Spacebunny passed along a request from a friend who is interested in publishing a novel. Among other things, the issue of an agent came up, and whether one should pursue one or not. On this particular issue, I think it really depends upon what one’s goal is, but in general, do as I say and not as I do.
I have only been represented by a literary agent twice. The first time, I did so primarily because every professional author I knew said that I should and in retrospect, I should have ignored the experts. It was a totally pointless thing to do since I’d already secured the publishing deal, the agent hindered the process more than he helped and has subsequently failed to sell a single foreign translation or produce any revenue at all in the twelve years that he has “represented” those two books.
The second time, I arranged to have The Chronicles of King David represented by a more influential agency that was also representing a series that happened to be the best-selling novels in the world at that time. Over the course of a year, they manage to dredge up a single offer from a publisher for only two-thirds the money that I’d received to NOT write a book on a different book contract that I’d negotiated on my own. Also, the publisher wanted to compress the trilogy into a single novel. The agency and I amicably parted ways after 18 months; I’ve since signed two book contracts, published three books, and have had no problem finding publishers interested in looking at my next non-fiction book despite having put in no more effort than making two phone calls.
So, you’ll understand if I am deeply skeptical of the supposed utility of literary agents.
However, as John Scalzi points out in a post well-worth reading, agents who are actually capable of placing books in other languages are extremely useful. I have not managed to do that, not even once, although it must be admitted that “desultory” would probably be far too strong a word to describe my efforts in that regard. In fact, I’m currently intending to find a literary agent for precisely that purpose.
So, in the end, my advice would be to pursue an agent if you cannot reasonably expect to find a publisher willing to sign you to a book contract on your own. However, I would also encourage you to not waste too much time on the entire process as not only is the average advance much smaller than you might think, but very few authors ever earn out their advances. In general, agents are better equipped to exploit success than they are to help generate it; note that John Scalzi and Raymond Feist, two novelists who are far more successful than the average, began by self-publishing themselves in one form or another.
If you want to write, then write. Just do it! There is no substitute for simply doing something instead of contemplating it, talking about it, marketing it, selling the concept, and posing thoughtfully in coffeeshops. Most first novels aren’t very good anyhow, so you might as well get it out of your system and publish it via Lightning Print or whoever; they’ll list it on Amazon and allow you to be disappointed with your Amazon rank immediately instead of waiting nine months to be disappointed by your royalty statements. I highly recommend reading the OC’s posts on the general subject. In the vast majority of cases, you’ll achieve 90 percent of what you want to do by self-publishing anyhow, all that’s missing is the vanity of having your writer status affirmed by an external source.
Which is nice, but believe me, the thrill of seeing your name on the spine of a book wears off faster than you’d think.
UPDATE – The OC himself suggests a previous post he’s written on this very subject at the Ranting Room, and it would behoove the would-be writer to peruse it. And don’t forget, what works well for one writer won’t necessarily work well for another since circumstances are often different.