing contracts, for two reasons:

  1. She would have to spend a lot of time explaining the terms to the author.
  2. She wanted the negotiation to be fair, and without an agent or industry knowledge, that author would have been at a big disadvantage in the negotiation process.

You can always consider hiring support to review your contracts.

A friend of ours had an agent for a couple of years who wasn’t able to secure her a book deal. This writer decided to pitch a small press that she really admired. They offered her a deal, she accepted, and then she had us vet the contract to make sure the terms were standard and advantageous for her. If you feel you could use that kind of help, let us know! We do contract reviews all the time.

And if you have feedback or questions on this post or the Page Two blog in general, please email us at hello[at]pagetwostrategies[dot]com.