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Why Have A Literary Agent? by Alison Booth

Why bother with an agent?  After all, they collect around 15% of your hard-earned royalties, so if you can manage to get a publisher without an agent you will be that much better off.

The trouble is that it’s very hard to get a publisher without an agent.  Very few authors succeed in doing so. Most publishers view the agent as the gatekeeper who’s able to block out all but the best manuscripts, thereby saving the publisher’s time in doing the screening themselves.  So it’s hardly surprising, from the publishers’ profit-orientated perspective, that they prefer dealing with agents.

What’s in it for the author, though? A good agent understands the publishing industry, knows who the most appropriate publishers might be for your novel and is persuasive in approaching publishers. A good agent is also financially savvy, good at bargaining for the most lucrative deal for you (and for them), and is experienced in scrutinising legal contracts and checking royalty statements.

It’s an added bonus if the agent also provides critical input into further developing work before it goes to a publisher. A good agent won’t care only about the commercial aspects of the novel but will also care about its quality, and can help develop that.  After all, it reflects poorly on the agent and their reputation (and royalty income) if the novel isn’t up to scratch.

Once my agent and I signed up together, she was great at telling me what she didn’t like about the first draft: too many sentences starting with he or she, too many deaths (and it wasn’t even a murder mystery), the nasty people were too nasty (after all, everyone has some good points, don’t they? A villain with some good points can be even more threatening than one who is thoroughly bad).

Was I still glad to have the agent after the publication of the first book? The publisher purchased world rights when they took on Stillwater Creek. In doing this they took over some of the agent’s role.   World rights meant that it was the publisher who sold the book to Presses de la Cite in France, it was the publisher who negotiated the large-print deal and the audio rights (no royalties on either of these as it was a charitable concern), it was the publisher who offered the two book deal, and it was the publisher who sold Stillwater Creek to Reader’s Digest in separate deals in the United Kingdom and in Australasia.

In spite of this, I am still very glad to have the services of my agent.  Why? My agent not only pointed me in the right direction with the first book but she also helped me complete the second book The Indigo Sky in time; she read my drafts and made largely constructive comments about them.  This sped up the process in meeting the deadline.  It was my agent who championed my proposal for a third book, A Distant Land, and who guided me in writing the treatment for this.  Until this time I hadn’t even known what a treatment was… (yes, really). Clearly none of this would have been possible if I’d been operating on my own.

For all these reasons, I’m very glad to be represented by an agent.  Plus, there’s another compelling reason: having an agent frees up your time.  If your family responsibilities and your day job are demanding, you too may want to avoid the hassle of dealing with many of the time-consuming administrative aspects of being a novelist.

How can you get an agent to take you on?  There’s lots of advice out there on this.  A good place to start is The Australian Writer’s Marketplace. This is where I began my search for an agent. I tried two. The small one, located not far away from where Stillwater Creek was set, knocked me back after reading three sample chapters. The larger, well-established one in Sydney took me on. I think I was lucky.

***Write with novelist Alison Booth near Hobart, Tasmania with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in April 2014

Alison Booth’s author website:

Alison Booth’s bio page


Stillwater CreekThe Indigo SkyA Distant Land     Burning LiesHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodRotten GodsThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lynda #

    Thanks for the article Alison. As great as it is to get an agent, it has been my experience that getting in the door with an agent is harder than getting in the door with a publisher. In fact, some even said they were not interested in a new author until they had a publishing contract. Finding an agent seems to be very much a chicken and egg scenario. Some agents have also been very rude and disparaging of my work and their attitude was very disappointing. You have been very lucky.

    April 16, 2013
    • Thanks for the comment, Lynda.
      Hmmm, now why would you go to an agent if you already had a publishing contract? I suppose if the publishing contract is for Australasian rights alone then a good agent could sell world rights, But with the phenomenon of e-books chipping away at these rights-areas boundaries, that may not be so relevant in the future.
      At the moment it is still the case, however, that p-book sales are greater than e-book sales for Oz authors I know, so having an agent after getting a contract from an Oz publisher who doesn’t offer world rights could make sense. But never one who is rude – that is really horrible to hear.

      April 17, 2013
  2. There are so few agents in Australia and many of this handful have their client books closed at the moment, or are very particular about the genre they take on, or are simply too busy working for their established clients in a difficult climate – all of which makes it very hard to get one.

    It’s not as if writers have much choice. If an agent will take us we are usually very grateful. I’ve never heard of anyone, anywhere – except the big players – being in control of their choice of agent.

    Given these circumstances I think Australian writers are lucky to have access to publishers via programs such as those Varuna run, also the Hachette/QWC mss program AND most publishers do accept unsolicited manuscripts. Yes, the slushpile is a drag, but they are read and it can work out well for an unagented writer. This is contrary to the UK where you must have an agent to get near a publisher and I believe this is the same in the US.

    I agree with Lynda. Rudeness toward writers from those in the industry is one of the most dispiriting things to come up against. Rejection is part of the business, and we all accept it as such, but add rudeness to rejection and you risk creating a very disgruntled pool of writing talent who might just say a pox on all your houses and self-publish or find leaner, nicer outfits to work with.

    April 16, 2013
    • That’s a very sad story, Philipa. Sorry to hear of these experiences. There is no excuse for rudeness, even though these folk may for the moment have the market power and be overworked. If you can get a publisher without an agent, that is just

      April 17, 2013
  3. Well, these experiences are not specific to me, but more a general impression I get from talking to, and reading blogs from, other writers.

    April 17, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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