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To agent or not to agent...

That, these days, is a question all writers must ask. I want to make it very clear, right now, I am not dismissing agents in any way. I have a great deal of respect for any I've had dealings with, and I fully intend to seek an agent again. But, in the current model of publishing, I think there are questions to be asked about when to seek one, and what you can do on your own.

When I first started writing five years ago, there were mutterings about this self-publishing lark and how writers didn't need to follow a standard path anymore. However, there was still an acceptance that if you did want to follow the traditional path, getting an agent was the thing to do. Now, I wonder if that's still the case, and here's why:

1. Timey-wimey considerations.

Agents are slow. Publishing is slow. We all know that.

But, actually - only traditional publishing is slow. Small publishers are much more flexible to the market. They can turn books around if they need to, and they can do it quickly. As for self-publishing - it's up to you. I'm not advocating cutting corners but, realistically, from the point of finished, polished draft to release can be a couple of weeks to do covers, formatting and a copy edit. When you add small publishing and self-publishing together, an author can easily be putting out a couple of books a year (and some do many more.)

To go the agent route, on the other hand, adds a layer into that process: the getting of an agent, and then the getting of a publisher that will pay back for their work (see below). For me, it took nearly a year from first subbing to landing one - and that's quite quick. Then there was another year getting the book ready to sub, and then the sending out and waiting for responses. In all, it took 2 and a half years of a book not being on the market.

I released that book in August this year. It's sold enough to cover all its costs (and has passed my annual benchmark by some margin.) It's become an Amazon best seller. All of which came two years after I'd written the book. I wince at that - two years were nothing happened, compared to four months of generating income.

2. Open windows.

Open windows - where a major publisher opens to unagented submissions - used to be few and far between. Now, there are four, all in scifi and fantasy, in a three month period. (Hodderscape, Harper, Angry Robot and Gollancz.)

More and more publishers seem to be running these and taking in their own slush for short periods. They're a lottery (but so is a sub by an agent, frankly) but they're also an opportunity. My fifth book was narrowly, narrowly passed in one of these recently. It's now gone to a small publisher, and I'm happy with that.

3. Margins

I'm not exaggerating when I say the average author doesn't earn much. And, frankly, an agent needs to earn commission to stay in business.

An agent's fee is normally around 15% (mostly, it varies on foreign rights and the like.) When you're dealing with a large publisher, or a big contract, that agent will make you money back, enough to cover that fee. Believe me, the minute Gollanz come knocking, I go get an agent.

But for small publisher contracts? There is no advance. Not anymore. (If you get one, do a yippee and run.) There are limited areas for negotiation, and most of those an author can negotiate themselves, if they know what to look for (I'm coming to that...). Quite frankly, it's not worth your 15% to the agent, either for them or you.

4. But what if I'm shafted! I hear you yell.

And you'd be right to yell it. There are some awful publishers out there, with terrible contracts, trying to take your work, make money and leave you unable to escape, improve future contracts or enter a nice open window. And yes, this is where an agent comes into their own - they will safeguard you.

But there are places advice can be sought. Absolute Write is a good first stop. You can join the Society of Authors and have it checked for a small fee. Heck, a good solicitor can check it.

You can also learn what you want in a contract. Learn what rights to include and what to run a mile from. Know your royalty rates. Learn to run, not walk, if a publisher wants to tie you down to more than one book (unless you're contracting for a series) and, especially, if they lock you in for all your future work.

5. Know when it's right for you to seek an agent.

We chase this dream: agent-publisher-money. Few, even with an agent, follow that path. Most first deals are small. Chasing the dream debut is like holding out for the rollover when you could have taken ten grand and had a chance at another punt later.

I think it's okay to question that dream. I think it's okay to ask if that model is still the one that fits your writing career (and it might be, depending what you want.) But it's also okay to ask if you want your work to be tied up for months or years, making no money. It's okay to wonder if, while it's sitting, others are getting their stuff out and building a name (they are. Sorry, but they are.)

But it's also okay to have someone in your corner. To not have to do everything yourself. It's fine to say I'm happy to wait, to play the long game, and hopefully get a big publisher at the end of it.

Do what's right for you. But don't be afraid to ask questions of what that might be.


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