need an agent

To Agent or Not?

Some authors have agents, some don’t; some people succeed with agents, some without. Whether or not you decide to go it alone or to try to get published via an agent will be entirely up to you.

It basically comes down to what you want.

First, however, what will a literary agent do for you?

A literary agent negotiates rights on your behalf (whether they be book, film, radio … whatever). He or she also scouts opportunities for you (in whatever form they may take) and often helps to organise publicity for you (although that is not normally part of his or her role). An agent, basically, acts as an adviser to you, and acts as a buffer between you and the torrid outside world of publishing. For this, the agent will take a percentage of your income (which generally ranges somewhere between 10% to 20%). You need to understand that if an agent negotiates rights on your behalf, for a percentage of all income from the sale or leasing of those rights, then the agent will continue to receive that percentage whether you are still his or her client or not. You can leave an agent whenever you wish … but that agent will continue to collect a percentage on all deals he or she has negotiated for you.

There are two alternatives to agent: yourself, or an entertainment lawyer. If you do all the negotiations yourself then you get all monies resulting from the deal; if you use a lawyer then the lawyer will generally charge a flat fee for the negotiations and you then keep all royalties that roll in.

On the face of it, it seems the better alternative is to do all the negotiations yourself (if you’re confident that you know what you are doing!), or to hire a lawyer for a flat fee. However … using a literary agent has some real positives.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be without one. I prefer to sit in my own private world of Ashcotte and let my agent (Lyn Tranter, of Australian Literary Management) do all the fretting for me. She’s always there at the end of the phone for advice, or for someone to grumble to (when, post-negotiations, a lawyer would not be). Yes, I lose a percentage of my income but a) I probably wouldn’t be where I am now without her, and b) she’s a great tax deduction! If I did the calculations comparing losing a portion of my income to paying a flat fee to an entertainment lawyer then money-wise I’d come out the same: what I would gain on using a lawyer for a flat fee I would lose in taxation. But, personally, the biggest incentive for me is not money – it is the sheer comfort I receive from having Lyn act as that all important buffer. It is also important to realise that agents can get your foot in the door far more easily than you could: an agent can get the ear of a publisher faster than anyone else.

Many other authors I know, however, prefer to do all their own negotiations (or to use a lawyer for negotiations and do all the other leg work themselves). I guess it depends on what kind of personality you have, if you enjoy the constant phoning, the constant keeping in touch yourself, or of you’d prefer someone else to do it for you.

If you do decide to try for an agent (I did not suceed until I got myself an agent), then the bad news is that agents are as overworked and overwhelmed with hopeful authors as publishers are. It is hard work to get an agent, so when approaching one remember the same golden rule that applies to approaching a publisher: BE PROFESSIONAL. Don’t be despondent if at first you don’t succeed; as with publishers, one may reject you, but the next may take you on.

In all the wonders of the past six or seven years of my publishing success, the most marvellous moment came when, out of the blue, I got a phone call from Lyn at 4.45 one Friday afternoon (I remember it so well!) saying, “Welcome aboard!”.

Suddenly, after all the lonely, silent years of effort, I was home.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

More about Agents

Editors note: This is an updated/expanded version of To Agent or Not, both are relevant and have been included for that reason.


Some authors have agents, some don’t; some people succeed with agents, some without. Whether or not you decide to go it alone or to try to get published via an agent will be entirely up to you.
It basically comes down to what you want.

First, however, what will a literary agent do for you?

A literary agent negotiates rights on your behalf (whether they be book, film, radio … whatever). He or she also scouts opportunities for you (in whatever form they may take) and often helps to organise publicity for you (although that is not normally part of his or her role). An agent, basically, acts as an adviser to you, and acts as a buffer between you and the torrid outside world of publishing. For this, the agent will take a percentage of your income (which generally ranges somewhere between 10% to 25%). You need to understand that if an agent negotiates rights on your behalf, for a percentage of all income from the sale or leasing of those rights, then the agent will continue to receive that percentage whether you are still his or her client or not. You can leave an agent whenever you wish … but that agent will continue to collect a percentage on all deals he or she has negotiated for you. Some parts of the traditional agenting system are cumbersome. For instance, if you have as your primary agent an Australian agent, then that agent will then subcontract agents in other countries to handle your work there. That means more fees (thus the 25% rate, some goes to your primary agent, other percentages of it go to various subagents), and more distance between you and the publisher. Rather than contracting with a primary agent who then subcontracts in other countries you might like to think about contracting agents in different countries each at a reasonably low commission. This can be difficult to do, however, and most authors seem to go with the primary agent and (cumbersome) subagent system. There are two alternatives to using an agent: do it yourself, or use a contract lawyer. If you do all the negotiations yourself then you get all monies resulting from the deal; if you use a lawyer then the lawyer will generally charge a flat fee for the negotiations and you then keep all royalties that roll in.

Traditionally authors have used agents. Today, however, once authors have established themselves some do move to managing themselves without an agent. If you’ve got a well-known name, and you’re saleable, then you might very well be better off without one (if you’re not well known, and don’t already have a foot, an arm and a leg in the door, then you’re better of with than without!). Agents’ commissions range from between 10% to 25% … and if there is little work involved in selling a good name … then some authors reason they can do without losing that percentage of their income. Another potential problem with agents in today’s rapidly changing publishing world (especially with etexts) is that a traditional contract might really tie your hands in your ability to make free use of some of the new media opportunities. If you’re contracting with an agent make sure the contract doesn’t tie you down so much you can’t take advantage of electronic opportunities.

You could also choose to have an agent in one territory, but not in another. For example, you might like to look after your own affairs within your own home territory (your own home country), but have agents for overseas territories with which you are not familiar. Typically, for instance, authors in Australia might look after their Australian affairs, but contract an agent to work for them within the USA. The publishing world is currently changing at a very rapid rate – do your homework, see what’s on offer, work out what will be best for you. Again, I add the proviso that if you’re just starting out you may have little choice in what kind of agent or agenting agreement you are offered.

©2002 Sara Douglass Enterprises