To have or not to have a literary agent: an author’s perspective

literary agent

This is a guest blog post from Lucy Beresford. Lucy is a writer, broadcaster and psychotherapist. She’s the Radio Shrink on BBC London 94.9 on Friday nights, the Agony Aunt for the women’s glossy Healthy and forms part of the press panel reviewing the newspapers on Sky News. Lucy’s latest novel Invisible Threads, set in New Delhi, is a tale of love and survival.

This question didn’t arise for me until recently. My first two books (fiction and non-fiction) and their translation rights (Brazilian and Chinese) were sold by agents and I was thrilled. I liked who I was working with, and they knew way more about the publishing industry than I ever could.

However, authors need to remember that publishing is a commercial enterprise. Agents and agencies earn money by negotiating decent advances for their authors. If your books are too niche or your manuscript can’t command a decent advance, an agent will find it hard to justify taking you on or keeping you on. That’s the brutal truth: they only get paid when you get paid.

But it is possible also to do a lot of the legwork yourself. In fact I’d say it’s essential.

Networking is crucial as an author – no-one will ever love your book as much as you do. So you need to go out there and sell your little socks off. Sometime after I’d walked away from my agent, I met an editor at a party. He liked my novel so much that six days later his house asked to publish what is now Invisible Threads (Quartet, hardback/ebook).

Then, because the novel is set in India, I took myself off to the Jaipur Literature Festival. There, I happened to sit next to a man who’s an Indian publisher. 5 months later and another contract has been signed, and Invisible Threads will be published in India at the beginning of 2016. And following meetings I had at the London Book Fair, I now have Indian and Korean publishers interested in my second book, Happy Relationships, as well as UK interest for a new non-fiction book idea.

So, do I need a new agent? Certainly good agents have brilliant contacts with specific editors. Through their own constant networking, they’ll know better than you what editors or publishers are looking for right now. They also free you up to write!

Plus, agents are skilled at negotiating the best deal for you – after all, they have a financial incentive to do so. And they protect your rights, ensure you’re paid on time and, as one agent put it to me recently, ‘play the bad cop to your good cop’.
According to the acknowledgments pages of books, some agents become best friends with their authors. On the other hand, one of my author friends never communicates with his agent between publishing one book and submitting the next. Like all relationships, the one with an agent will be different for different authors.
Over all I’d say, yes, authors benefit from the relationship with an agent, but you need to have realistic expectations about what they can do for you. And don’t be disheartened if you don’t have an agent just yet. There’s still a lot that you can do to make things happen.

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  1. Congratulations on the Indian and Korean editions of ‘Happy Relationships’, Lucy, as well as the Indian edition of ‘Invisible Threads’. Fantastic news! Enjoyed reading your post – as an editor, I’d definitely recommend skilful networking to my authors.

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