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The Role of Literary Agents in Self-Publishing

The Role of Literary Agents in Self-Publishing

Hello, Lifers!

In this post, we're examining into the world of literary agents and their role in the self-publishing journey. Now, you might be thinking, "Wait, aren't literary agents for those traditional publishing weirdos?" Well, yes, but they can also play a part in the self-publishing world--as my own agent (Alec Shane of Writers House) would tell you!

The Traditional Role of a Literary Agent

Before we dive into the depths of the self-publishing ocean (see what I did there--with the shark picture, and this? Ha!), it's crucial to understand the traditional role of a literary agent. Picture them as the bridge between authors and publishers. They're the ones who speak the language of both parties and facilitate communication. They're the ones who ensure that the author's voice is heard and their interests are protected.

Or at least, that's what should happen.

Literary agents negotiate contracts, ensuring that the terms are fair and beneficial for the author. They sell rights, which can include everything from foreign rights to film rights, expanding the reach of the author's work. They also provide guidance and support, helping authors navigate the often complex and confusing publishing landscape.

In essence, literary agents are advocates for authors. They fight for the author's rights, ensure they're fairly compensated, and help them make informed decisions about their career.

But here's where things get interesting. As a self-published author, you're wearing both the author's hat and the publisher's hat. You're writing the book, but you're also responsible for editing, designing, marketing, and distributing it. You're in control of every aspect of your book's journey from your mind to the reader's hands.

So, in this scenario, do you need a literary agent? The answer isn't a simple yes or no. It's more of a "it depends."

The role of a literary agent in self-publishing can vary greatly depending on your specific needs and circumstances. If you're comfortable handling all aspects of publishing yourself and prefer to maintain complete control, you might decide you don't need an agent.

However, if you're looking to sell foreign or film rights, or if you're considering transitioning to traditional publishing in the future, an agent could be incredibly beneficial. They have the connections and expertise to navigate these areas effectively.

Moreover, even within the realm of self-publishing, there are complex contracts to negotiate, such as those for audiobook deals. An agent's expertise can be invaluable in these situations, ensuring you understand the terms and get the best deal possible.

Negotiating Contracts

In the world of self-publishing, it's easy to assume that you're free from the shackles of contracts and legal jargon. After all, you're the boss, right? Well, yes, but that doesn't mean contracts don't exist in the self-publishing realm. In fact, they're more prevalent than you might think, and they can be just as complex and daunting as those in traditional publishing.

Let's start with audiobook deals. As a self-published author, you have the opportunity to expand your reach by turning your written words into spoken ones. If you want to do this on your own (as I write about here), but you might also get an offer from a publisher like Audible or Tantor Audio to license the audiobook rights to them. This process involves contracts, and they can be tricky to navigate--even for someone with lots of experience. You'll need to negotiate terms such as royalty rates, distribution rights, and production costs. 

And what about foreign rights? If your book is doing well domestically, why not introduce it to a global audience? Selling foreign rights means your book can be translated and sold in other countries. But again, this involves negotiating contracts. An agent can help you understand the terms and conditions, negotiate better deals, and even connect you with foreign publishers.

And of course, there's the holy grail of contracts: film rights. If your book has the potential to be adapted into a movie or TV series, you're looking at a whole new level of contracts and negotiations (one of the contracts for a movie I wrote was well in excess of 100 pages long). This is uncharted territory for most authors, and it's easy to get lost. But a literary agent can guide you through this process. 

In all these scenarios, a literary agent acts as your advocate. They (should) have your best interests at heart and use their expertise to ensure you get the best deal possible. 

For me, personally, I landed my agent after selling a series pitch to a traditional publishing house. When they sent over the first contract--which was pretty awful--I wasn't sure what to do. The ex-lawyer in me wanted to run away screaming and/or find someone to set fire to (I was a pretty aggressive contract attorney sometimes). The greedy/needy part of me kept whining, "'s money! And they like me!"

Eventually, I turned to a friend--Brandon Mull (the Fablehaven guy). He had a lot more experience with trad-pub stuff, and offered to set up a meeting with his agency. After talking with Alec for a bit, we decided we could be a mutually beneficial partnership on some things, and went in on the deal together.

I was thrilled--not just because I like Alec on a personal level, but because even though I'd been doing my own self-pub work for over a decade, and knew a LOT about contracts and terms to look for and/or avoid, a) Alec knew more, and b) it was nice having someone else to be a buffer/bad guy/hardnose negotiator in the contract talks.

Alec got me a WAY better deal than I could have secured myself, and alerted me to several issues I hadn't even noticed.

Expanding Your Reach

Agents also have connections. They can help you get your book into places you might not have access to as an individual author. This could mean foreign markets, libraries, or even brick-and-mortar bookstores. And if you ever decide to dip your toes into the traditional publishing pool, having an agent can be a massive advantage. They can pitch your book to publishers, negotiate contracts, and generally make the process smoother.

That said, I have to state clearly: I already HAD a deal on the table when I went to my agent in the first place.

So is it impossible to land a deal--even a trad-pub one--without an agent? No. Not at all. In fact, I have a couple of friends who have NEVER had an agent, despite being trad-pub powerhouses. Plus, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. There are potential downsides to consider when thinking about working with a literary agent as a self-published author.

Cons of Working With An Agent

Agents don't work for free. They typically take a percentage of your earnings (usually around 15%). That can definitely add up!

One of the perks of self-publishing is having complete control over your work. When you bring an agent into the mix, you might have to (i.e., almost certainly will) compromise on some decisions.

Just like authors, agents come in all shapes and sizes. Some are fantastic and can significantly boost your career. Others... not so much. It's crucial to do your research and find an agent who understands and respects your goals as a self-published author, and who is both willing and able to help you achieve them. Beware of agents who promise the moon in return for an upfront fee, or encouraging you to make deals you feel in your gut are terrible. There's bad ones out there, for sure...and getting a bad agent is worse than no agent at all!

The upshot is that agents can and DO have a place, even with self-pub authors. But the arrangements take a bit more care, and can be tricky to figure out given that your worlds probably overlap--but not fully, and certainly far from perfectly!

Your Literary Agent Checklist

Should you get an agent?

Ultimately, that depends on myriad unique factors--and ultimately, it's a decision you'll have to make yourself. That said, here are a few things to consider before deciding whether it's worth the effort to land (or even look for) an agent:

  • ​Do you have contracts that need negotiating (e.g., audiobook deals, foreign rights)?
  • ​Are you interested in expanding your reach (e.g., foreign markets, libraries, bookstores) in ways it is impractical to do on your own?
  • ​Are you considering transitioning to traditional publishing, either fully or as a hybrid author?
  • ​Are you comfortable with the profit-sharing involved in hiring an agent
  • ​Are you willing to compromise on some decisions to benefit from an agent's expertise and connections?
  • ​Have you done your research to find a reputable agent who aligns with your goals?

Welcome to the Bestseller Life Blog!

I'm Michaelbrent Collings, an international bestseller and produced screenwriter, as well as a multiple Bram Stoker Award and Dragon Award finalist, and maker of a fair-to-middling chocolate chip waffle.

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