Friday, July 8, 2016

Do I Really Need a Literary Agent?

by Vonda Skelton @VondaSkelton

When I teach at writers conferences, I often get the question, "Do I really need an agent?" Well, you'll be happy to know I can confidently and unequivocally answer that question in three simple words: Yes, no, and maybe.

When I wrote my first book, I knew I didn't want an agent. I mean, why would I want to give a whopping 15 percent of my earnings to a total stranger when I could do it myself and keep all that money?

Then the rejections came—years of them—and I finally began to think that perhaps 85 percent of something would be better than 100 percent of nothing! So I started my search for an agent, and the only nibbles I got were from agents with shady reputations. And we won't talk about that today.

Fast forward eight years to 2001 and I finally have a book contract for Bitsy and the Mystery at Tybee Island—without the help of an agent.

So, did I do the right thing by publishing without an agent? I'll never know. But I do know this: When it came time to write my first women's non-fiction book, I didn't even consider trying to find a publisher as an un-agented writer. And I'm so glad I didn't.

You've probably heard finding a good agent is
harder than finding a publisher.
You've probably heard it said that finding a good agent is harder than finding a publisher. That may be true. But it's also true that once you find a good agent, it's a lot easier to land a publishing contract. Many publishers now use agents as their clearinghouse to wade through the junk to find the publishable writers. Those publishers know that a good agent will only take on good writers, so the fact that a reputable agent is presenting you lends credibility to your work.

A good agent will know who's looking for what, what genre has the best chance at certain houses, and whether a publisher just signed a deal for a book similar to yours. Good agents have connections, know the latest scoop, and many of them have worked as editors themselves.

So let's look at the three simple words and their meaning in response to the agent question.

  • You most likely need an agent if you want to be published by a large publisher. Every now and then we'll hear the story of an unsolicited manuscript being picked up by a large house, but most major publishers will not even consider an un-agented manuscript sent in by the author.
  • You need an agent if you don't have the time, patience, or knowledge to reach multiple editors simultaneously.
  • You're most likely to need an agent if you're not going to writer's conferences where you're meeting with editors face-to-face.

  • You don't need an agent if you're interested in any form of self-publishing, such as POD, vanity press, or old-fashioned self-publishing.
  • You don't need an agent if the Writer's Market Guide or the Christian Writer's Market Guide state the publisher does not work with agents.
  • If an editor at a writer's conference tells you that he or she is interested in seeing your manuscript and then personally tells you how to submit it, you do not have to have an agent.
  • You don't need an agent for poetry or magazine articles.

  • You may not need an agent for children's material, especially shorter pieces like picture books and board books. Just be sure to do your research and follow the writer's guidelines.
  • You may not need an agent for a small press, regional press, or university press. Again, check the guidelines in the Writer's Market Guide.
  • Even if an editor offers you a contract without agent representation, you may want to consider seeking an agent at that point. There are many agents who would love to represent you in the negotiation phase when you already have a contract--and their involvement could mean a higher advance or higher royalty schedule for you.

As you can see, there's no one-word answer to that question. So, go to conferences, take classes, be part of a committed critique group and review today's info. I have a feeling you'll know the answer to your question.

So what are your thoughts about having an agent (Please don’t mention any names)? Don’t forget to join the conversation!


Vonda Skelton is a speaker and the author of four books: Seeing Through the Lies: Unmasking the Myths Women Believe and the 3-book Bitsy Burroughs mysteries for children 8-12 yo. She’s the founder and co-director of Christian Communicators Conference, offering speakers’ training and community for Christian women called to ministry. Vonda is a frequent instructor at writer’s conferences and keynotes at business, women’s, and associational events. You can find out more about Vonda, as well as writing opportunities and instruction at her writer’s blog, The Christian Writer’s Den at


  1. Thank you for this, Vonda. While there are complete books on this ever-present topic, what you've written is practical and gets to the heart of it. In my experience, most writers and writer wannabes lose valuable writing time thinking about and worrying about this aspect. Most life decisions really do come down to a yes, no, or maybe. Your wisdom help with the sorting out.

    1. I appreciate your words, Jay. I remember being consumed with finding an agent when I needed to be using that time to work on my project, getting it in shape so an agent would even give it a 2nd glance!

  2. Great article on the pros/cons of hiring an agent, Vonda. I got requests for a full proposal package from two publishers the same week I sent out queries and had a contract the next week for my nonfiction academic book (_Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries_) without an agent, but I attribute that to years of having read and studied the publishing world and learning how to write and submit a proposal. I consulted a well-known Christian agent about my second book idea, and he (wisely) advised me that his vast experience showed that the kind of book I had in mind does not sell well, so he saved me a lot of wasted time. I suspect that having an agent might be a good idea for a second or subsequent books, after an author has proven himself or herself with the first book(s). I'm interested in learning about the experiences of other authors have been.

    1. Yes, getting a quality, well-written book under our belts certainly helps in querying an agent. But reputable agents do still take on new writers when the writing is worthy of publication. I've had several friends who landed an agent before they had a published book. I think it goes back to three facts: 1)agents are looking for well-written manuscripts they can't resist; 2)written in a genre or on a topic that is timely and salable: and 3)written by writers who are actively working on and growing their platforms. That's a one-two-three punch that agents find hard to resist! Thanks for joining in!

  3. Thank you Vonda for this great information. As a new writer, I need an agent to help me understand the writing process. I am blessed to have one who understands many aspects of the writing world.

    1. You're very welcome, Cherrilynn. I'm happy to hear that you've found an agent that is a good fit for you!

  4. Great overview of the subject, Vonda. I think you did an excellent job of pointing all the variables to consider.
    Thank you.

    1. Wow, Henry, thank you. Very encouraging words, especially coming from you! Thanks for joining in!

  5. Replies
    1. I'm glad you found it helpful, Jeanne. And thanks for sharing it!

  6. Vonda, excellent and balanced coverage of the question. I ended the relationship with my first agent when she said, "I don't know what to do with your writing." I realized, and I think she did as well, that I'd taken the first one who'd said "yes," and it was a mistake on both our parts. My second agent has been responsible for my signing with my first publisher and all subsequent fiction contracts, including one she described (when I was certain I'd never have anything published again) as a "super-secret possibility"--and it was. She knew where to look, whereas I didn't even know about them). So in my case, 85% of what she found is certainly better than 100% of nothing. Thanks for the post.

  7. I know I am late to the discussion here, but I stopped by to say how much I appreciate you and Edie. This blog serves the Publishing Industry well.