Scott Adlerberg wrote an exceptional piece in the Mystery Writers of America New York Chapter’s blog on whether an author needed an agent in this time of flourishing small presses. I have nothing to add to what Scott said, and he said it better than I could have, anyway. In fact, he summed up my situation almost eerily well. What I’ll do today is share my personal experience in the context of his post.
(First the disclaimer: I am not recommending anyone follow my course. I’m not recommending you shouldn’t, either. It depends on your ambition relative to the industry.)
I can summarize my experience in the fields of agents and publishing succinctly: I have had three agents over the past fifteen years, and received contracts from two publishers. No agent has even gotten a contract for me.
That’s not because they were bad agents; far from it. In fact, it’s hard to imagine I would ever have received a contract if not for the invaluable self-editing tips Pam Strickler taught me. Barbara Braun showed me things about introducing characters I still use, and Bob Mecoy was generous with his insights into how the industry handled—or didn’t handle—writers such as myself. I am grateful to them all.
But neither of my contracts were a result of contacts initiated by them.
The original Stark House deal for Grind Joint came about because Charlie Stella read a draft, thought it would be good for them, and people don’t say “no” to Charlie Stella. To say he’s a force of nature is to make the phrase no longer a cliché, because—listen to me—Charlie Stella is like no other force of nature you’ve ever seen.
The Penns River series found a new home because—much to my surprise—I apparently had a bit of a profile. Maybe even buzz. True, a single bee in a boxcar, but Eric Campbell knew who I was, wanted to talk to me, and the process was pretty informal.
This is right about where those who have yet to land either an agent or a contract say, “See? It’s all about who you know.” To which I politely reply, paraphrasing my friend Jack Getze, “Horseshit.” I’ve been writing with intent to publish for almost twenty years, and got my first agent almost fifteen years ago. I paid my dues. Self-published two books before Grind Joint, then four more between contracts. That’s not how old boy networks operate.
Not to cover ground Scott already went over better than I’m likely to, but, like so many things in life, the answer to the question, “Do I need an agent?” is, “It depends.” No one wants to hear that. No one. We want some kind of direction and it’s not there. “Okay,” you say. “What does it depend on, smart ass?”
If you want a foot in the door to a major New York publisher who will wine you and dine you and provide editorial, marketing, and distribution support, then, yes. You need an agent. The big New York operations don’t take unsolicited manuscripts. For them the slush pile may not be dead, but it’s in a hospice. Find an agent who knows how to deal with a big publisher. (This may be the one area where connections come in, as an editor will naturally be more likely to accept a manuscript from an agent with whom he or she has experience and trust.) Then you wait.
One the other hand, if a big New York house isn’t your goal, the agent may not be a big deal, he or she may be a hindrance. It’s no insult to say agents need to make a living, too, and 15% of the kinds of deals an independent publisher offers may not allow the agent to keep the doors open. This means the agent isn’t going to look at those houses for you, and that’s no insult, either. It’s life.
There’s another, more important, decision the author must make before he or she worries too much about an agent: the definition of success. Armed with that, deciding whether to look for an agent is a simple decision. (Not that discovering your personal definition of success is easy.) What’s that? You’ve decided you want to be a bestseller and need to learn how to get an agent who can help that to happen?
How the hell would I know?
(Thanks to Scott Adlerberg for his well-written and thought provoking article.)