Following my Britmums Live session 'The Path To Getting Published' here - as promised - is a summary of my 'bit' on whether you should (or shouldn't) have an agent.
I have friends who have been published without an agent - some by choice, others simply because they couldn't find one to take them on. My own view is that having an agent is absolutely invaluable and these are just some of the reasons why:
1) (From my editor) "Many of the large publishers no longer really accept unsolicited books, so it's best to get an agent on board as a starting point."
2) Even if a publisher does accept unsolicited manuscripts unless you are already an established name you're likely to end up at the bottom of a large slush pile. Agents have established relationships with those publishers so can make sure your magnum opus ends up on the right person's desk.
3) (Particularly relevant for non fiction where you don't have to have completed your book before approaching publishers) You can have the best idea in the world but if you don't sell it the right way chances are it will go nowhere. An agent knows how you should best present it and can advise accordingly.
4) How much time a particular agent can offer for advice/guidance will vary enormously - but they can be brilliant sounding boards once you have established a working relationship.
5) Agents will be honest with you - with your best interests at heart as well as their own. They will tell you if it's worth you carrying on with something or not. It may hurt to bin your precious 'baby' - but far better than spending more time and effort on a book that's never going to work.
6) Agents know who is looking for what and, therefore, the right person/people to send your book or proposal to. If you're going it alone - particularly as a first timer - you could spend months working your way through lists of publishers and still not get it right. That's a lot of time and effort that could be used far more profitably elsewhere.
7) You've got a deal. Hurrah! All the hard work has paid off and you can rest on your laurels and bask in the glory of knowing you're going to be a published author... Or can you? Actually no - but that's another post, another time (soon). Once you reach the contract stage your agent will again come into his/her own. There is WAY more to this part than I had imagined. It's not just a matter of signing on the dotted line. There are advances to be agreed, pages and pages of fiddly bits about royalties and percentages and territories. Such a relief to be able to leave that side to someone who really knows what they are doing.
8) If there is ever an issue with your publisher (and I hasten to add that there were none with mine!) it's great to have a third party to play 'bad cop' without you having to damage the relationships you have worked so hard to build. This also leaves you free to do the bit that everyone actually wants you to do (ie finish the book)
9) Agents will deal with/chase up (etc) all payments from your publisher etc. This is more useful that I had realised at the outset. Frankly my first royalties statement could have been written in hieroglyphics for all the sense it made to me. One quick email to my agent and it all made perfect (well, ish) sense.
10) The publishing world is changing and it's great to have someone to steer you through those changes eg: new opportunities in the digisphere.
And three final tips:
1) Make sure you LIKE your agent. In the words of my own, "a successful relationship is dependent on mutual enthusiasm." I can't emphasise this enough. Don't forget - the very point of having an agent is that you have someone who is batting for YOU. If you don't get on there is no way either of you will get the best from your working arrangement.
2) Don't pay an agent up front. Remember all that advice about modelling agencies? The ones that ask you to pay for photos and portfolios before they take you on? Just as the advice for that is "don't" (a reputable agency will do all that for you), so with literary agents it's best to avoid those who charge reading fees or (to quote my agent again) "any other sort of fee - including fees if they are unsuccessful in placing your work."
3) Agents charge a commission of between 10 and 15% of earnings on deals done in the UK and 20% on international deals. Don't panic when you first sign that contract - it seems like you are giving them an awful lot (hey - I'm the one doing all the hard work by writing the darned book). But actually when you figure the time and effort they are investing in you and your work you are getting an absolute bargain. Definitely something to remember.
I'm also (slightly against my better judgement) attaching the link to the Google Hangout we did after our session. Before you click on it can I reassure you that my hips are not actually the strange shape that they appear to be - it's an illusion caused by trousers and chair being the same colour. Honest... *whimpers*