Do Agents Still Hold the Gatekeeper Key to Getting Published?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

The world of publishing has changed radically over the past few years. With the evolution of ebooks and indie publishing, everything that was once tried-and-true has been shaken. As the construction dust settles, many are trying to figure out what remains of the old traditional way of doing things and also what is new and necessary.

Of course, one of the things many writers want to know is, "Do I still need an agent?" 

In the not-too-distant past it seemed that everyone was talking about getting an agent. In fact, when I first started my agent hunt about six years ago, the frenzy was at an almost ridiculous high. Most agents already had full client loads but occasionally bestowed their favor upon a giddy new writer plucked out of the slush pile.

As agents began blogging and tweeting, aspiring writers scrambled to get noticed in the new medium. At times among the cyber-hallways, it felt as though there was a "high school popularity contest" mentality both among aspiring writers and between agents.

The few writers who got an agent's attention were considered lucky and special. Because like it or not, everyone knew that agents held the gatekeeper key to getting published. Most publishers didn't have the time or staff to weed through manuscripts of all the wannabe's. So, for the most part, they let agents do the gate-keeping job for them.

But alas, the hype over agents has died down (finally!). The popularity contests are over (thank goodness!).

However, new, unagented writers are left scratching their heads wondering what to do. Do they really need an agent? And if they get agent, what would that person do for them anyway?

If you're planning to self-publish, then no, you don't need an agent. At least not right away. When you've written multiple books and they're hitting best-seller lists, then you can possibly consider acquiring an agent to help you expand your reach into traditional publishing, foreign print, and even film. (Sidenote: I'm not self-published, so I can only share what I've heard from indie friends. For those who are self-published and agented, feel free to chime in with the benefits you've experienced with your agent.)

For those still seeking traditional publication with a bigger publisher, yes, you likely WILL still need an agent to get a book deal. Once in a while, writers make connections with publishers at writing conferences. Every now and then, indie writers catch the attention of publishers if they have high sales like Hugh Howey with his Wool series (which I'm currently reading and enjoying). (Read his fascinating publishing story here on WD.)

But for the most part, traditional publishers still usually find authors from manuscripts submitted by trusted agents. Savvy knowledgeable agents not only broker deals but also provide much needed career direction (which I could expound on in a whole other post). The truth is, some agents are better at their job than others, and new writers should be careful to get feedback from agents' current clients before signing.

So how does a writer go about getting an agent? Sometimes writers connect with agents at conferences or get referrals from agented friends. But the most common way to get an agent is still through direct querying. Most agents have query guidelines on their website for exactly WHAT to submit (usually a query letter containing a synopsis and then a specific number of sample pages), HOW to submit (usually via email), and WHERE (usually to an agency email address). Follow those guidelines as carefully as possible. 

If a writer's skill is honed, if a story is well-told and captivating, and it holds general market appeal, it WILL eventually garner an agent's attention. From my many years of critiquing for new writers, I've learned that it's VERY easy to spot a talented writer and a great story. The problem is that many writers think they're at the graduate level before they really are and so end up querying an agent too soon in their writing career (like after their first book or two). Most successfully published writers will attest that they had to write several books before their writing skill reached a publishable quality.

My advice for writers who are beginning to query is this: Send it out and see what happens. If the story doesn't "hook" an agent right away, keep trying. But in the meantime continue to write AND improve your writing skills. Writing and learning must always go hand in hand.

The traditional publication process still takes lots of patience. But the good thing is that it's not the ONLY option available to writers. Our hopes for a writing career don't all hinge upon it anymore. If the traditional door stays shut, the future is still wide open.

So what about you? Do you still think agents are necessary in today's changing publishing industry?

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