What Do Agents REALLY Offer Writers?

Last week Harlequin announced that it has formed a new self-publishing division called Harlequin Horizons. This comes on the heels of Thomas Nelson's decision to create WestBow Press, also a self-publishing division.

These decisions by major publishing houses have sparked many debates about self-publishing and what affect it will have on the future of publishing. My agent, Rachelle Gardner, posted two very thought provoking posts last week about this issue (here and here).

Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson, wrote a blog post: Why Agents May Be Opposed to Self-Publishing. It, too, was very thought-provoking.

One statement in particular from Michael Hyatt's post caught my attention. He said this: "The primary thing an agent sells is “access.” I fully realize this isn’t the only thing, but I would argue it is the primary thing, especially for new authors. The agent offers access to acquisition editors who otherwise wouldn’t give a would-be author the time of day."

I haven't had an agent very long, just since May of this year. Even though I don't have years of agented experience to draw from, something about Michael Hyatt's statement didn't settle right with me. After a few days thinking about it, I've put together my thoughts about what I think agents offer writers.

Yes, agents do offer "access" to big traditional publishing houses. Since most editors do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, agents have become the first door through which writers must pass in order to realize the dream of publication.

But is "access" really the primary thing agents sell? I have a few writer friends who've managed to get book contracts without agents (either via writer's conferences or through the category romance lines that still accept unsolicited manuscripts). Even these authors eventually go on to get agents.

Why would such writers bother to get an agent if they already have access? What do agents REALLY offer writers? In my humble opinion, here are a few primary reasons agents are necessary in today's publishing world.

1. Agents Are Gatekeepers. There are a lot of people writing these days. Okay, that's an understatement. There are a zillion people writing. One only has to look at the follower gadgets on agent blogs to see a fraction of those serious about publication. The competition is very high.

Agents have the tough job of sifting through numerous manuscripts and finding books that are ready for publication. As gatekeepers, they help offer an industry standard. And lest writers think the standard is too high, I believe if a story and craft are good enough, an agent will see that at some point. I have several writing friends who've recently landed agents. Don't lose hope.

2. Agents Are Teachers. Indirectly (via blogs and the querying process), agents push all writers to be better students of the writing craft. Those serious about a writing career work harder and study the craft and industry even more. And perhaps the faint-of-heart learn they need to pursue writing as a hobby and nothing more.

More directly, agents teach their clients many, many things. They help us improve our books, titles, proposals, and skills. They educate us on the realities of the publishing process, direct us how to market, and challenge us to grow. Agents have an invested interest in our writing careers and therefore want to teach us how to succeed.

3. Agents Are Matchmakers. This is perhaps the biggest advantage to having an agent. In the enormous, complicated publishing industry, writers need experts who know editors, who are familiar with all of the publishing houses, and who interact with them on a daily basis. Agents have their fingers on the pulse of the publishing industry in a way that the average writer could never hope to achieve.

My agent laid out a plan of action for my books almost immediately. She picked a publisher she thought was perfect for my books, made initial connections, and then proceeded to strategically negotiate until the deal was done.

What if I hadn't needed an agent for access? What if I could have submitted to Bethany House without Rachelle's help? First of all, I don't think I would have known just how perfect they were for my books. And secondly, I probably wouldn't have had the tenacity and savvy to get the deal she did. It's possible, but I'm thankful I didn't need to try it myself.

Agents do much more than I could possibly list in this post. I'm one writer who's grateful for agents--especially my agent. She offered me access, but in a way that went far above and beyond anything I could have ever done without her.

Thanks, Rachelle.

What do you think agents really offer writers? Do you wish you had the access to traditional publishers without having to go through agents? Or do you think agents have become a necessary part of today's publishing world?

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