A friend and I recently discussed agent and editor appointments for the ACFW conference in Dallas. She's pre-published and anxious to make the best impression she can. That means finding a good fit - an agent or editor who is interested in manuscripts similar to what she has to offer.
As many people gear up to attend conferences this summer, one question seems to pop up over and over again - do I need an agent?
The answer to this is complicated by many factors and dependent on the opinion of the person answering. There are some hard and fast rules. If your book only fits publishing houses that don't take unagented submissions, then you most definitely need an agent. Sending your manuscript in regardless of what the publishing house requests will paint you in a bad light. If you're targeting Love Inspired, or any of the other many Harlequin series lines, you most definitely do not need an agent. If you're trying for Mira, you do.
Besides those things, I can only give you my own experience as an example of the good, the bad, and the ugly about having or not having an agent.
When I sold my first two books, I did not have an agent. The process was relatively easy, the contract for Steeple Hill's trade line, standard. As a new author, I had no desire to negotiate terms. They wanted to buy my stuff. I wanted to sell it. Simple. Fast forward a year. I've completed the two contracted books and am working on a proposal for a third. I've been asked to write for a new romantic suspense line which both excites and worries me. My editor tells me what a great opportunity launching a new line is and I agree. But what if I can't do it? What if writing shorter books turns out to be a challenge I can't meet (believe me when I tell you it is hard to write everything I want to say in 60K words)? What if I fail and Harlequin decides they don't want me?
The way I saw it, I'd be in a world of hurt. The Christian market is limited, and many of the publishing houses only look at agented material even from published authors. I didn't want to have several years between my first sale and my next, so I decided to be proactive and look for an agent in case there came a time when I'd need one. For me, finding one was more difficult than finding a publisher. I was rejected a total of two times before I sold STILL WATERS. I was rejected five times before I found an agent. Sadly, four of those rejections were from the same agent, regarding the same manuscript. He must have really hated my stuff.
While I was waiting for replies on my agent queries, Harlequin bought my proposed book, offering me a two book contract. I was ecstatic, and again wondering if I needed an agent. Just a few weeks later I received an email from an agent I'd given up on. He was interested in my work and wanted to know if I was still looking for representation. After a long phone conversation, I decided to sign with him.
Did I need him in that moment? No. I'd proven that I could sell myself and my product. At the time, I considered him my back-up plan. If something went wrong, he'd be there to help me out. When I submitted my next proposal, it went through my agent. He read it, passed it back to me with a request for revisions. I sent it back to him. A few months later, he called to say Harlquin wanted to offer me a three-book contract. That was an increase over the two-book contracts I'd been getting myself. Furthermore, I was being paid a higher advance. Was it my agents doing? Or a product of my history with Harlequin?
While my family argues that I would have gotten the same without Steve, I'm not convinced. Unbeknownst to me (because I was going on friends' advice rather than my own research), the agent I picked is very well known in the industry. He was executive editor at a major CBA publishing house for years before becoming an agent. People know him and he knows them. He has connections. People trust his opinion. Ultimately, that will help open whatever doors I may one day want to walk through.
All that said, an agent might be able to open the doors, but in the end we're the ones who must be ready to step through. Working on our craft, keeping our deadlines, producing quality work, those are the things that really sell us. Our agents are tools that we use most effectively when we've mastered the details of writing and a writer's life.