Agents and Publishers


To get an agent or not? This decision is a crucial one in your writing career so in this topic we'll examine some of the 'fors' and 'againsts' of agents for fiction writers.

There is no doubt that getting a good agent can have a significant impact on your literary career. There is also no doubt that a bad agent can have an impact too - but not the kind you want. Any agent that you may contact must feel 'right' for you in the first place or the chances are good that the relationship will at best be strained and at worst be useless to you. To help you decide, we'll examine what a good agent should do for you - and what you shouldn't expect them to do for you.

A good agent should keep your work in front of the right kind of editor for your kind of writing. They should be able to negotiate the best possible deal for you, the writer, and ensure that the business side of things runs as smoothly as possible. This allows the writer to get on with what they should be doing - writing. The agent should also be able to oversee your book as it goes through the publication process, then keep an eye on such things as foreign rights, radio rights, TV rights and the writers' holy grail - film rights.

A good agent has a distinct advantage over a writer in that they have - or should have - far more contacts within the publishing industry. This allows them to 'think outside the box' of a single publisher who may only have negotiated or wanted limited rights - and approach other members of the publishing world to offer them the remainder as mentioned above.

The role of agents has expanded over recent years, partly due to the fact that editors inside publishing houses tend to change around far more frequently than in years gone by. The activities of many agents now include those of business partner, concept editor and trusted friend, who helps the writer's career forward over the years by being an active part of it.

On the other side of the coin, there are some things that a writer shouldn't expect an agent to do: in fact any expectation from the writer in the following list may well strain the relationship to breaking point. Agents therefore shouldn't be expected to:

Sell bad or unsaleable work

Lend the writer money or give him or her 'advances'

Be a legal representative for the writer

Be a secretary or 'gopher'

Become involved in the writer's personal life and problems

Be at the writer's constant beck and call - especially outside office hours

Teach the writer how to write

Be the writer's private taxicab driver

Arrange publicity stunts or campaigns (that's down to the writer and/or publisher)

As a writer, you should remember that, although your agent may well become your friend, the writer/agent relationship should always be regarded as a professional one. Keep this in mind when tempted to make it otherwise - unless by mutual agreement, of course.

A bad agent will not only not do any of the things mentioned above - they may well do very little or nothing at all to get you into print. It may be that they simply don't possess the contacts or the skill required to persuade a publisher that you're the Next Big Thing. It may be that they are inherently lazy or habitually do just enough to keep you hanging on - though goodness knows why as it earns them nothing.

Finally, it may be that the personalities of the agent and writer just simply clash. A very businesslike writer may not get on too well with an agent who has a laid-back approach to their work, or vice versa. Although it may well be difficult for an unpublished writer to get an agent at all, it's no good signing up with someone you cannot 'get on with'. The temptation may well be great to grab any offer of having an agent with both hands but beware - it could turn out to be a case of 'marry in haste, repent at leisure' - something any writer can seriously do without.

So, before approaching agents, ask yourself this question - is this agent the one for me? Do they handle my kind of work? What reputation do they enjoy? Will I be able to work with them? And - do they 'feel' right? Getting an agent is an important business and career step for any writer to take, so don't take it lightly.

There's a myth in writing circles that you can't get published without an agent - and that you can't get an agent without being published. True, getting an agent may be no easy task - there are many aspiring writers out there vying for agency status and notice. However, if your work is good and your approach professional and businesslike, any writer can get an agent - although it may well take a whole mountain of persistence and self-belief.

Ask people you know who have links into publishing - no matter how tenuous - if they know any agents. Ask members of your writing group (see next topic!). Ask bookshop owners, publishers' salespeople, librarians. Someone, somewhere will know an agent, or someone who knows one. Then, if the agent fits with what you want from them, approach them with your reference - you'll be a lot closer to having the agent read your work than another writer who has gone in 'cold'.

In conclusion, the decision to get an agent is one only the individual writer can make. Just remember that writing is one task, publication another. A writer's job is frequently hard enough as it is without the added pressure of dealing with a publisher. A good agent bridges the gap between the creative and commercial process and should, in my opinion, be regarded as an invaluable asset to any writer wishing to make a career for themselves.


Everyone knows that publishers are just there to rip you off and steal your copyright, right? Wrong. in fact, dead, DEAD wrong. That kind of publisher is, quite honestly, a figment of the imagination and a fictional stereotype. Publishers like that belong in the outmoded and comical land of the moustache-twirling villain, whose only deeds are dastardly and where words like 'cad' and 'bounder' are still used.

The fact is that more than a few publishing houses will accept 'unsolicited' manuscripts (as opposed to 'solicited' MSS brought to them by agents). Although they are getting fewer, they are certainly another string to any writer's bow who is in search of publication - and here's an odd thing. More than one writer, having had a book accepted directly by a publisher, then uses this as a lever to gain agented status.

Why do this and pay an agent commission? This is in fact a very astute move on the part of the writer. On the one hand he or she has had an offer on a book. On the other he or she may not be getting quite the best deal to be had. Enter the agent - who will know full well what deal the writer should be getting and make sure that the writer gets it!

Hopefully it will be the start of a great relationship. True, the publisher might be a bit put out when he sees your agent stroll through his door but the chances are good that nothing untoward will happen. The publisher is a professional and knows the game. He's not tried to swindle you by not giving you the best deal he possibly can - you're still an unknown, don't forget - he's just trying to do the best for his employer. This is a business - remember? If the publisher really does kick up a fuss chances are he or she had spotted you as a real newbie and was trying to give you a worse deal than you might have liked! However, tow in your tame agent behind you and things may well look very different in a very short time.

The one thing to remember is this: if a publishing house editor does show interest and make an offer - don't agree to anything until you've seen an agent. It would be difficult - not to say unethical - for an agent to come in after the fact and try to re-negotiate a deal that you had already accepted.

A word or two on that dread subject, rejection. This can come from either agent or editor and, like death and taxes, is inevitable. Show me a writer who has never had an MS rejected and I'll show you a writer who has never submitted one. Please remember this: rejection is not personal.  Of course, if your work is terrible and you can't write worth a damn it won't help - but you can improve! However, rejection doesn't mean you're a lousy writer, it doesn't mean your work is rubbish and it most certainly doesn't mean that your work won't ever sell.

What it does mean is any one of the list below -

The agent you have submitted to -

may have a full 'book'

may not be taking your kind of work right now

may have had similar work submitted recently

The publisher you have submitted to -

may have a full inventory.

may not want to take any more unagented writers

may be looking at genres differing from yours at the moment

And so it goes. I know it sounds frustrating - and it can be, believe me - but it's possible that you may have written a really great book and the agent/publisher has to pass on it simply because they have too much work on - even if they think it's good!

Another thing to remember is that rejection is just one person's opinion - it's not written in stone. Personal likes and dislikes (but not of you - they probably don't even know who your are) do come into this but only at a literary level. If any writer lets rejection stop them at he first try that writer will get nowhere - that I can guarantee!

So - try for an agent. Keep on trying, because the next one may well say 'yes'. Same goes for publishers if that's the route you want to follow.

I never said it would be easy, did I?

In our next topic we will be looking at that haven for rejected and injured writers - the writers' group.

Index page 1. Necessary equipment.  2. The importance of the workplace  3. Choosing the right book for you to write. 4. Ideas and how to get them. 5. How to plan a story. 6. How to make characters come to life.  7. Plotting your story. 8. Self-editing and the final draft. 10. Writers' groups. 11. Writing competitions. 12. Reference works.