A common question for all new writers and the answer, almost always, is yes.
Let’s start by reviewing what agents are there to do, though. They have several main roles:
Selecting saleable manuscripts from all those submitted. Under 1% of manuscripts are strong enough to sell.
Working with the author to get the manuscript in perfect condition to sell. That can mean extensive editorial work, likely lasting a period of months.
Identifying the right editors at the right publishing houses for your book. An agent needs excellent contacts and to keep those contacts up to date. It also means understanding the current market for fiction and non-fiction, making sure that your book is in tune with that market.
Conducting an auction. There’s no single way to sell a book. Your agent needs to choose the right way, then sell it professionally, with drive and conviction.
Negotiating a contract. Publishing contracts are long and technical. Additionally, with the advent of ebooks, those contracts are changing fast and key terms are constantly moving. So you do need an expert on your side.
Making foreign sales, and handling film and TV rights. Again, that’s a complex business involving expertise and strong contacts.
Guiding your career. In the long term, a good agent should be nudging your career in the right directios and keeping you away from wrong turns. Writing is an insecure business, so a good agent can make a difference.
All that might may make you think that you need an agent under any circumstances – but agents make their fees on sales they make. Typically speaking, they take a 15% commission. Agents need to live, too, so won’t have an interest in representing you if there is no realistic prospect of them making money.
You do need a literary agent if:
You are writing a novel.
You are writing commercial non-fiction (the sort of thing that might be sold at the front of a shop, or feature on a bestseller list).
You are writing fiction for children.
You are writing a ‘how to’ type book in a major category (such as health and well-being).
You do not need a literary agent if:
You are intending to self-publish.
You are writing poetry.
You are writing one-off short stories.
You are writing journalism.
You are writing specialist or academic non-fiction.
In all those cases, there won’t be enough money to interest an agent and you should approach the appropriate publishers directly.
You may need a literary agent if:
You are writing children’s picture books. I’d probably recommend having an agent to start with, but you could go either way.
You are writing a themed collection of short stories. Such collections are hard to sell, but not impossible. A truly good collection may attract an agent. Anything less than wonderful won’t.
And, as ever, don’t forget that if you need feedback, advice, or help with literary agents, we’re here to supply that. Sign up for emails for more on how to get a literary agent, or have a look at more free advice.