What Do They Do? Do You Really Need One?
by Melissa Alvarez
The first question you should answer is if you have finished the manuscript. If this is your first novel you should have finished a complete work before you submit to anyone. Neither an agent nor a publisher will take a chance on a first time novelist who hasn’t finished a book. If this is your scenario, sit down and finish the thing before you go any further.
If you have finished that work, make sure it shines before you present it to a publisher or agent. Don’t submit sloppy work or any materials that are less than crisp, clean and professional. Have it critiqued to make sure you have kept your story going, that it has a beginning, middle and end. Even if you have finished the work your writing ability must shine through in the finished manuscript.
What do you need to know about a literary agent? First they typically earn most of their income from book manuscripts. The percentage they receive is between ten and fifteen percent of all domestic sales of your work. Their job is to sell your book to a publisher, to represent you and your work. But before a literary agent will do this you must prove to them that your work is salable and that lies within the pages of your novel.
But do you REALLY need a literary agent? It depends upon the publishing house that you targeted. Harlequin Silhouette is the largest publisher of category romance that works with both agented and unagented authors. Their contract is standard and there’s not much an agent can negotiate. If you’ve targeted Harlequin Silhouette then you don’t necessarily need an agent. Many unagented writers have made a career writing for this publishing house.
Some of the other publishing houses will only work with agented writers. Why? All large publishing houses (Harlequin Silhouette included) receive hundreds of thousands of manuscripts in any given year. Some publishers only want to deal with authors who have proven themselves to an agent first. If an agent has accepted your work, then the publisher knows it’s gone through at least one screening and that the agent feels the work is salable. Otherwise, the agent wouldn’t have taken it on.
What should you do? First read the publishers guidelines to see if they accept unagented authors. Next look at your work. Is it a 55,000-word category romance that you could sell to a publishing house that accepts unagented authors? Or is it a 150,000 word single title that would fit better at a publishing house that handles lengthy single title works or mainstream romance fiction? Your answer to these questions will let you know if you should search for an agent or give it a try yourself. It’s all in the publisher’s guidelines. Make sure you read them.