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If you plan to publish your book via a big publisher, or even some independent publishers, you will, at some point, need an agent.

In this article, you’ll discover the role of an agent, you’ll find out what an agent is looking for in an author and you’ll learn why agents are essential to pursuing a traditional publishing career.

The Role of an Agent

Most authors understand that agents are essential in the traditional publishing process, but not everyone understands what it is they will do for your career. Agents play a number of critical roles.

The first role that agents fulfill is to act as gatekeepers. It is their job to filter potential authors and present only the most suitable to publishers. It is worth mentioning that ‘quality’ of books presented to an agent is not the deciding factor on whether they feel they are worthy of representation. It is true that if your book is of poor quality; it will almost certainly be rejected but this is not always the case. Agents and publishers will not shy away from very heavy editing or even using a ghostwriter to turn a badly written book into something they can publish.

The key factor that decides if an agent is interested in a book is what they call ‘commerciality’. This is the book’s potential to sell thousands of copies. When an agent says a book is ‘commercial’ they mean it has a wide appeal to readers. This means that if you have a commercial idea, quality is less important. This is why you get ghostwriters writing celebrity biographies. The latest sport star might have a great story but no ability to write. No problem, the agent will find a ghostwriter.

However, for most authors a book must possess two qualities. It must be commercial and of a high enough standard that it will not require too much work to prepare it for publication.

Publishers don’t have the resources to screen out commercial novels from the slush pile and, therefore, rely on agents.

The second role of an agent is to understand what publishers want from new books. Publishers are constantly assessing the books they publish and making predictions on where the market will go. They are looking for trends and to build on the success of previous books. This means that publishers will often have a checklist of books they are seeking.

For example, let’s say that a publisher feels that supernatural romance is a developing genre. They’ve seen lots of books that focus on romance and vampires and even romance and werewolves. One publisher now feels that romance and mermaids will be the next trend. They will, therefore, be looking for a mermaid romance novel.

This is where agents come into play. Publishers and agents talk all the time. An agent is constantly listening to publishers and storing away the kinds of books they are seeking. In fact, this is one of an agent’s biggest strengths, they know what publishers want.

Let’s go back to our example.

Our publisher has decided they want a mermaid romance book. They go to lunch with an agent and they tell the agent about this trend. The agent comes away knowing what the publisher wants. This means that if the following week they see a submission from a writer who is pitching a mermaid romance, then a deal might just be waiting to happen.

The third key role of an agent is in negotiating deals. Assuming that you have written a book that is of interest to a publisher, the time will come to do a deal. This is where agents earn their money. They know what is a typical deal, they know what clauses you want in the contract and they will be able to push the publisher for the best deal. They will also be able to do this without harming your relationship with the publisher. Once the deal has been signed the agent will step to one side and you will work with the publisher directly. The last thing you want is this relationship to be soured by the previous negotiation.

The forth role of an agent is to act as a barrier between you and the publisher. Once the deal has been completed and the publishing process starts, there will be lots of little issues that will come up. One thing an agent will be able to do is to handle these problems on your behalf. They will be able to talk openly and honestly with the publisher and resolve any problems. They will also be able to tell you when things that are happening are normal and when things are going wrong. The result is that you will be able to focus on maintaining a healthy and positive relationship with your publisher.

The final key role of an agent is to make sure you get paid. An agent will ensure that a publisher is living up to their side of the contract. They will chase royalties and make sure they are correct (it is not unusual for publishers to make mistakes). They will also ensure that the less common clauses of the contract are being fulfilled. For example, it is not unusual for an advance to be split into at least two stages (if not more). This is normally half on signing and the rest of delivery. The agent will make sure you get the cash they have promised, when they have promised.

What Agents Want to See in an Author

Having the ‘right’ book is only part of the process and is not the complete picture. In order for a writer to be an attractive proposition for an agent they must tick a number of boxes.

In a recent article in The Bookseller (11 November 2016, page 7), UK agent Ed Victor outlined what it was he was looking for in a writer.

‘Victor has three criteria for taking on an author, he says: personality, the quality of the book and its money making potential. Any one of those three will swing it.

“If there is a person I really like and want to be close to, whose work is OK but doesn’t make very much money, I’ll do it. If there is another, one who has written an extraordinary book, [even if] it won’t make a lot of money I’ll do it, because I love books. And if there is a book by someone who is not wonderful, and the book is not particularly good, but it is going to make a lot of money, I owe it to my company to do it.”’

Why Agents Are Essential

If you are looking to make a living from publishing with traditional publishers, then an agent is an essential part of the process. However, if you are still undecided, here’s three points to consider:

An agent will know things about publishers you never will. Not only do they know what books they are looking to publish but they also know the staff and internal politics. Agents ‘get’ publishers and know how they tick, they know the up and coming editors and the editors that should be avoided. Agents are the only people that will be able to give you honest advice about how to navigate the publishing process.

The second point to ponder is that you can’t get near a big publisher without an agent. You will be able to build a reputation without an agent, by focusing on approaching smaller independent publishers, but if you want to speak to the big boys then you will require an agent.

The final point is that agents will stop you making mistakes and this is not just from a financial viewpoint. An agent will hold your hand during the publishing process. They will provide advice and give you guidance on how to progress your career. They are one of the few people in the publishing world that will have your best interests at heart. After all, the better you do the more cash they make.

I want to end this article with one word of warning and that is that not all agents are created equal. If you are looking for an agent the focus should be on long established agencies located in the ‘publishing’ city of your country (e.g. New York and London). There are many great ‘solo’ agents but if you are offered a deal from a solo agent then approach with caution. There is one great question you can ask that will help separate the wheat from the chaff and that is, ‘can you give me a list of your clients?’ A successful agent will be doing book deals for writers that are selling books. Do your research, check up on the agent and do some googling of their clients. You are looking for an active agent (one doing deals) that represents writers from your genre, who are selling books.

In summary, an agent is an essential part of the traditional publishing process. I started my writing career working as a researcher and editor in the popular Horrible Histories series. This opened a number of publishing doors and I was able to secure five or six book deals without an agent. However, it was not until I found an agent that my writing career really started to take off. I now have more than twenty books in print with more in the pipeline.