When I first started writing, I never considered the idea of having an agent. I have examined many publisher websites. I also follow blogs of some people in the industry (authors, agents, editors). Now I'm seriously leaning toward targeting an agent first instead of directly querying a publisher. Let me tell you why.
What can an agent do for me?
* Send your manuscript to editors. Not only does it give you access to publishers that do not accept queries from authors, but agents know the editors involved. They know the tastes of those editors, increasing your chances of a good match for your book.
* Negotiate more money for you. Research has shown that on average, authors with agents receive higher advances than those without.
* Review contracts from publishers. They are very familiar with the legal ins and outs of contracts.
* Get you offers from multiple publishers, giving you more options and possibly more money.
* Sell other rights such as foreign and movie.
* Career planning. An agent is much more stable than an editor. Editors move to different publishing houses, retire, change projects. An agent will be able to follow all that for you and be with you the entire time. They can offer advise on new books, explain industry lingo, and give encouragement.
* Guide you through the entire publishing process. After an offer is accepted, there's many more steps until a book is published. Editing, cover design, publicity. An agent can answer questions and help mediate concerns every step of the way.
Makes me wonder why someone wouldn't look for an agent. Especially as a first time author with no experience in the business.
But how do I get an agent?
There are two approaches to getting an agent.
1. Query agents first. Write query letters to agents that represent your genre. If they like your query, they will ask for either a partial or complete manuscript. If they like that, they will offer representation. Then they will begin sending out your manuscript to publishers.
2. Get an offer from a publisher first. If you have a specific publisher you want, or would rather go through the initial process yourself, you are welcome to it. There will be some doors closed to you, but fantasy does have more open to first time authors than most genres. Once you get an offer, you can ask them for some time to think it over. At this point, it is perfectly acceptable to call any agents you are interested in. Let them know you have an offer, and give them a time frame in which they can look at your manuscript. An agent is much more likely to offer representation at this point, as it's a guaranteed sale. An agent could then step in and negotiate the contract for you, or even suggest turning the original offer down and getting a better deal elsewhere.
Never pay for an agent upfront. A good agent gets paid on commission. They get a percentage of what you make. And that will get taken care of between the editor and the agent, so you're never responsible for the money. The better deal an agent can get you, the more you will both make.
There are plenty of authors who do make it without agents. Go with what approach works best for you. Whichever route you go, research your target before submitting. Be informed. Be prepared.
About the Author
Mary W. Jensen is an author on http://www.Writing.Com/ which is a site for Creative Writing. She is an editor for the Writing.com Fantasy newsletter, and the cofounder of an offline writing group. Mary is working on a fantasy novel, Emergence of the Fey.