Some people argue the pros and cons of having an agent. For a new or unpublished author, truly, there are only pros. An agent will get your MS read by a publisher, and read in a mood of positive expectation. The more respected your agent, the more positive the expectation. And that’s only for starters.
A good professional agent makes it her business to keep tabs on what particular publishers are looking for at a particular time. When openings for a certain kind of fiction appear, she’ll know about them first. All those worries about publishers’ lists and publishers’ personal preferences vanish when an agent takes care of them for you.
It costs, of course. But if 15% or so of an advance and royalties looks like a lot of money, believe me, you just don’t know all the other expenses you’ll be up for if you want your book to succeed. 15% is nothing.
There may be a pay-off if your agent drives a better deal on your contract. But, for a new author, it’s not likely to be a whole lot better, on the advance rather than the rate of royalties. You need to reach best-sellerdom before hard-nosed deal-making becomes important. For a new author, the benefits are elsewhere.
In many areas of production and promotion, an agent knows where to push, where to give in, where to go for a compromise. An author has very little power vis à vis a publishing house, and an agent has only a few degrees more. But an agent knows what an author doesn’t: the places where negotiation is possible.
For example: when I didn’t have an agent for my first book from a mainstream publisher, I tried to change how often the accounts on my book would be made up. Doh! I had good legal advice, but not good advice for the book trade. As if any publishing house would change its standard accounting system just for me! I had sense enough to give in, though I was two books further down the track before I had sense enough to get an agent.
So it’s all pros in my opinion—and that’s not even including the emotional benefits of having someone to hold your hand, speak wise words and talk you through your periods of self-doubt. An author’s relationship with an agent isn’t only functional. But—and it’s a giant looming BUT—you still have to get that agent in the first place.
Everyone knows the problem. A publisher won’t look at an MS if it doesn’t come from an agent, an agent won’t take on an author until they’ve been published. It’s a vicious circle, or certainly a very unfriendly one. But there are ways of breaking into it.
As with publishers, so with agents—you need a recommendation. Which means, again, that you need to network, make contacts and put yourself in places where someone might discover you. All exactly the same. But maybe the level of recommendation you need for an agent is a little lower. At least there are more avenues on offer, and that has to be good for your chances.