Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Does a writer really need an agent?

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The slush pile

The short answer is yes. The long answer is that while we’re living in a time in which writers have a dizzying range of options for releasing their work outside the traditional system, from independent presses to self-publishing to online, there are still strong reasons to try to get an agent first. None of the major houses, to my knowledge, will even consider unagented manuscripts these days, and although they’re far from the only game in town, they have undeniable advantages in promoting and placing the work of unproven writers—so it makes sense to try to land your book at one of the big six if you think you possibly can. Even if you decide that a small or independent press is better suited to your needs, the process of looking for an agent anyway will tell you a great deal about the quality of your work and the realities of your chosen profession. It can be long and frustrating, and every writer has experienced setbacks and rejection. But even if you feel that a writer’s life has frustration enough already, there’s nothing like systematically seeking representation from objective, overworked, but usually intelligent strangers to clarify certain important truths about how ready you really are.

My own career is a good example. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, after writing my first novel, I landed an excellent agent in what seemed like record time, only to spend the next year on a series of frustrating rewrites, which finally ended with our parting ways without ever showing the book to publishers. It isn’t an experience I’d want to go through again. But the uncomfortable fact, now that I can look back on the episode with something like a cool head, is that my agent, damn it, was right. The book wasn’t ready. I recently had the chance to read it over again for the first time in years—and in fact I’m revising it as we speak—and it’s clear now that it just wasn’t good enough, at least not for publishers we wanted. There’s a lot of potential there, and at the moment, I’m hopeful that it will eventually find an audience. But at the time, I wasn’t experienced enough to tell the difference between a precocious first draft and a novel that people would actually want to buy and read. My agent was. More to the point, he was willing to tell me this repeatedly, and to walk away after it became clear that it wasn’t going to get there.

The slush pile

Obviously, I wish it had gone some other way, but on balance, I’m grateful. If I hadn’t been so determined to find an agent and place the book with a major publisher, I might well have decided to release it myself, which would have been a huge mistake: I’d be embarrassed today if that novel, in its earlier form, had been the first book I presented to the world. A good agent has the kind of objectivity that an author, and even friends and early readers, aren’t always capable of providing. All he wants is a book he can sell, or at least one that he can show to editors without violating their trust in the quality of his submissions, which, in the long run, is the only thing that matters. And although it might seem as if agents would encourage writers to compromise or make their work more commercial, in my experience, this isn’t the case: they’re only concerned that the book realize its potential, whether as a thriller, a literary novel, or a collection of short stories. (It’s also worth pointing out that most major publishers have essentially outsourced the editing process to agents: with editors themselves more concerned with packaging and marketing, your agent may be the only real editor you’ll ever have.)

The question of how to find an agent is another topic entirely, and one I don’t have room to fully discuss here, although there are plenty of other resources available online. Every author has a different story about how he or she sought representation, which, for most of us, largely comes down to research, carefully reading the acknowledgments sections of authors we admire, and living as much as possible among other writers. (I got my current agent through a friend from college, whom I never would have met if we hadn’t both been involved with my undergraduate literary magazine.) Above all, it requires persistence and luck. I got my first agent in five days, while finding my second agent—the one who actually sold The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and their successors to Penguin—took years. But the experience itself is worth it, if only for the other rewards it brings. It’s possible that I would have grown into a better writer in any case, but in looking for an agent, I was forced to grow, and get better, and teach myself how to survive in a game where the odds are never in your favor. Most good writers eventually find an agent. But it was often the search that made them good in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

December 5, 2012 at 9:35 am

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