Does a Writer Need a Literary Agent?


It was a topic that came up repeatedly during a writer’s conference I recently attended.

  • “What is the agent’s role?”
  • “Do I really need a literary agent?”
  • “Can’t I get a book published on my own?”

Some of the questions I heard about the pros and cons of literary agents during the conference were questions I had also wondered about at some point in my writing journey.

If you’re a writer, especially one who is hoping to get published in the near future, you might have a few questions about literary agents.

First of all …

What is a literary agent?

A literary agent is a representative who presents your works (fiction, nonfiction, screenplay, etc.) to publishing houses, producers, studios, and so on.

Their job is to help you with the negotiation of contracts and book deals. For example:

  • They can help negotiate for a bigger advance.
  • They can get your work in front of large, traditional publishing houses (who usually don’t accept unrepresented queries).
  • Also, they might assist in organizing speaking engagements and book signings for authors.

Three Reasons You Might Want a Literary Agent

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Here are three pros to literary agents, and reasons why you might want to look into finding an agent to represent you as a writer.

1. Literary Agents Have Experience

In the world of publishing, especially for less experienced writers, questions are bound to arise.

  • What’s the best publishing path for me to take?
  • How do I know whether this contract is what I want for my book?
  • Is this the best deal available?

Agents might not be able to tell you the exact route you should take for your writing journey, but they can definitely offer good advice.

They’ve been around the block more than once. They’ve seen the end of the road for a variety of publishing options and can advise accordingly.

Additionally, they’ve seen plenty of publishing contracts, so although you might be thrilled to sign that first contract (no matter what the fine print says), agents would have helpful insights to offer.

An agent’s experience can be vital in navigating the vast waters of the publishing industry.

2. Agents Have Connections

Writing tends to be a solitary activity, and writers often tend to be solitary people. A lot of creatives and writers are introverts.

That used to be okay.

Emily Dickinson rarely left her house and remains one of the most famous American poets.

But today, connections are big and networking is vital. The more, the merrier, it seems.

Even if more is not better, all you need is that one connection. Your “way in” to a particular publishing house or other writing opportunities.

Agents are agents primarily because of their connections.

They know people.

They’ve been authors or acquisitions editors or played some integral role in a publishing house or related company. They can read your proposal and often know straight off who in the publishing industry is looking for a similar title or genre or how-to.

An agent’s connections can be just what you need to publish your manuscript.

3. Agents Have Insight

In the good ol’ days, writers wrote. That was pretty much it. (Okay, some fell under the category of starving artists, but it was easier to focus on solely writing and make a living from it.)

I’m still getting over my envy of an author who lived 300 years ago who was sponsored for six years to do nothing but study and write. 

Nothing but study and write for six years? I can’t even get six days!

These days, a serious writer also needs to develop a platform, understand and utilize social media, be tech-savvy, and hone their business skills.

That’s a tall order, and it can be daunting to know where to start.

An agent can offer insight as to what platform a writer might focus on. They might suggest a budding author focus on a particular genre and build up a readership in that target audience.

For example, I was in touch with an agent a few years ago, and her recommendation to me was to focus on a single website/blog.

(I was regularly posting on half a dozen blogs at the time … not the way to build a cohesive writer’s platform.)

Okay, now that we’ve talked about the pros of working with an agent, let’s discuss a few drawbacks.

Three Reasons You Might NOT Want a Literary Agent

There are, of course, some disadvantages to taking on a literary agent.

These include:

Agents Take a Cut of Your Profits

For their services, they generally get a cut of somewhere between 10% and 20% of your sales (usually around 15%).

Of course, they deserve the percentage because of the work they do on your behalf.

If you’re getting hefty royalties for a bestselling book, then it’s all good.

But if you’re struggling to get into the market, you are probably counting every penny.

So, you would need to determine whether the advantages they offer (insight, connections, experience) are worth the 10% to 20%.

You Plan to Only Self-Publish

Literary agents primarily assist in the area of traditional publishing.

If your plans are to self-publish your books, then you do not need to work with an agent.

That said, if you have made it successfully as a self-published author and you’re hoping to expand into the traditional market, it might be time to seek out a literary agent to help guide you along that path.

Agents Increase the Wait Time

Once you’ve finished writing your book and gotten it edited, you will naturally want to take it the next step as soon as possible.

When you work with an agent, especially if you do not yet have a literary agent, it will take that much more time before you see your book in print.

Naturally, this time can be time well-spent.

The process of querying the agent, in itself, is a good practice in drafting a query letter, creating a proposal, working on your elevator pitch, and all those aspects of writing that help you become more disciplined and skilled in the craft.

Once you have found an agent to represent your book, the agent then needs to take your book through the various processes of publication:

  • Querying
  • Pitching
  • Negotiation

Then, with all the steps of actual publishing, it can take up to two years.


In summary, if you love to write, and you hope to make a lifelong career (even part-time) of writing and publishing books, your next step might be researching the agent that is the right fit for you.

As writers, we need help.

From editors, illustrators, web designers, graphic artists.

And often from agents: for their experience, connections, and insight.

And for their friendship.

After all, writing can be a lonely world; it’s nice to have someone in your corner. To advise you and encourage you along the way.