I’m often asked by aspiring authors whether or not they need a literary agent to get published. The short answer is: it depends! (I know, it sounds like a non-answer, but hear me out.)
For authors who are going to be navigating traditional publishing, literary agents are invaluable because they can help you to secure book deals, negotiate contracts, land foreign rights deals, and just generally help you deal with the ins-and-outs of the publishing world. Having someone in your corner to offer their expertise, who has existing connections, is incredibly useful. But signing with an agent can be difficult and competitive – and agents aren’t the only way to get published.
It all comes down to your goals, and what you really want out of your writing and publishing career.
The role of literary agents
Literary agents represent authors, submitting their manuscripts to publishers and championing them and their work. They do a whole bunch of things, from negotiating contracts to helping their authors develop new ideas. They are well connected in the world of traditional publishing.
That means if your dream is to get your book published with one of the Big 5 (Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan) or any other big mainstream publishing house, your odds will be much improved when you work with an agent. (Nothing is ever a hundred percent definite. Sometimes an agent can’t sell a book, and the author has to write another one. It sounds bleak, but it does happen.) Literary agents can and do submit to mid-sized houses as well (they will often do a “batch” of submissions incorporating the Big 5 and other medium-sized houses, to give their author the best chance of landing a deal).
Many big and mid-sized publishing houses don’t accept unagented submissions – which is why, if you have the more mainstream publishers in mind, having an agent is essential.
How to get a literary agent
Getting a literary agent is a time-consuming process (which, unsurprisingly, is why a lot of authors decide not to do it). You’ll need your completed manuscript, a query letter (similar to a cover letter), and a synopsis. When you have those materials, you’ll need to thoroughly research agents who accept your genre/age range, and follow their submission guidelines. Be prepared for the process to take a long time – traditional publishing is notoriously slow. Lots of authors have to write multiple books before they land an agent, as well, as their first submitted manuscript isn’t always the one that attracts interest.
Here are some more detailed guides to help you with agent-hunting:
- Submitting to literary agents: Ten tips
- Should I hire a freelance editor before submitting to agents or publishers?
- Seven tips on writing a strong synopsis for your novel
- Querying agents: The revise and resubmit (R&R)
Other paths to getting published
There are other paths to get published that don’t require you to have a literary agent. Unsurprisingly, the slow pace of getting an agent and getting traditionally published is a big reason why some authors turn away from that.
Here are some options that don’t require a literary agent:
- Small/independent publishers: There are lots of smaller publishing houses out there that accept unsolicited submissions from writers (i.e. you don’t need an agent to submit to them). Do bear in mind that if you’re going this route, you likely won’t have the benefit of an agent looking over your contract or negotiating the details for you, so you may want to get external advice before you sign anything. It’s also worth being aware that small presses tend to pay a lot less than mid-size or large publishers. If that trade-off is okay with you, then go for it!
- Self-publishing: It goes without saying that if you decide to self-publish, you don’t need an agent as you have full control over your work. Some self-published authors who do well end up getting an agent later to negotiate foreign rights deals.
- Short story markets: If you write short stories, you can submit to these markets without needing an agent. Some of these markets involve being published in anthologies. If you want to learn more about this, check out my interview with short story writer Isabella Hunter.
- Setting up your own publishing house: Some authors decide to combine their own publishing aims with publishing other people too, and set up their own house.
Your goals and options
Your goals will determine which path you ultimately decide to go down, and whether or not you choose to find a literary agent to get published. Only you can do the soul-searching to decide what you really want. Remember, too, that you aren’t “locked in” to an option, just because you’ve made a choice. There are authors who follow multiple paths. You can always change your mind later, too. The great thing about publishing now is that there are plenty of options for you to explore, even if one of them doesn’t work out.
If you’re still stuck or feel overwhelmed by all these options, there are more resources on all the publishing options available to you below. Good luck!
- Self-publishing and traditional publishing: The pros and cons, and how to choose
- Author Journeys interview: Self-publishing with Dave McCreery
- BookEnds Literary Agency YouTube channel
- Alliance of Independent Authors podcast
If you’d like some feedback on your novel, or help developing your story, check out my editorial services.