Are literary agents necessary?

This is the kind of question that can get a person into trouble, isn’t it?

After months of going back and forth with my agent about my new manuscript, a little frustration comes naturally. After rewriting said manuscript completely at least once more, revising it again, and cutting out nearly 60 pages from the original work, I’d have to be brain-dead not to wonder if I was doing the right thing.

Why did I listen to many of my agent’s suggestions?

Well . . . some of his points made incredible sense to me. On top of that, I respect his knowledge and sensibilities about the genre. And I’m hungry to be a better and better and better writer.

The members of my critique group thought I was insane to do all that to a manuscript that they thought would’ve sold anyway. They urged me to send out the book myself. I’m sure several of my cohorts on the ’Rati would’ve had the same advice.

Yet, I made the decision to listen. In the end, will all that mishmoshing result in a sale?
I’m waiting to see.
My agent has had tremendous success with other writers; we’re both hoping he will with me.

In the meantime, my question remains: Are literary agents necessary?

When I was learning the business side of writing, everything I read and learned about the industry would’ve answered, “YES!”

It seemed like an immutable law, as much a given as the sun rising in the east and dogs liking liver treats.

Sure, there were tales about people who’d gotten published without an intermediary, but those were the exceptions, the stuff of myth.

Then came 9/ll, the anthrax scares, and the word on the street was that publishers wouldn’t open anything from anyone they didn’t know. In this new and paranoid environment, agents became even more essential.

However, quiet success stories continued to make me wonder about conventional wisdom. One that comes to mind right away is Pati Nagle who negotiated a three-book deal with Del Rey. She used an entertainment lawyer after the contract was offered.

Her answer to my question would be “NO!”

So which answer is right? Which would benefit the many writers — the ones reading our blog for advice — that are striving for publication right now?

IMHO, people need to really weigh the pros and cons of seeking literary representation in their careers. As Toni wrote yesterday, they need to look at what makes the most sense for them.

Below are two lists to begin the conversation. I note the pros and cons in no particular order — and am sure I’ve missed many in both categories — but hope that we can examine this question frankly for everyone’s benefit.


  1. Contacts: access to — and attention from – editors who make the real decisions in publishing
  2. Business advice
  3. The abililty (to potentially) negotiate larger deals than a writer might do on his/her own
  4. An advocate for the author to the publisher—editors and accounting
  5. Legal and other specialized knowledge about the industry and trends therein
  6. Up-to-date knowledge of the good, bad and the ugly about the publishers themselves
  7. Current knowledge of the movements of editors across imprints and houses
  8. Editorial advice (at least I like that in my agent)


  1. It’s often more difficult to get an agent than it is to get a publisher
  2. Time wasted researching and querying to find a good, reputable agent
  3. Another block between the writer and the publisher/editor
  4. Loss of income to a “middle man”
  5. Potential pressure to write what you don’t want to write
  6. Dishonesty/lack of transparency in money/editor querying
  7. Lack of enthusiastic representation or, worse, misrepresentation
  8. Personality or ethical conflicts

What do you think?

Are agents necessary?



A program note:

Tim Hallinan will be my guest at Murderati next Monday, August 17. He’s written a provocative piece “Bleak is the New Black” that I think will spark a fascinating discussion. Please stop by and make him welcome.



45 thoughts on “Are literary agents necessary?

  1. karen from mentor

    Hi Pari,
    Thought provoking post.
    I think as with a lot of things in life, it depends.
    It depends on your own vision for your work, and whether or not you can find an agent that works well FOR you as well as WITH you.
    Just like writer’s groups work well for some writers and not for others, just like some folks have to have certain things ticked off before they even attempt to write…the right degree, the right setting, the right computer programs…. Whatever works for the individual person’s career is the way to go.
    So, to sum up?

    I have no freaking idea …. but if I figure it out I’ll get back to you….
    Karen :0)

  2. JD Rhoades

    I’ve noticed that most of the stories of people who’ve found publishers without agents have come from the SF & Fantasy genres. Make of that what you will.

    I can’t recall a mystery author who’s signed while un-agented with a major publisher. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

    Now, if a small press is what you want (and there are some excellent reasons for going that route), maybe.

    I’ve always thought that the way some writers and some celebrities get themselves in trouble is that they don’t have anyone around who’ll tell them "this is a terrible idea." If there was someone now who dared take the editor’s hatchet to, say, Tom Clancy, maybe his later books wouldn’t be such bloated messes. The right agent can be that person.

    The key word there is "right."

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    People who think they don’t need agents remind me of people who think they can write a book or a script without ever having done it before. What can you say but – "Good luck"?

    There are some things I can do for myself, but I would never presume to think I could do everything that my agent does so well. I make a living as a writer because I have good agents. Period.

  4. billie

    The most frustrating thing about agents for me is that it’s pretty clear one needs the exact right one for that book at that time. But things in publishing shift constantly, and time moves on constantly, and so what is exactly right for one book in one season can suddenly become not quite right pretty quickly.

    My first book and I had two wonderful agents who each did a great job. But the second book wasn’t a good fit, and at this point they’re not even selling fiction.

    The process feels so hit and miss, even with good research – that sometimes it seems like finding that connection – right person, right book, right time – is like gambling. Thus far I’ve been unwilling to stop looking, but there are definitely moments of frustration.

    The dilemma you describe is yet another layer of question. My first agent did make suggestions for change, but they were good and it was clear to me the book was light years better when I made them. He’d been an editor for 25 years though and we clicked – there was no doubt on my part.

    It would be extremely hard for me to make changes I didn’t fully believe were necessary.

    I used to want multi-book deals, but lately I think it would be better for me to sell one book at a time, as I *really* don’t want to be writing something with someone looking over my shoulder giving me suggestions as I write it.

    Someone cautioned me several years ago that there is a big difference between being published and being published WELL – it feels like the latter is getting harder to do.

  5. Bryon Quertermous

    If you just want a book deal you don’t necessarily need an agent. But if you want a career as a writer you have to have an agent. It’s more than just having a lawyer who can look over the contract and make sure you’re not being outright screwed. Publishing has sooooo many little ways to screw a writer over in a contract that don’t show up until several books down the line or if the book is incredibly successful. Also, you need somebody acting consistantly on your behalf to make sure royalties are paid on time, to make sure foreign rights are handled properly, and to keep their ear to the ground on coming changes and shakeups in the industry. Also, the editorial support can’t be overstated. Modern editors today don’t have the time, the incentive, and in many cases the talent, to edit a book in the trenches, gut ripping, ugly, way most books need to be edited. Agents have taken over that roll. And just because you can get a book published without having anyone seriously edit it doesn’t mean that’s the best book you want out there representing your name and career.

    So in summary:

    1) Just want a book published – Eh, on the agent
    2) Want a career as a writer – Get a real good agent and listen to them

  6. Dana King

    I’ve tried with and without an agent, and the end result hasn’t changed. (I am more than willing ti admit that places all the responsibility for my "pre-published" state on me.) I have no useful opinion, save one. If an agent recommended wholesale changes to a book I thought was ready, and knowledgeable people thought was ready, said agent had damn well be able to sell said book, with his recommendations intact, or a previous draft will be circulating among other agents within 24 hours of the termination agreement with Agent One.

    I love agents to send me suggestions, and to back and forth over them. My say is still fina, as it’s my book. If that means it doesn’t get published, I can more easily live with it if I know it was MY best shot, rather than wondering how things might have gone had I not been talked out of something I believed in.

  7. JT Ellison

    We all know how I feel on this. Agents are an invaluable part of the team. Anyone who wants to make a career at this is going to have better contracts, more money and an all-around better chance of continued success with the right agent at their back.

    That said, many people don’t do their homework and accept the first offer that comes along. That’s dangerous. Picking an agent is like picking a spouse – you want one you can be married to for a long, long time.

    I’m with Alex – I wouldn’t be where I am today without my agent.

  8. pari noskin taichert

    Yeah. I wonder. I mean, I’ve opted to have an agent and believe he can take me further than I can take myself in my career . . . but every once in a while I like to question what we take as fact.

    You’re right. Most of the writers I know who’ve sold to big publishers are science fiction or fantasy folks. I wonder why that is?

  9. pari noskin taichert

    What is it that your agents do so well? Would you elaborate?

    I’m not being facetious here. I know there are many people who DO question the necessity of agents and your answer might clarify the reasons agents are essential.

  10. Eric Stone

    While I do have an agent and am thankful for that, and I do think a good agent is largely a necessity – an evil one in some cases, a good one in others – experience has taught me to do my own research and find additional sources when it comes to contracts. A good agent knows the publishing market and how to find a place in it for you and your books. Few of them, however, are lawyers. Most of them come from the publishing world, having been editors or in publicity. Many of them work with contract specialists, but there is a lot of variation in how good or bad those specialists are. I have learned much of interest by running my contracts – book and movie option – by my lawyer (an entertainment lawyer for the most part) after they have already been gone over by my agent’s contract specialist.

    I also wish it was considered acceptable to have different agents for different types of projects and sales. Any one agent is not going to know and excel at everything. I, and I think most writers, could use different agents for fiction, non-fiction, foreign and other subsidiary rights sales and electronic media (including movie options, audio and e-books.) But it seems that most agents insist on their handling everything, sometimes through associated agents (which then costs you more money in commissions) and sometimes not.

    In any event, I like my agent. I think she’s done good work for me. I think a good agent can be an invaluable resource and partner for a writer. But like going into any business with anyone, it requires due diligence and monitoring on the part of both parties.

  11. pari noskin taichert

    I think you’re on to something with the comment about being published vs being published WELL.

    Perhaps that’s where agents really come in. But, as you write, it’s difficult to find the RIGHT one. I think I have with mine but until now he hasn’t had the opportunity to really sell something of mine that wasn’t already carrying baggage (the Sasha series already had a reputation pro/con by the time I met him).

    And I do trust my agent very much.

  12. pari noskin taichert

    Of course.
    No one was holding a gun to my neck and forcing me to make the changes. I did it because I thought he was right. But the whole process went on and on and on.

    One of the reasons for that was that I was starting a new series and was finding my way to my new character, someone I hope to live with for a long long time.

  13. pari noskin taichert

    Good examples of why agents are necessary. That’s what I’m going for today.

    What would you recommend for people to find "the right agent?"

    I’ll tell you one of my biggies: I urge people to interview any agent who offers representation. If the conversation feels uncomfortable or wrong in any way — that agent isn’t for them. No matter how successful or flattering the pro might be.

  14. JT Ellison

    Okay, here’s my list of what makes a dream agent.

    An agent who is also a lawyer is a huge plus. I want an agent who is available when I need him, for questions or support. Someone who will take the time to edit you if necessary, but who recognizes that you have an editor and is willing to let that happen. Someone who can handle the tough parts, who appreciates the good parts, and who has a sense of humor.

    But the number one, most important part of finding a good agent? You have to find mutual trust. I trust my agent with my livelihood – my literary estate. I trust him to make sure the trains are running on time, that I’m getting paid properly. I trust him to handle the difficult bits, requests, grievances. I trust him to share in the good, the excitement, the happiness and triumph. I turst him to advise me on timing, on contracts, or deals. He’s the number one cog in my wheel. I don’t give the business side a second thought because I know he’s handling it, and handling it well. And that means freedom to focus on work.

    I even trust him enough to talk about me sometimes, the real me, not just the writer me. It’s hard to find the perfect agent, but when you do, they’re worth their weight in gold.

    Does that help?

  15. Louise Ure

    Pari, I fall squarely on the side of "yes, you need a good agent." Byron and Eric made mention of two of the best reasons: foreign sales, film and subsidiary rights. Imagine trying to do that by yourself without any contacts!

    And don’t be afraid to ask a potential agent for a list of his clients and then ask if you can contact several of them to find out more about how he works.

  16. Neil Nyren

    Pari — I think the majority of the "cons" on your list really apply only to having a bad agent. Retitle the list as the pros and cons of having a good agent — and the "con" list becomes a pretty short one.

  17. Chevy

    My agent is amazing. He handled the submission process for my first novel wisely, eventually securing me a three book deal. He answers every single email within the day, usually within minutes. I have quizzed him on all apsects of the business and he’s given me invaluable advice.

    I trust him, and value his connections and knowledge hugely. He has a fantastic reputation–doors were opened for him that wouldn’t have been if I was trying this on my own.

    He also gives great editorial advice. He can be tough, but I’m not in this business to be coddled. If he says something isn’t working, I fix it. I did two rounds of edits with him before we even submitted.

    Over the last year I’ve come to respect him more and more, but I also really like him as a person.

    Personally, I feel my job is to write, and if I’m dealing with a lot of the business stuff, then I’m not writing. This is the same reason I have a kick-ass accountant. So I can focus on what makes me money.

  18. Eric Stone


    I found my agent in the usual manner – asking all of the authors I know for recommendations, pawing through listings, etc, then sending out a bunch of letters. I got my first agent – a big name agent at that – after a recommendation from a friend who had the same agent. (He was the 11th agent I queried.) We had something of a falling out after my first two books. My current agent came to me – not to solicit a client, but as a fan of my books. We got to talking, I liked her, and we ended up working together. The research I’ve done has more to do with the business and legal side of publishing – so as to better enable my understanding of the issues in contracts and publishing, and to increase my ability to work with my agent on an equal footing.

  19. pari noskin taichert

    "Does that help?"

    Of course!

    I’m thinking of the many people who read this blog who don’t have agents or are in relationships with agents where it’s just not working out.

    Your answer gives them some of the signposts to assess the whys of this part of the "business."

  20. pari noskin taichert

    Beautiful suggestion, Louise. Everyone should do just that. My agent was introduced to me by two of his clients — both of whom I adore — and one of whom has really hit the big time now.

    I think you’re right.

    The way this conversation is evolving I think better questions might be:

  21. pari noskin taichert


    Thank you for going into detail about your agent and your relationship with him. It’s those kinds of responses that help bring clarity to something that I think a lot of unpublished writers just can’t know from the books/articles out there.

  22. Pepper Smith

    Probably more Sci-fi and fantasy authors get in without an agent because more of the sci-fi and fantasy publishers are more open to accepting unagented submissions.

  23. pari noskin taichert

    I like that you found an agent that really works for you. Your example of the "big name" agent was good too. Many times, even if someone has a wonderful reputation, he or she still might not be the person for you or your career.

    I know that I had to learn the hard way with three agents:
    #1 was unethical (I paid a fee . . . yeah, I know.)
    #2 was ineffective, though quite a nice person.
    #3 seems to be a true winner.

  24. pari noskin taichert

    Do you have any idea why this might be?

    There are so many science fiction and fantasy writers in NM, I’ve been hanging out with a bunch of them. They’re are tangible differences in the feel of the communities but I don’t know if that would translate to the publishing side of the business.

  25. Alan Orloff

    Contacts, and knowledge of the business. It’s a fact that most houses won’t look at unagented subs. Although I’m learning the biz, it’ll take me umpteen years to learn as much as my agent knows. Also having a "practice" agent helped me figure out what I needed. (ie, practice as in "one that didn’t work out.")

    Research and query. Repeat.

    Someone who knows what’s going on. Someone with good judgment. Some who fits my style of working.

  26. Pepper Smith

    I’m really not sure why that is. I suspect it may be that sci-fi/fantasy has long been looked at by ‘serious’ publishing as a sort of red-headed stepchild. Once, they may have needed to be open to unagented submissions because that was how they got a lot of their material. Not long ago, a bunch of them went to agented only, but some have recently reopened to unagented submissions because there were so many authors clamoring for it. There’s not a lot of money in it for the average first-time author, generally somewhere in the two to five thousand dollar advance range (those figures are probably a bit out of date, though. There’s probably more accurate information available at the SFWA website).

    In any case, I know a number of flegdeling sci-fi writers who would rather try submitting without an agent first, and keep an eye on which publishers are open to it.

  27. Ivan Hoffman

    Agents should under no circumstances negotiate the agreement with the publisher. At most, the terms discussed should be limited to advance and royalties but even here, these are potentially problematical in relationship to the rest of the provisions of the agreement.

    And the author should never use an attorney who represents the agency.

    There are built in conflicts of interest in both instances since there may be provisions in the agreement that may not translate into money directly but which are exceptionally important. An independent attorney hired solely by the author may advise that the author pass on the deal because of these and other points but you can see that if an agent only gets paid if a deal is made, there is a conflict.

    And using an attorney who represents the agency presents even more difficulties since the attorney has a fiduciary obligatoin to represent only his or her client and thus, if he represents both the author and the agency, who is his or her client.

    Read more in my article "The Agency Agreement" on my site. Click on "Articles for Writers and Publishers.

  28. pari noskin taichert

    I like the idea of a "practice agent." That amuses me. It also helps me reframe the mistakes I made. So thank you for that.
    Thank you also for answering the new questions. I’m curious what you meant by the #3. How does your agent fit with how you work? Does that mean he/she answers emails in a timely manner? Is no-nonsense?

    I think it also might be a thread within that community that bucks establishment and rigid rules. That’s a major generalization about a very diverse group of people, but I know that many science fiction, as well as fantasy, writers want to cut out anything that inhibits or slows the reader/writer relationship.

  29. pari noskin taichert

    How interesting. I’m glad you chimed in.

    Do you have an opinion about the need for Lit. Agents? I’m curious about this from your perspective since you’ve obviously negotiated agreements and most likely have run into some problems with bad agents along the way.

  30. Pepper Smith

    That, too. Sci-fi writers, at least the successful ones, tend to be smart and independent, forward-thinking people.

    Once upon a time, I thought I was going to be a sci-fi writer, but the call of the mystery was too strong to ignore. I still think about combining the two every now and then, though.

  31. Alan Orloff


    "I’m curious what you meant by the #3. How does your agent fit with how you work? Does that mean he/she answers emails in a timely manner? Is no-nonsense?"

    I should say that this "fit" isn’t nearly as important as the agent’s knowledge, contacts, and savvy, at least to me. But all things being equal, I’m glad my agent and I are pretty much on the same wavelength with regard to this "fit."

    I guess you could sum up what I mean about "fit" under two headings.

    Personality: Their "outlook" (pessimistic, optimistic, realistic), anxiety level (theirs, not mine!), general demeanor

    How they operate: Communication preference (the balance between email and phone, frequency), what level of detail they provide about edit comments, willingness to go to editors with problems, etc.

  32. pari noskin taichert

    That’s my read too. I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with these folks because they’re always coming up with incredibly innovative ideas.

    My new series should have some crossover and that’ll be fun for me.

    Thank you for the further clarification. As I think about those factors of outlook and communication/business operation, I realize just how fortunate I am to have the agent I do.

  33. Allison Brennan

    I’m with JT completely. I would not sell my own house and would not sell my own book.

    There ARE bad agents and agents who don’t work for some authors but work wonderful for others. My agent is fabulous and is everything I want in an agent; there are some authors who have left her because the relationship wasn’t working (either personal or career-wise.) I know some authors who have had bad luck with agents and haven’t found one who fits; I know some authors who have done well without an agent or who have at least had steady careers without an agent. I don’t think I’ve heard of a successful author (outside of Harlequin category novels) who writes and earns a living.

    I want to address your last four points on the "CON" list. These are all ethical issues. No one can force you to write what you don’t want to write. Agents can, however, offer expert advice on where they think your voice fits and where they think they can sell you. If it doesn’t fit you or you’re not interested, your agent should understand that or he’s not the right agent for you. The other issues are business ethics. Any business professional can turn out to be unethical; some lawyers are charlatans, it doesn’t mean all are. Some doctors are incompetent; doesn’t mean they all are. Ditto with literary agents. If you run up against these problems you need to address them immediately.

    For the most part, in the major NY houses they want you to be agented. Most NY houses use agents as gatekeepers. They rarely buy from slush. They also prefer to deal with an agent over an author on business issues. My editor once told me that if they wanted a book by an unagented author, they would actually recommend agents they felt would be a good match. Authors don’t generally understand the business well enough to negotiate–and ask for rather ridiculous things (like more author copies) as opposed to protecting their rights. The boilerplate publisher contract ALWAYS favors the publisher. Savvy agents understand what is truly negotiable and what isn’t.

    For me, my agent has always been able to negotiate my contracts in a way that makes both me and my publisher happy. That’s not easy, because all negotiation is give and take. Authors tend to get very emotional over contracts and I knew early on that I didn’t want a business relationship interfering with my editorial relationship with my editor.

    I’ve also been lucky in that my editorial relationship is 95% with my editor. I ask my agent advice about proposals and ideas, but once that puppy is contracted, I work one-on-one with my editor.

    Anyway, there are bad agents and I think that’s where the "should I get an agent" argument comes up. But having a good agent is always better than having no agent.

  34. TerriMolina

    I’ve had two agents…still looking for number three (hopefully it’s the charm)…but I haven’t stopped sending my work to editors I know will look at unagented submissions. Should I happen to sell to an editor first, I definitely plan to find an agent to handle all the details.

    So, yeah, I think it’s in a writer’s best interest to have an agent.

  35. pari noskin taichert

    Did I hit a nerve <g>?

    Actually, your points are all important. I think your response to those cons also have to do with the fact that you — and many of us here at the ‘Rati — have been thinking a lot about "voice" lately.

    Thanks for that thoughtful response. I’ve been really interested in how strongly people feel about the necessity of agents. It’s heartening when conventional wisdom works because of more than inertia.

  36. BCB

    Pari, thank you for asking these questions — and for following up with demands polite requests for more details. And thanks to all who answered. Frank discussions such as this are invaluable to those of us who have not yet been there and done that.

  37. Allison Brennan

    Actually, no nerve, Pari! It’s a great discussion point and something writers debate a lot. I have two big problems–bad agents who are truly bad and should never be in the business, and writers who flat out think that agents are all evil and they don’t need one. Most authors do need agents, but there are circumstances I recognize where the agent/author relationship doesn’t work and authors become wary of all agents.

    There’s so many things not addressed in detail, like foreign rights, subsidiary rights, etc. that authors know next to nothing about. I don’t want to have to learn about every point of the contract–that would take away my time from writing. While it’s important that authors understand what their contract says, there’s things we really don’t understand the import of that an agent does understand.

    I know some authors who have writing careers (i.e. no day job) who don’t have an agent. But there’s not many.

  38. pari noskin taichert

    Thanks for saying that. I was hoping a discussion here at the ‘Rati would prove both interesting and informative. So much of what I learned when I was starting out was hodge-podge. Here at this blog, I think we’re able to get into details and sides of issues that help readers make more informed decisions.

    And Lord knows, we all need all the help we can get. <g>

  39. pari noskin taichert

    I think that it’s that long view that is so important. Agents who’ve been around for awhile can see the implications of provisions in the contract that we just wouldn’t know/think about.

    BTW: I don’t think agents are evil, and I do think most authors benefit from them, but I still wanted to ask the question. To me, sometimes it’s just good to take a look at our accepted practices to see if they’re still useful/functioning.

    As to bad agents . . . they’re everywhere. Good thing there are also a lot of good agents out there.

  40. mens watches replica swiss watches replica watches mens watches breitling navitimer rolex datejust rolex watches bell ross watches ferrari watches bvlgari watches Rolex DateJust Burberry watches Breguet watches chopard watches hublot watches U boat watches rolex daytona iwc watches panerai luminor burberry watches


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *