As a writer, you get used to doing thing for yourself. But one piece of common place wisdom is that in order to get published writers need a literary agent. Mark Liam Piggott at the Guardian blog is not so sure about that, having been represented by agents but eventualy selling his first novel himself to small press / independent publisher Legend. And if anyone is in any doubt that there are bad agents in the world, you need look no further than the SFWA’s Thumbs Down Agency List.
But while there are bad agents in the world, it would be very foolhardy to assume a writer is better of without any agent. The issue is finding the right agent. I’ve been lucky enough to talk to many established, successful novelists in the last few years and every single one of them is represented by a good agent. While you can get published in the small press without an agent, I’d argue its much more difficult to break into a major comercial publisher, and near impossible to build a sustainable career with the right agent in your corner.
I’m yet to even apply to a single agent, but that is because I’m not at the right point in my writing career for an agent to be useful to me, or vice versa. But even so, I have a very good idea of the agents I most want to be represented by, both here and in the US. An agent is not like a plumber. This might sound obvious, but many people seem to approach finding an agent like finding a plumber. Grab Writers Year Book (the literary Yellow Pages) stick a pin in the agents section and send your work off. Or stick twenty pins in, and send your work off twenty times, more likely. The reality is that whatever kind of writer you are, there are probably only a small number of agents at any give time who have the right expertise, and the right contacts, to effectively represent your work. Knowing who those agents are is as essentail as knowing every other element of the market you are trying to sell your work into.
For instance, an aspiring UK genre writer with a literary edge to their work could do worse than being represented by Mic Cheetham, whose clients include Iain Banks, M John Harrison, Toby Litt, Jon Courtney Grimwood, China Mieville, Ken McLeod, Tricia Sulivan and Steph Swainston. If that looks like a roll-call of late ’90s / early 00’s UK science fiction thats because it is. Cheetham pretty much cornered the market on genre writers with mainstream appeal over that period and still does to an extent. A good agent is a lot more than a contract negotiator these days. They are the talent scouts and first line editors for most major publishers, and being spotted by one can be the first step to a career in fiction writing.