I’ve known a number of writers who’ve written books and self-published them and others who worked directly with a small press to get their book published. In these instances, the individuals didn’t bother with literary agents. At the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh recently, Emily Loose, an independent literary agent who formerly was a senior acquisitions editor at three of the big five general trade publishing houses, Crown Publishers of Random House, the Penguin Press of Penguin Books, and Free Press of Simon and Schuster, talked about the benefits of a writer working with an agent. Of course, I expected her to speak with this point of view, but after thinking about what she said, I began to think more seriously about an agent’s worth to people like me, who are aspiring to get their first book published.
She said that there are many things that a writer can’t represent him or herself well on, for example, understanding the clauses in contracts. If a writer is missing a deadline, the agent can help the writer stay on track. She said she had a writer who went to his attic for three months to finish a book, barely saw his family the entire time and made the deadline. His book has won awards. Along the way, she found out that there was a competing book coming out, so she bumped up his deadline by three months to beat the press date of the other book .
Torie Bosch, the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University, mentioned that agents can be helpful if the writer is talented, but very difficult, the agent can help to smooth things over.
Loose mentioned that an agent’s take is 15 percent. This sounds reasonable to me based on what you get in return.