Why You Don't Need a Literary Agent (but You Might Want One)

by Agent Laurie McLean, Fuse Literary

Although Laurie McLean is not open to general queries, she will be accepting queries from readers who mention this post! You can find her guidelines at Fuse Literary Agency, and her contact information at her blog, Agent Savant.

UPDATE: last week I posted about some high profile agents and other industry professionals who are saying self-published books are no longer a reliable bridge to traditional publishing.  But not all agents feel that way! Here's what Laurie McLean has to say: 

"Fuse is a renegade. I just sold a self-pubbed fantasy trilogy for six figures. And I've got two other self-pubbed authors who are garnering a lot of big trad pub interest, so I'm not willing to agree that the gravy train has left the station. Of course awards, intense marketing and fan clubs and other "extras" these authors have helped a lot."  Thanks, Laurie, for your optimism and hopeful news!...Anne 


by Agent Laurie McLean

Publishing has been going through tumultuous times of late. Chaos reigns. But that doesn't scare me. I like chaos. Because when things are crazy it means there are opportunities galore for those willing to dive in and stir things up. And I like change as much as I like reading—which is a lot.

You see, publishing used to be very hierarchical and now it’s a much more level playing field. It used to be like this:

Author àAgent àPublisher àReader

But now it can be like this:

Author àReader

That should scare the bejeebers out of agents and publishers everywhere. Might even scare a few authors if they have some sense. Let’s recap:

Phase One: the Kindle Revolution

When Amazon’s Kindle e-reading device launched in 2007, followed quickly by the twin self-service publishing juggernauts Smashwords and KDP in 2008, my dormant high-tech antennae sprang back into action so fast I got whiplash! 

For 20 years before I became an agent I had been in high tech marketing. I ran a PR agency that promoted emerging technology companies. To say that I had seen tech transform industries first hand is a gross understatement.

And now it was happening again in book publishing.

The Kindle succeeded because Amazon had the marketing muscle and pricing flexibility to make a market for ebooks for the first time.

Plus its Kindle Store put millions of books at reader fingertips. It was the ultimate in convenience and instant availability. And the low price points, with many free books (imagine!), made ebooks affordable for everyone.

I don't know about you, but in 2008-2010 I read dozens more books per year than I had previously because these devices made it fun. And the first "book" I sold in 2011 was an app—a testament to the experimental nature of dynamic, changeable text.

Once writers tried out Smashwords and KDP and experienced the automation of formatting and distribution, plus the freedom to experiment with cover art, pricing, edits, and more, it was clear that publishing had changed forever…and this change was happening so rapidly, success stories were cropping up faster than pop-up holiday stores.

Phase Two: The Rise of Social Media

Then came social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Blogger, Linked-In, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, and so many more. The revolution was not only being televised, it was being broadcast all over the World Wide Web!

As this second phase emerged, social media (especially blogging) became a friendly and familiar way to promote books. Now all bets were off. Writers could be at home typing away in their pajamas, while presenting their professional author brand front and center to the waiting world.

Readers could tell writers exactly what they thought without having to wait for a book signing tour to come to town. And there was something for everyone from caffeine junkies (Twitter) to serious nonfiction networkers (Linked-In).

Phase Three: The Self-Publishing Team and the Hybrid Author

Then the third wave hit. Writers who self-published a lot of books began to notice the importance of having their own publishing team. Independent editors, cover designers, interior book designers, formatters, marketers, bookkeepers, lawyers, business consultants, researchers and more began to form a cottage industry.

Kickstarter and Indiegogo gave writers a way to pay themselves their own advance and hire these ancillary professionals. I have clients who have successfully crowdfunded an adult picture book, a steampunk anthology, a graphic novel and an award-winning science fiction book.

The term Hybrid Author began to be used for writers who were thinking outside the covers of a book to reimagine their work in different media and using both traditional and self publishing techniques depending upon the project. 

In fact, since this is a January guest blog, I’d like to make the bold prediction that we’ll all be Hybrid Authors in 5 years or less as different paths are taken to achieve each publishing goal.

So Do You Need an Agent?

But let’s get back to my original premise. Let’s talk about why you, as an author in 2015, do not need an agent.

First, it might be helpful to understand what an agent does.

At the most basic level, a literary agent is an author’s business partner. An agent locates a publisher interested in buying an author’s writing and then negotiates a deal. But a literary agent is so much more than that. An agent is:

So do you need one? Not necessarily.

If you self-publish, no self-respecting agent should ever take a penny of what you earn. Period. If your agent is not contributing to a project, they do not deserve compensation.

If you desire help with your cover design, want questions answered about editing on any level, need formatting advice, or seek wisdom about social media marketing, legal issues or other professional areas, you should either pay a flat fee per service rendered or if an agent offers to do this for a percentage of sales, that should be YOUR CHOICE!

With self-publishing, you might hire an agent to sell all the subsidiary rights that you now own. In fact, I’ll make another prediction that soon we'll see agents who only specialize in selling subsidiary rights for successful self-published authors. And why not?

You can make a lot of money from foreign translations, movies and television licenses, and audiobooks. Since you own all these rights, it makes sense to team up with someone who can sell them for you. If you know how to do this yourself, go for it. Most writers don’t. It’s a full time job.

Plus, if you want to sell to a Big Five publisher, well, for now, you’re still going to need an agent. But there’s another way agents can be helpful.

Back in the ancient past, say 2009, publishing pundits were screaming “conflict of interest” at agents who dared to offer assisted self-publishing as one of their services. Or at agencies who created a publishing arm to their business. I always thought that was ridiculous. I always try to get the best deals for my clients’ books. 

But if I couldn't sell something because editors didn't see what I saw in a particular manuscript or writing style, why should that book or author be shelved? Plus, I had a lot of midlist authors who suddenly found themselves without a publisher. Were they just supposed to fold up their tents and vanish in the night? Not if I could help it.

Agents are the business experts in the publishing equation and are well-suited to be publishers. We know the entire process from story creation through to book distribution. And agents are great at networking and marketing. We have studied the arcane knowledge. We have personalities that can be beneficial.

Some agents are fabulous self-publishing guides, having learned the process themselves in the early days while continuing to keep up with the latest trends. Some agents are talented editors because that was the job they had in traditional publishing before leaving New York. And some agents are critically needed specialists on topics such as books-to-film, subrights sales, foreign deals, etc.

So you don’t need an agent in this dawn of a new age in publishing. You are perfectly capable of writing, publishing and selling every single book you write.

You no longer need an agent to be a REAL AUTHOR!

But you might want one.

And can I just pontificate a bit more here before we call it quits? Stop calling yourself a writer. If you've got a book out there for sale, you are an author. You don't need to jump through any more hoops. When people ask you what you do, you should, without hesitation or grimace, say, "I am an author." You don’t need anyone else's validation on that point.

In conclusion:

1. You don't need an agent to self-publish your books. You also don't need an agent to contact editors directly at conferences, or about digital-first imprints, or on work-for-hire projects.

2. If you want a good business partner, consider putting an agent on your team. Don't treat them like gods. Interview them like you would a high-level consultant.

3. Don't let the traditionalists pigeonhole you. Go out there and get your stories told.

Igniting Author Careers!
Offices in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Vancouver

Laurie McLean is a veteran agent and the founder of Fuse Literary Agency . She specializes in adult genre fiction (romance, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thrillers, suspense, horror, etc.) plus middle-grade and young adult children’s books. She does not handle non-fiction, or commercial, literary or women’s fiction, nor does she handle children’s picture books or graphic novels. Prior to founding Fuse Literary, Laurie was also the Dean of San Francisco Writers University and on the management team of the San Francisco Writers Conference.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you have an agent? Do you feel you'd benefit from having one? Do you have any questions for Laurie? She was planning to respond to all comments today, but because of the Golden Gate Bridge closure, she'll have to be travelling a lot more miles today than she anticipated. But she will stop by later to answer questions. And do note, she's accepting queries from our readers in the above genres

NEWS: I'm sure one of the things Laurie would tell you is that a query is more compelling if you have publication credits, and nothing is better for getting credits than the good old short story. My piece from November's Writer's Digest on why "Short is the New Long: 9 Reasons to Write Short Fiction" is now free to read at the Writer's Digest blog. I always include some opportunities to submit short work to journals and contests in the "OPPORTUNITY ALERTS" below.


VIGNETTE WRITERS, here's a contest for you! The Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Contest. The prize is for a collection of vignettes and poetry up to 20,000 words. Fee $25. Prize is $500, publication by Vine Leaves Press (paperback and eBook), 20 copies of the paperback, worldwide distribution, and promotion through the Vine Leaves and staff websites. It will be judged by an editor from Simon and Schuster. Deadline February 28, 2015.

THE MEADOW NOVELLA PRIZE $15 ENTRY FEE. The winner of the contest will receive $500 and publication in the annual print edition of the journal. Submissions should be between 18,000 and 35,000 words. Deadline February 1, 2015.

Vestal Review Condensed Classics Anthology Call for submissions to an anthology of world classics condensed to 500 words or fewer. Submissions are still open for the new anthology edited by Mark Budman titled "Condensed to Flash: World Classics." Find specifics here and Scroll down to "Condensed to Flash" and check out the sub guidelines. You get paid: $15 and a digital copy for an original story and $5 and a digital copy for a reprint. The deadline: January 31, 2015.

The M.M. Bennetts Prize for Historical fiction. $10 Entry fee. $500 prize for the best historical novel published in 2014. To be announced at the Historical Novel Society Conference in June. Deadline January 31st, 2015

Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition. First prize $3000. Top 25 will be published. Entry Fee $25. 1500 words or less. Deadline January 16th, 2015.

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