If you've written or are planning to write a novel, memoir, or other type of fiction or nonfiction, you've probably considered hiring an agent. However, you might have some concerns about the process. For instance, how do you find an agent? And when you do, how do you know he or she is "good"? Finally, do you really need one to succeed in the publishing world?
How Can You Find an Agent?If you type in the words "book" and "agent" into a search engine such as Google or Yahoo!, about a zillion (okay, more like 128,000,000) websites will pop up. And not one of those that are agent-owned will say, "I'm terrible! Don't hire me!"
This leads to a critical point - you should never hire an agent via the Internet without first checking around. You can use an agent's website to supplement your information about him or her, but don't make decisions based on what is simply his or her Internet advertisement.
Instead, ask around. If you're a writer, chances are you have friends who also are authors. Ask them for referrals for well-respected, legitimate agents who will treat you honestly and fairly. Chances are, you'll start to get a few "bites" immediately and more will come your way as word spreads that you're looking to publish.
When you do start to get agent leads, start putting together your one-page proposal (don't send your manuscript - that'll get you blacklisted) to send to the agents you choose. Without a proposal, you'll never get a foot in the door. Agents, like editors, are extremely busy; they don't want you calling. If they like your proposal, they'll call you.
After you get your first agent "nibble" in response to your book proposal, you can finally start asking your agent some questions… plenty of questions. Ask for a sample contract and read it as if your life depended on it. (If you don't understand the legalese, get the help of an attorney or other legal professional to assist you.) Request that the agent allow you to talk with several of his or her current clients, and make sure you follow up with those authors. Remember - the more you uncover, the better you'll feel once you sign on with him or her.
How do You Know if Your Agent is "Good"?You'll probably be able to determine whether your agent is savvy by the answers you get from his or her clients. Make sure you probe them for details of their interactions with the agent and how he or she helped them get their book from a personal computer to a bookshelf. Ask about commissions and "hidden fees". And listen to their answers intently; a long pause or carefully worded answer could hide the client's true feelings.
Do You Really Need an Agent?This is a sticky one, because there are people who have "self-published" without dealing with an agent. However, make no mistake - those self-published novels and memoirs simply cannot compete on the market unless they are utterly amazing, fantastic, or something no one else has ever seen.
An agent will give you the best chances at having your book picked up by a major publishing house (and most publishers will not even consider working with solo authors any longer), which will boost sales tremendously. If you want a broad readership, an agent will help you get there.
However, if your book is something you only intend to sell locally or through your own business (such as in the case with consultants who sometimes self-publish books to sell or distribute at seminars or public speaking engagements), an agent might be an unnecessary added expense. Weigh your options very carefully; decide early in the process how far you want to go as a published author and how you'll get there on your own versus how you'll get there with an agent's help.
Rest assured, there are agents out there, good and bad. And you might not like the first one you choose; that's okay. Firing your agent is sometimes a part of the writing business. (Conversely, your agent might fire you if you breach your contract or he or she feels you're not living up to your end of the bargain.)
Regardless, it's just part of the joy of moving an idea from your mind to the public's eyes.