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Welcome back, and thank you for the overwhelmingly supportive response to this column! Please keep the questions coming, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do I really need an agent? What can an agent do for me that I can’t do for myself?
1. Imagine you have a friend who invites you along to a party where you don’t know anyone. Your friend turns out to be really well connected, and takes you around introducing you to everybody. At each stop, your friend introduces you in a way that highlights what you have in common with each person, opening the door for interesting conversations. At the end of the night, you’ve met a lot of interesting people you wouldn’t have had a chance to meet otherwise, and some of them have even asked for your contact info so that they can stay in touch.
An agent can get your manuscript through doors that are closed to people like you and me. They have connections and relationships with publishers, and they know what particular editors are looking for. They have the connections and experience to be able to guide your manuscript around to the people who may be most interested in it. It’s the difference between getting a smooth introduction to someone at a party and trying to break into an ongoing conversation on your own. Strangers are often much more accommodating if you’re introduced by someone they trust. Agents can also steer you away from publishing situations that might be wrong for you.
2. Once someone’s interested, an agent can help you get the best deal. It’s like warning you that the guy who asked for your number at the party is really cool, but he’ll always expect you to pay for everything, so this is how to get him to split the dinner bill.
Contracts are confusing and misleading, and agents have the experience to be able to spot things that aren’t in your best interest, and to insert clauses that protect you. You can also just take your contract to a contract lawyer, but the benefit of going with agents is that if they’ve worked with the interested publisher before, things will go more smoothly and they may be able to negotiate better in your favor.
Are there specific agents for specific genres, or can any agent sell my book?
Many agents narrow their practice to a small genre-specific area of interest. It’s best to go with an agent who specializes in what you write. They’ll be more passionate about your work, and they’ll have connections in your field. Most agents list their preferences with their submissions/contact information. Some are very broad in their interests (for example: non-fiction; or, children’s and young adult lit), while some are very specific (historical romance only, no modern or fantasy romance). The important thing is finding an agent who loves what you write, AND loves your writing. They’re the ones who travel in the same circles as you, which means they’ll be able to give you the best introductions to the people you’re most likely to hit it off with.