While I continue to muse on what I learned in the last five years, I'm going to post something else new writers often ask me--"Do I need an agent?"
My loud, clear answer is YES.
Then I usually step back and say "It depends."
If you are small press published or e-published and want to happily stay where you are, then no.
If you want to publish at a NY house and move beyond the bottom rung at said house, then I say again, YES.
I also state clearly why:
The least part of an agent's job is selling your manuscript to a NY house. You actually can sell it yourself (e.g., through a conference contact with an editor, through a contest, through a direct query, through the few houses that still buy from the slush pile).
Why you so very definitely need an agent after that:
1. To keep from getting ripped off. Publishers do not like to give you any more money than they can possibly help. They will try to keep all the rights, give you tiny advances, and tiny royalty percentages. Your contract is a mine field of little tiny print. There are no exceptions out there--all publisher boilerplate contracts are set up to benefit the publisher, not the author (which makes sense--the publisher needs to keep the company afloat). An agent will make sure your contract is fair to you.
2. To get you the best deal, not just a deal. Publishers make standard offers to new authors, usually the lowest amount they can get away with. An agent can talk up that amount to make it more palatable to you while still keeping the publisher happy. He can also negotiate better royalties, bonuses, and other perks that most authors don't even know about.
3. To get you a deal at auction. If you've got an eager offer, your agent can let other editors who are looking at your ms. know, and possibly land you a very nice contract.
4. He talks you up to everyone he sees. Agents are constantly selling you, even when you're contracted and not shopping a specific ms. She waxes enthusiastic on your behalf to other editors, paving the way for when you have something new to sell.
5. She is the "bad cop" between you and the publisher. You want your relationship with your editor to be friendly and happy. The two of you should bubble over with creative energy and enthusiasm about your story and your writing. Getting into a contract or money dispute will ruin that very quickly. I love having an agent who will talk to the accounting and contract departments for me while I talk story with my editor. And when there's a very bad problem, I don't have to talk to the publisher at all. Saves me a fortune in Pepto Bismal.
6. She helps you keep your career on track and avoid mistakes. If your agent doesn't want you to take an offer, listen to him. You might not agree, but there will be a very good reason your agent suggests turning down money (because remember they don't get paid until you do). Don't be too proud to take advice! (Or too gullible to believe everything you're told--strike a balance.)
Now that I've said all that, I want to add a couple of cautions.
1. Don't expect your agent to run your career for you. I have my own ideas about how I want my career to go. I do a ton of market research on my own--I know what houses are publishing what kind of books, and I keep my ear open to what kind of deals the authors are getting. That way when I want to try something new or build on something I've already done, I have an idea where to suggest we go with it. Don't bury your head in the sand just because you have a good agent who takes care of you. Building your career should be something you do together.
2. NEVER, EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER sign with an agent who charges an up-front fee. They'll say, "It costs a lot to run an agency and photocopy and mail mansucripts. I need $500 from you right away." Tough! An agent makes money from selling you. If they take your $500 right away, why should they bother trying to sell you? They'll just take another $500 from another sucker, and another, and another... IT SHOULD NOT COST YOU MONEY TO SELL YOUR BOOK. The only expenses you should incur as an unpubbed author are your office supplies, postage, writer's groups dues/contests and whatever conferences you decide to attend.
3. Don't be afraid to break up with an agent. If they don't communicate with you for months and months, if they can only get you very poor offers and don't fine-tune the contracts, if they convey that they no longer like your writing and have very little interest in helping you move up--break it off. You will have to approach a new agent with a new project (read your agent contract thoroughly to see how to end it and what rights they/you retain). But if your career is not moving forward, you have to move it forward yourself. It's hard, but it has to be done. Staying with an agent who does nothing for you (or even worse, a fraudulent agent), will stagnate your career. (I will do an entire post on this subject.)
4. And I should add: Read your agent contract thoroughly and make sure you understand it before signing! (She shouldn't have you pay for her weekly hot-oil massage with Raoul to mitigate the stress of working with publishers.)
It is hard to get an agent. It's probably the hardest part (well, except writing a good book--that's pretty hard too). But in the long run, it's worth it.