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Do you need an agent?

by Durant Imboden

You've just finished a novel, a short story, a poem, or a proposal for a nonfiction book. Do you need a literary agent, or should you submit the work to publishers on your own?

To find the answer, we need to consider several questions:

What have you written?

Literary agents typically earn most of their income from book manuscripts and proposals. Although agents may handle articles, short stories, and (rarely) poems as a courtesy to their clients, such sales hardly ever generate big enough commissions to justify the time expended on them. Consider:

1) An article or short-story sale to a major national magazine like Playboy might bring in $2,000, of which the agent gets to keep only $200 to $300.

2) An author of Playboy caliber might earn an advance of $10,000 to $1,000,000 or more for a book, resulting in a commission of $1,000 to $150,000, depending on the agent's percentage (typically 10-15% of domestic sales).

What's more, it can actually be easier to sell a book than an article or a short story in today's marketplace. (Book publishers compete actively for commercial book projects, while most of today's leading magazines rely on staff writers and trusted freelancers for much of their content.)

Bottom line: If you've written a book, you should consider looking for a literary agent. If you've written a poem, short story, or article, you'll need to market it on your own.

Is your work ready to submit?

First, let's look at the market situation for novels:

Successful authors can sell novels on the basis of a "portion and outline" or even a one-page synopsis. But if you're a newcomer, you'll need to finish your novel before submitting it to an agent. There are two good reasons for this:

1) It's easy to start a novel. It's much harder to finish one. Agents and editors know that most first novels get stuck in a desk drawer after the first 50 pages, and they can't afford to gamble on the hope that your manuscript will be an exception.

2) Even if you do complete your first novel, there's no guarantee that you know how to keep a story going (and hold the reader's interest) for several hundred pages. The proof is in the pudding--and the pudding is your finished manuscript.

Nonfiction books are a different story. If you've written a proposal that includes sample chapters and a detailed outline, the odds are good that you'll be able to finish the book. Publishers are often willing to make nonfiction commitments on the basis of proposals, so the agent won't be wasting time and money by representing your portion and outline.

Continued in part 2:
How to find an agent

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