Why Authors Need Agents

Many times on this blog, I’ve answered the question of why you, a writer (singular), might need an agent (also singular). I addressed it in posts such as 10 Things to Expect from an Agent and Earning Our Keep. Agent Nathan Bransford gave a terrific run down on what agents do, here and my client Jody Hedlund gave the perspective of a contracted, newly agented author here.

But today I want to answer a slightly different question. Why do authors, collectively, need agents (plural)? How does the existence of agents in this business help all authors?

You, as an individual author, may or may not require the services of an individual agent. But whether or not you realize it, whenever you deal with a publisher, you’re benefitting from the collective work of agents over the years.

For the last few decades, agents have been on the front lines when it comes to advocating for authors in their relationships with publishers. It’s interesting to speculate on the state of publishing contracts if agents had never been involved and authors had to fend for themselves or just take whatever the publisher was offering.

The economics of publishing are tough, and like in any business, publishers are always trying to figure ways to save money – or a least keep their money longer. Naturally, they come up with brilliant money-saving ideas that involve paying authors less. They try to lower royalty rates; they try to bump up the royalty breaks (i.e. raise the number of copies you must sell before bumping to a higher royalty rate); they may want to extend the length of time over which they pay out the author’s advance (a huge bone of contention right now between agents and a couple of the largest publishers); and of course, they sometimes try to pay lower advances.

Those are the simple things. The last couple of years have seen publishers and agents battling it out over e-book royalty rates and numerous other areas related to new digital technologies. And besides the money, there are other contract points that agents constantly work to keep fair for their clients—everything from option clauses to author copies to author buy-back rates and more. It’s complicated and tricky trying to negotiate all these points in such a rapidly changing publishing environment.

But over all the years and all the changes in publishing, agents collectively have had the knowledge and the clout to duke it out with publishers on a contract-by-contract basis, holding as much ground for authors as possible. For example, if you sign a contract on your own with a small independent publisher, and they offer you a 25% royalty on e-book sales, you have agents to thank for that, because at first, many publishers were trying to fold e-book sales into their regular royalty schedule, meaning you’d only be making 10% to 15% royalty. But agents have, for the most part, changed that.

An interesting nod to the importance of agents in the publishing process happened last month when Random House CEO Markus Dohle sent a detailed letter explaining the company’s new policy involving e-rights (which quickly became known as RH’s “retroactive rights grab”). To whom did Mr. Dohle send the letter? Literary agents.

As we continue into the confusing new world of digital publishing, authors are going to need advocates more than ever. You are going to have your hands full, trying to work your full-time job plus write your books plus market them. You won’t have time to become an expert on publishing contracts, too.

Just remember, if you choose to sign with a royalty publisher and stay agent-less, you may be missing out on the latest knowledge and expertise that will protect the value of your intellectual property; but you’ll probably also benefit from the work agents have already done in the last few decades.

Your agent doesn’t just work for you. Each agent is, in their own small way, protecting the rights of all authors. So love ’em or hate ’em, it doesn’t matter because if you’re an author, agents are your friends.

P.S. I imagine some of you will argue that it’s really the other way around—that agents need authors. Well, of course that’s true. We need authors if we want this job. But if authors didn’t need agents, none of us would have this agenting job in the first place, so it’s kind of a moot point. When authors stop needing agents, agents will cease to play a part in the publishing industry.


Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  9. Anonymous on January 17, 2010 at 10:01 AM

    >To anonymous, above — there was a huge lawsuit that took place a few years back over exactly what you're talking about. The publishers lost and they were required to start paying out royalties for digital editions. This all started because magazines were starting to put their content online and not paying authors. The result was a big fight and the publishers lost.

    Do you have an agent? Or perhaps an attorney? You need to get one or the other (or both) and fight this publisher because you're legally entitled to royalties for the digital editions that are sold.

  10. Anonymous on January 15, 2010 at 7:26 PM

    >It's not just RH that is taking advantage of digital rights. They are all doing it. Back listed books I was in that I always thought would remain print books, are now being released (shock) in digital format and I'm not getting any of the digital royalties. I'm actually receiving fan letters from readers, about these recently released digital books, that I'm helping to sell, and I'm not getting a dime from the publisher.

    And there's nothing I can do, except thank the readers and hold my tongue. When I questioned one publisher, they became defensive and confrontational. The contracts are ambiguous and say things like "can be releaseed in any format." But who was thinking about digital books ten years ago? I know I wasn't.

    I don't mind helping out, but I'm not thrilled about adding my name, to help sell books, when I'm never going to get royalties from those books. And, in digital format, the books will be around forever and the publisher will always make money.

    Sorry for ranting. This digital thing gets me frustrated.

  11. Timothy Fish on January 15, 2010 at 5:22 PM


    Yes, I know you’re published; I’ve seen some of your work. I loved Beowulf, but it’s a little hard to read. Maybe if you would try writing in more contemporary English it would help.

    As for a $50,000 advance, I wasn’t talking about a $50,000 advance, just a rough figure as to how much a publisher must spend to get a book into print. As for the economy, it is what it is and agents aren’t likely to take on more clients when they can sell the books by existing clients. Besides, there are a whole lot more people who think they can write well than actually can.

  12. Anonymous on January 14, 2010 at 12:19 PM

    >Yes, Tim, I realize that but the reality is that new authors aren't even given a chance. I'm a published writer with lots of short stories and articles in major magazines, but all agents say is: "It's a tough market."
    I'm willing to promote & market my book but agents won't even reply to my query–either they ignore it or they turn it down. A few months ago I had several requests and now it's nada.

    Sure, I wouldn't complain either if I had a $50,000 advance. Even St. Martin's wouldn't name a winner in their Hillerman mystery contest–due to the poor economy, I'm sure. If they can't even spring for a $10,000 advance (for unagented authors), what can we expect from other big publishers? Why can't agents see that this too will pass, hopefully in a few months? Gimme a break!

  13. Timothy Fish on January 14, 2010 at 8:04 AM

    >Anonymous 12:34,

    While it may seem unfair that big names (some of whom didn’t even write the book) pull in large advances when the rest of us take what we can get, there are good reasons to keep these people happy that benefit the rest of us. A big name, such as a movie star or a sports figure who allows a publisher to put his name on a book can pull in readers who wouldn’t set foot in a bookstore otherwise. Perhaps they will see a more obscure book that they will like while they are there. Additionally, the profits the publisher makes from bestselling books are used to publish the higher risk books that the rest of us are writing. I may never read a children’s book with a linebacker’s name on the cover, but if it gives a publisher the $50,000 dollars they need to publish my book, who am I to complain?

  14. Heather Marsten on January 14, 2010 at 6:17 AM

    >I value agents – why spend unnecessary time reinventing the wheel – expertise is gained by experience.

  15. Anonymous on January 14, 2010 at 2:34 AM

    >Rachelle, I think we need more GOOD writers, not less, and publishers need to stop paying celebs et al so much and give debut authors a chance! Movie stars and bestselling authors don't need the advances that new authors could use. For every million pubs spend on the few big names who churn out the same stuff year after year, that amount could launch the careers of dozens of new authors. Why not spread the wealth and give us a chance?

  16. Roxane B. Salonen on January 14, 2010 at 1:57 AM

    >Rachelle, I couldn't agree more that the more complex this business becomes, the more we need guidance and assistance. And much of that will come from agents, I've come to believe.

  17. Amy Lyles Wilson on January 13, 2010 at 10:06 PM

    >As a longtime editor (development and acquisitions) with small- to mid-list publishing houses, I've worked with many first-time authors who did not have agents. I'm a writer, too, and I have been on both the offering and the receiving ends of book publishing contracts. Although I do not think writers should take "just anything" that is offered them, I do want to encourage those who don't (yet?!) have agents: There are opportunities out there that can benefit the publisher–and you. Sincerely,

  18. Jemi Fraser on January 13, 2010 at 9:25 PM

    >There's so much to learn/keep up with as a writer. Can't even imagine trying to do that plus learn to do what an agent does. Crazy 🙂

  19. Birgitte Necessary on January 13, 2010 at 8:55 PM

    >I can't imagine going it alone without an agent. I want to focus on writing the best book possible and I want an agent to focus on selling it! (Which also means making sure I've written the best book possible) 🙂 It's a win-win. There's no other way to look at it. Also, if I can't get an agent, that tells me I need to go back and make that book even better!

  20. Stephanie Shott on January 13, 2010 at 8:34 PM

    >I wasn't "publishing world" savvy enough to seek out an agent before I sent my book off to a publisher. It was accepted and is due out in a few months, but with three wip's, I'll be seeking out an agent very soon.

    I'll be the first to admit I don't know enough about all that's involved in the elusive publishing process and I'd be more than happy (and thankful) to pay a trusted agent to help me in this journey.

  21. Timothy Fish on January 13, 2010 at 5:39 PM

    >"The unwelcome truth is we need more readers and fewer writers."

    I couldn't agree more. Do you have any thoughts on how to eliminate writers? (If I see you with a rifle in hand, I’m running the other way.)

  22. Koldo on January 13, 2010 at 5:34 PM

    >I corroborate what many people is saying here. From my experience and other authors/illustrators experiences, I can say that finding an agent it's even harder than getting a publishing contract today. Not to mention finding "the right agent for you".

    It gets even more complicated when you are a new author. All I hear from agents is that this is a bad time for new authors. Which makes me wonder… if agents are so necessary for the industry… what about new authors? are we not necessary?

  23. Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God on January 13, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    >Helloe, Rachelle;

    This article hit my funny bone. Yes, I know you were perfectly serious, but come on, didn't you feel like you were preaching to the choir? Every writer worth their weight in black ink would rewrite every sentence they've written to have an agent who would do the things you do for the share of the profits you get. Just count the number of wistful comments that have been made to your post.

    OK, having a caring, savvy, dedicated, Christian agent would not necessarily bring that publishing contract, but it would certainly make the trip getting there much more enjoyable.

    Now when are you open for more queries?…

    Be blessed,


  24. Mira on January 13, 2010 at 3:12 PM

    >Rachelle – ah, but if we had more readers, we would not need less writers. 🙂

    I personally think the readers are there, actually. We need to get better at reaching them.

  25. Eric on January 13, 2010 at 2:58 PM

    >This is a very well written post, Rachelle. I can see both sides of the equation (publishing without an agent as well as with), but for myself, I can't imagine trying to wade through the process without an agent's help.

  26. James Castellano on January 13, 2010 at 2:41 PM

    >I dont see how a reduction in writers will solve the issue any more than an increase in agents.

    The cream will rise to the top and technological advances will alter the landscape and new solutions will appear.

  27. Rachelle on January 13, 2010 at 1:40 PM

    >Samantha, unfortunately the answer is not more agents. Having more agents would not increase the number of books being published or purchased by consumers. The unwelcome truth is we need more readers and fewer writers.

  28. Samantha Hunter on January 13, 2010 at 1:25 PM

    >One more thought… I do have several unpublished and published friends who are having an awful time finding an agent. People just have full lists now, all they can handle. Very discouraging. Or, they are looking to only rep certain things. I can see where it is very discouraging, and leads a lot of writers to try to rep themselves, or leaves them prey to less experienced or bad agents…. Maybe the world needs more good agents? A training course somewhere? 😉


  29. Samantha Hunter on January 13, 2010 at 1:11 PM

    >Also, there are ways that agents talk to editors to get things done that authors just can't, no matter what they know about contracts. All of the relationships there, agent/editor, editor/author, and author/agent (why do I feel the need for a venn diagram?) work out different issues. My agent works with my editor in a way that preserves my writing relationship with the editor, and that is separate from my business relationship with the agent.

    Being your own agent would have to be akin to being your own defense lawyer in a court — maybe some have done it well enough, but I wouldn't want to try it. 🙂


  30. Beth Coulton on January 13, 2010 at 12:50 PM

    >How about us picture book authors? I am getting the impression that there aren't too many agents that want to take us on, understandably. Is this true?

  31. Linda Banche on January 13, 2010 at 12:44 PM

    >I'm not much good at negotiation. I'd be happy to pay someone who could do a good job negotiating for me. Writing is hard work, and I want to spend the bulk of my time at what I'm good at, not at things others can do so much better than I can.

  32. Arabella on January 13, 2010 at 12:02 PM

    >I just need the right one. It's daunting even thinking of looking for one. It's a cold, cruel world out there, very dispiriting sometimes. But, yes, I'm grateful that there are people out there willing to fight my battles for me.

  33. Anonymous on January 13, 2010 at 11:59 AM

    >True, but if agents keep ignoring me, than I may have to go it alone. I used to negotiate my own magazine contracts, and I know the diff between first NA rights and world rights and I'm sure I could figure out publishing contracts with the help of a contract lawayer. So as long as agents keep saying "NO, the economy is too tough for a debut author," then I'll have to change my approach and try to live without an agent.

  34. heather on January 13, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    >Thank you for all you do!

  35. Erica Vetsch on January 13, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    >I'm so glad to have an advocate in the publishing world. It allows me to concentrate on what I need to and not fret about the intricacies of contracts, etc.


  36. sue laybourn on January 13, 2010 at 11:26 AM

    >I couldn't agree more.

    Having spent the last four years dealing with US Immigration, I'd say that trying to find a way to publication without an agent would be like trying to get a Green Card without an immigration lawyer!

  37. Nicole on January 13, 2010 at 10:40 AM

    >Since there is a severe glut of writers, good agents are a prized commodity, necessary go-betweens, forgers of benefits, diplomats, advocates, interpreters, and so often pals.

    Wish I had one.

  38. Shmologna on January 13, 2010 at 10:01 AM

    >I know nothing.

    Other people are paid to know "something."

    Thus, when the time is right, I will look to acquire the services of one of those people who know "something."

    You know a lot of "somethings!" Great blog post.

  39. Matt Mikalatos on January 13, 2010 at 9:55 AM

    >I love my agent. Totally platonic. But… love.

  40. Mira on January 13, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    >Well, I have my issues with the system, but I personally can't wait to get an agent. Mentor, advocate, partner – how can you beat that?! 🙂

    My major problem is that in order to get an agent apparently you have to write something pretty good. That seems abit daunting to me.

    In fact, I'd like an agent so much, I'm sort of looking for a way to get one without actually writing anything. So far, I haven't figured that one out, but I haven't given up hope. There must be a way…. 🙂

  41. lynnrush on January 13, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    >I agree. I think agents are so very important. The industry is so confusing at time (specifially contracts) to have someone on your side, familiar with how everything works is invaluable.

  42. Colleen Coble on January 13, 2010 at 9:37 AM

    >Oh I so agree! I'd be lost without my agent. She has brought so much to the table for me. But even more, collectively, you all have made a difference in the publishing world. So thank you!

  43. Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought on January 13, 2010 at 9:36 AM

    >Thank you for your hard work, Rachelle. I believe in the agent route.
    ~ Wendy

  44. T. Anne on January 13, 2010 at 9:21 AM

    >I agree wholeheartedly. I do wish there were more Christian literary agents though. In a market where literary agents are saturated, it becomes even more difficult to procure representation especially when the pool is so small to begin with. I say bring on the agents.

  45. Marla Taviano on January 13, 2010 at 9:10 AM

    >Agents are kind of like wedding coordinators. Sure, the bride could save some $ and do everything herself, but OH MY WORD, can you imagine the stress???

    I can't tell you what a HUGE sigh of relief it is to know you're in my corner.

  46. Joanne on January 13, 2010 at 8:53 AM

    >Though writing is so often looked at as a solitary craft, there is a great team going on behind those words. Your post here illustrates that.

  47. John Richardson on January 13, 2010 at 8:39 AM

    >As a long time blogger, I took the first step to authorship in 2009 and self published my first book. It was a crazy adventure of writing, hiring an editor, and figuring out the whole publishing process. While self publishing is great for back table books and having a presence on Amazon, it doesn't magically get you placed in bookstores and publishers are not calling.
    As I start my second book, I'm definitely exploring a different route this time. Your article helps put the reality of publishing in 2010 in a much clearer focus.

  48. Journaling Woman on January 13, 2010 at 7:51 AM

    >Agents are so necessary. I've never thought any differently. The writer needs to write, Agent needs to manage the writer, the publisher publishes…seems clear to me. 🙂

  49. Author Sandra D. Bricker on January 13, 2010 at 7:33 AM

    >I liked what Katie wrote about the importance of having that other person to decide things like where your books might fit, etc. However, I see it a little differently. I see my relationship with my agent as a team effort. I like to brainstorm, and have a hand in where they might fit, where I'd like to see things headed … and then hand it off to someone whose gift is in the details while I go off and exercise my own gift and write the next one. I've often joked about forming "Team Sandie," but it's very important to me as an author to surround myself with people who are good at keeping my plates spinning. A good agent, as well as an enthusiastic publicist, makes for a much more solid base from which an author can launch a career rather than just writing a bunch of books.

  50. Michael Hyatt on January 13, 2010 at 7:31 AM

    >Even as the CEO of a publishing company, I agree with everything you have said. Agents bring equilibrium to a complex and difficult negotiation, transaction, and relationship. At Thomas Nelson, we almost never consider an author who isn’t represented.

    Further, as an author myself, I have used an agent on each of my published books. Even though I know publishing contract inside and out, I wouldn't think of going-it-alone. I like the professional distance that an agent gives me, not to mention the leverage and advice.

    Good stuff, Rachelle, as usual.

  51. Krista Phillips on January 13, 2010 at 7:23 AM

    >I totally agree, and am VERY thankful for agents, even though I don't have one yet, ha! I love Katie's sentiments, I can totally see where it would take the weight of the publishing process off of her shoulders and give more time to focus on writing.

  52. Rhys Milner on January 13, 2010 at 6:55 AM

    >Example: An agent would have told me I forgot to put an 'is' in one of the above sentences before an editor saw it.

  53. Rhys Milner on January 13, 2010 at 6:52 AM

    >I've been rabidly researching the concepts for some time now, desperate to glean the best perspective on just this concept.


    The Agent – Author relationship symbiotic and hugely beneficial to both.

    While in the case of the agent it's obvious they need the author, it's become increasly obvious to me the author equally needs the agent. If only to stay sane.

  54. Jessica on January 13, 2010 at 6:23 AM

    >I'm so thankful for agents! I don't know why authors sometimes see agents as a necessary evil. The very fact that agents need authors is what protects the authors. An author's success is an agent's success.
    Like the others, there's no way I'd ever want to deal with contracts, negotiations, etc.

  55. Katie Ganshert on January 13, 2010 at 5:58 AM

    >Someone the other day asked me how my writing was going. I said, "Fabulous!" Then I started thinking about why it was going so fabulously. There are lots of reasons. But one of the reasons is that the pressure of trying to figure out where my novels would best fit is off my shoulders. I get to focus on writing. You get to figure out where my writing should live. So even as an author who has yet to sign one of those fancy contracts, I'm still benefiting in a big way as your client. More of my focus gets to be spent on the pure art and craft of doing what I love. Advances and royalty rates sort of make me go cross-eyed. It's not really my thing. Thank GOD for you and all the other agents like you. 🙂

  56. Jody Hedlund on January 13, 2010 at 5:29 AM

    >I rely upon you 100% for all of those complicated details that I honestly don't quite understand or have the time to worry about! I'm just too busy doing rewrites and writing the next book to have to try to keep up with everything in the publishing industry–even things like, my advance schedule ;-). I'm glad you're doing it for me because it frees me up to focus on crafting the best book possible! Thank you!

  57. Andrew on January 13, 2010 at 4:44 AM

    >I currently have a book under review with a royalty publisher, but I don't have an agent.

    If they like the book, is there any way to get an agent within the expected timeframe for a decision? The agents I would have chosen already passed – would a possible deal change their minds?

    Or would I be best off approaching someone totally new?

  58. Abiding Branch on January 13, 2010 at 3:34 AM

    >I am ferociously behind the "middle man" or woman as it is in your case. :)I am an insurance agent and I believe that we need experts and experienced individuals to keep up with all the trends and changes. Thank you for all you do and for wonderful information such as this.

  59. mkcbunny on January 13, 2010 at 2:47 AM

    >I can't imagine navigating the publishing world without an agent. It seems to me that the business of writing is becoming more complex as platforms multiply. I am happy, should the day come when I am offered representation, to pay an expert to steer me through those choppy waters.