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?


  1. I agree with all your points, especially that they offer access to publishers. At this point I'm focusing my efforts on getting an agent, vs pitching to editors, because I know I need that and I think it's a wiser decision for me.

    I do think they are necessary for MOST people... but not all.

  2. I think agents offer a necessary layer of sifting through manuscripts that, ultimately, results in published material of a higher quality.

    Writers are expected to be so many things (writer, editor, blogger, publicist, marketer, speaker). If we also had to figure out publishing contracts and rights, there really wouldn't be any time left for writing. And while many authors can and do figure it out, an agent can often get a better deal for a writer because of what they know.

    Finally, it's nice for writers to have an advocate. In a profession that can often lead to isolation and frustration, (good) agents can be cheerleaders for their writers.

  3. I'm not in any delusion that these self-pub sections of their houses will actually help writers sell more. Yes, more writers will get published in a self-pub way, but unless you know how to market your own book you aren't really going to sell in any decent quantity. You need to publish under the house name, line, that people trust to tap into the pre-existing markets out there to start spreading your name and work, I think.

    As for writers needing agents to create a career out of writing, I definitely think that's needed. If you just want your book in print for you and a few family and friends, then you likely never needed an agent in the first place.

  4. Awesome post! Loved your points. So very wise, Jody, my friend.

    I totally agree with the matchmaker aspect of agenting. Rachelle, and other reputable agents, know what they are doing. They know where our books will best fit and submit accordingly.

    Have fun on your vacation! So happy for you as you finished your rewrites!! What an accomplishment!

  5. Knowing so little about the publishing world, I'm reserved in my opinion. The links are helpful, thanks.

    I have another friend who's muddling through the book-contract phase. She feels you can't get anywhere without an agent.

    Seems to me, if the fit is right, an agent can be a buddy, which is invaluable.

  6. Nice post!

    Agents are also really mandatory if you approach a large publisher. Smaller presses don't require them as much.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  7. Great post! I am just pretty much starting off in writing (have dabbled at it off and on for a number of years though), and I really don't know a lot about agents. From what I've read, they are pretty much a necessity if you want to get published.

  8. Since I began the journey in the writing world, I've formed lots of opinions about the many publishing directions writers can go with their writing. I believe having an agent is the only way for me because of the points you list here. I decided long ago that self-publishing and genre-writing plain don't go together. If my only dream was to see my name in print on the cover of a book, then, sure, I cold self-publish. No problem. But if I truly want to reach people with my writing, I'm tradition all the way. Have a great vacation, Jody! Congrats on finishing your rewrites! That's awesome!

  9. Jody,
    Succinctly and accurately put. I'd add that agents are not only matchmakers, they are themselves part of a match. If you're not paired with the right agent, it can hurt your chances, not help them.
    Authors should be just as careful in their agent search as the agent with whom they ultimately sign is in choosing the right publishing house to query. Thank goodness you and I were fortunate enough to be accepted by Rachelle.

  10. Every point you emphasized was key for me. Agents are the Gatekeepers. Whether self publishing is all the rave, my heart just isn't there. My job is to write, and I want a professional to handle the publishing lingo.

    My husband mentioned self publishing as a option, but his understanding of this business is very narrow.

    Thanks for an insightful post!

  11. In my EXTREMELY limited view, I see agents as ambassadors. An agent becomes the connection, instructor, facilitator, contact, translator, equipper, friend of friends, for entry into a new world.

    They connect us with important individuals. They translate the book contract. They negotiate the terms. They facilitate the arrangements. They instruct us in the proper etiquette, laws, and customs. They adjust our expectations. They explain the community and culture. They make possible relationships that would not otherwise exist.

    Although their role will change, gradually, over time in response to the changes in publishing, there will still be a need for them. More need, rather than less, as the culture and community of publishing becomes more complex. Writers will need wise ambassadors to help them navigate a path through it all to a place that can become home.

    BTW, I may send this comment to Rachelle. Just for encouragement.

  12. Jody,
    Love, love this blog! You tackle some deep stuff!!

    You hit the nail on the head about agents. I see them as a front line defense, like white blood cells.

    There's so many new strains of things in this publishing world that it's hard for a newbie writer to figure it all out!!!



  13. Jodi, I agree with all your points. I'll just add that I think its important for a writer to have the right agent for them because it's someone you are going to be working so closely with, ideally for your entire writing career. Thanks Jodi.

  14. Are you done with your rewrites?? CONGRATULATIONS and WELL DONE!!

    Here's the comment I left on Michael Hyatt's post the other day:

    As a published author with relationships with editors at several publishing houses, I actually have "access." What my agent (Rachelle Gardner) provides for me goes beyond that: wisdom, advice, experience, and brilliant editing suggestions to make my work better. And bless her heart, she doesn't even get a penny until I sell a book! I know that when I sign my next contract, my book will be so much better than it was before Rachelle.

    And his reply:

    Yes, I agree. And Rachelle is one of the very best.

  15. I appreciated your analogy of agents as matchmakers. (Flashback to "Fiddler on the Roof.")

    As to the importance of agents, I've learned someone's list of contacts is difficult to replace. In our industry, it is the agents who possess that list of names.

    That alone also tells me they have the ability to secure passage for writers within the industry's gatekeepers.

    Yes, the business of publishing is changing, and will continue to do so, but the power of an agent's contacts will never diminish.

  16. It seems that writing is more teamwork than it appears on the surface, and what better way to head that team than paired with an agent who supports, guides, leads down just the right avenues? With the writer today needing to be responsible for so much more than just the writing, I think it's really important to have that agent support through the process.

  17. Great points!! I totally think agents are necessary ambassadors in the world of an author. I can't wait to have my own! ;)

  18. I thing agents are absolutely necessary. When I think of waiting years to be read from an un-agented slush pile I really appreciate my agent. There is SO much written these days! Another thing I love about my agent is that she believes in me (and my work) even when I don't. She chose it among thousands of submissions--that's comforting on days when I don't really feel like a writer.

  19. One thing I look forward to in my future agent relationship is someone to help negotiate the contract. They know their way around a contract MUCH better than I do!

  20. As someone who had a sour experience with an agent years ago, you'd think I'd be the first to run from them. Nope. I believe in the value of guidance and mentoring and the friendship that can develop over time. I'd like an agent who is with you, behind your work, believing in you even when things aren't looking so good. Mostly, I'd like some form of communication but that's just a byproduct of the persona non gratta agent I had before.

  21. Well said. I think agents can also offer career guidance, act as a filter for an author's ideas, act as the mediator/negotiator between the author and editor, and be the cheerleader/encourager that every author needs at one time or another.

    There are so many benefits to authors to have the right agent in their corner. It goes way beyond just access to publishers.

  22. I agree with everyone's comments. I think it would be more stressful to try and navigate the publishing word without them.

  23. Your points are excellent, Jody. I've never been tempted to go the self-publishing route although I have writing friends who have and are very satisfied with what they have accomplished. I wonder if perhaps a writer's sense of independence plays a big part in which is the best choice for them. Erica Vetsch has just itemized the aspects of having an agent that I look forward to most -- the guidance, encouragement, advice, negotiating, etc. In today's tough market having a good agent is important to me.

  24. Jody, first of all, good for you for sticking up for your agent! I have learned so much from her myself, so the "agent as teacher" extends to not only those in her fold but those beyond it if she attempts to reach out in that way. I've heard the agent-author relationship described in terms of a marriage. Sounds like you've entered into a really healthy relationship that will bear much fruit. I guess this is the beginning of your Thanksgiving list of gratitude then, huh? Again, good for you for speaking out. Since you already have reaped the benefits, even though it's been a short ride so far, you are absolutely in a position to speak out to defend her. Good job!

  25. I think points #2 and #3 are the key points. And both those bullets are broad things that encompass all kinds of benefit and agent can provide a writer.

    Point #1, though, is destined to become a dinosaur. Not this year or the next, but a decade or two from now, I expect that a majority of new writers will find ways to build a fan-base BEFORE getting traditionally published. And ironically, I expect that it will be agents and publishers that help push this requirement to critical mass. Because an author who writes great books but has not shown a willingness to promote will be less valuable than one who writes slightly less great books but has proven the willingness to do more than just write.

    There will always be exceptions of course, but I could walk through a bookstore looking for fiction published in the last 5 years and only 2 out of 100 books I would see are good enough that there aren't 100 other hungry writers who can write the equivalent and haven't yet broken through. What's going to separate those who get published and those who don't in the future is going to be less about writing - assuming they meet a certain standard of good writing that plenty of unpublished writers have met.

    Currently the industry is still between the denial and anger phases of grief over these changes, but they seem inevitable to me. These actions by two large publishers are only one small sign of where things are headed.

  26. Jody - We share an agent! And I suspect that is why we are both fans of representation. Having a good one makes a big difference.

    I agree with all of your points, although I am less concerned than a lot of folks about the absence of official "gatekeepers" in this industry. I think it's an inevitable result of the information age that the masses become the gatekeepers.

    Let's just hope the masses have good taste. :-)

  27. I love my agent for the feeling of support and wisdom she gives me, and belonging to a group of fellow-writers in her authors crew gives me a sense of family. The access issue is but one reason I consider my agent an angel!

    Audience of ONE

  28. If agents don’t want us- what is an author to do? An author has NO choice without an agent- that is why if the influence of an agent is curtailed- the chances of some SECOND CLASS authors to shine become a reality. I have yet to deal with an agent who is OPEN to us SECOND CLASS authors- perhaps some exist, but none have been on my path- and I’ve dealt with more agents than I have seen Sunday dinners. I think Assisted publishing like WestBow is an unprecedented, excellent opportunity for us, often categorized by agents as “second class”, “inferior fodder” of the writing industry. I’m sorry that so many authors (not you) and agents (not Rachelle) on the net are unable to see that or object aggressively to me trying to find a different route to success- that’s not nice at all, from one author to another.

  29. It's all been so well said here, I don't know what more to offer.

    I agree with the concept that 'access' is an important commodity, but also think the education and support they give is equally helpful to writers.

  30. Interesting points of views here:) I agree that the way the system is now we need an agent to access many important publishng houses. I know years ago, one didn't need an agent and somewhere along the way, they must have become necessary to filter out the poor writing.
    When I get an agent--and yes I want and need one-- I think the most important aspect for me will be getting the right one--there are good and bad in all jobs and I pray I get an exceptional one like you did!

  31. I'd love an agent, but currently, with WIP's targeted for category romance (a decision I may have to rethink with the whole Harl. debacle), I've discovered that many agents won't rep an author only targeting category, and some agents even say that authors will do better on their own with category. It's the only genre that seems to be true for. So I'm faced with either trying to find that one in a million agent who will rep category romance, or subbing straight to Harl. myself. It's a dicey spot to be in. Apparently a lot of Harl. authors get published first, then find an agent when they're ready to break out to other publishers. That may be the path I have to take. Lots of thinking on that to do.

    There's no arguing the value of agent representation, at least not in my mind. It may be an illusive thing though, in my particular situation.

  32. Great post, Jody.

    I'm glad Michael Hyatt tweeted it!

  33. I completely agree, Jody! Agents give a lot more than access. I hope to experience the wonder of someone's matchmaking skills (in the book industry, of course!) in the future!

  34. I didn't look through all the great comments to see if this has already been said, but I say experience. And what could be better for agents to offer?

    I have a question for you, too. Do you still feel a starburst of excitement when you say (or write) my agent, Rachelle Gardner? ;)

  35. Agents are only the first of MANY gatekeepers... and after the first hurdle, they become a writer's champion, cheerleader, advocate, and salesforce. Not to mention they are also your negotiators and industry experts.

    I recently saw a travel show where there were local "fixers" for each exotic country... people who knew the local scene, who knew the language and the lingo, who knew the right people to talk to for everything, the ones who GOT THINGS DONE. An agent is a publishing "fixer."

  36. I think you listed all the right reasons why agents are invaluable.

    Good post!

  37. Agents offer something else that I don't have--a high level of industry expertise. They understand contracts, have personal contacts with editors, and generally know about a million things more than I do about publishing.

  38. I look at the agent/writer relationship as a partnership. The main thing aside from access is experience. They know contacts, they know the industry, they know how to do their job. Could they teach me these things? Sure. But by handling them, they free me up to my job--writing.

  39. I really like that agents are there to do all the "hard" work for me - i.e. figuring out the financial aspects and the business side of things. I don't have the brain for that.

    That being said, I do wish that traditional publishers were more open to unagented submissions. It's like you have to jump two giant hurdles to get anywhere.

  40. I like all your points about having an agent. I would much rather have one than not. I do think though that many get discouraged by the "won't read unless you have an agent" from publishers and agents who say "not interested unless you've been published". It's good to know there are agents out there that will take a chance on unpublished authors:)

  41. Hi Jody -

    I view agents the way I view my attorney and my accountant. They're knowledgeable in their fields, and I can trust their advice.

    Thanks for an excellent post!

    Susan :)

  42. Jody, I read this post with great interest since I am just beginning the query process for my MG novel.

    I think writers HAVE to have agents these days. Like you said, the writers you know that were published eventually went on to get agents. That's just the way it is.

    I don't want to self-publish. I want my book traditionally published, and I will do what it takes to make that happen.

    What a fantastic post. Agents are MUCH MORE than access givers. I really needed this post. After coming back from unplugging and reading about the Harlequin news. I was a bit discouraged. Thanks for bringing me back up in a big way. :) Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  43. I did read her posts on the self-pub thing. She had some great points!

    I don't know much, but I know enough to know that agents do a big job. Writing and editing are big jobs. Why would I want to take on more myself?

    The effort it would take for me to research all the publishers to find the right one for my WIP would be better spent on a next book! And going into contract talks without a representative? Crazy!

  44. Jody, I agree. Agents are MUCH more than access. What about the simple fact that they believe in the work they represent and champion the writer behind it? great post. Agents will always be necessary as long as there are writers producing words. I think self-published books that are not up to par will fizzle out and the public will look and be ware of books that are substandard. As a reader I know a good book. Readers will be looking for industry standard by trusted publishing houses. Agents play a massive part in ensuring standards.

    Heaps to think about. I enjoyed the discussion :)

  45. Great post! I think they're more than access too. I love the matchmaker term because access without knowledge doesn't do much good.

  46. Peace of mind. I think I'd be terrified to sign a book deal without an agent overseeing it. Great post!

  47. Excellent points you've made. I have a friend who is an agented writer. Seeking his advice I asked about self-publishing and he recommended I go through the process of getting an agent. He told me that his work is so much better because of the feedback and support he's received from his agent. He said my book will be better in the hands of the right agent.

    These are things I had not thought of and really speak to the fact that agents are "selling" much more than access.


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