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Do You Need an Agent?
by Russell Galen

written for a forthcoming edition of the SFWA Handbook
copyright © 2008 by Russell Galen

Professional writers may or may not need agents, but they certainly need consiglieri. What a word that is, carrying so much more freight with its undulating five-syllable complexity than its humdrum English-language equivalent, “counselor.”   

As we all learned from The Godfather, a consigliere advises a Mafia Don on short-term crises and on the strategies that will determine the Family’s long-term survival against bloodthirsty competition.  Mere lawyers are a pale shadow: a consligiere is a cunning strategist and tactician, a wartime general whose greatest asset is his understanding of human nature.  A consigliere is always valuable, but most desperately so in wartime when the families go “to the mattresses.” In 21st Century publishing it is always wartime for a professional writer.

Science fiction and fantasy writers are, famously, the most knowledgeable about the publishing business. I’ve worked with writers in all fields and genres and have found this cliché to be true.  To tell sf/f writers that they need an agent is not to suggest that they are helpless sheep in a world of wolves, but simply that the forging of a writing career is a job for two people.

When I think of the agentless writer it reminds me of how I felt during a period in my life when first my mentor (a legendary literary agent with 50 years of experience) and then my father died.  Suddenly, I had no one to talk to who was obviously wiser than me about the ways of the world.  I was in my late thirties at the time and had no lack of self-confidence, but I was used to the idea that I was not the last word. Someone else was: someone who had seen more than I had, fought more battles, made more mistakes (and thus had more opportunity to learn from them).

All these years later I still catch myself thinking that maybe I’ll see what the old guys think about this or that situation, and then am a little sad when I remember that I’m on my own.  This solitude is the price you pay for being an adult and for being your own boss and is well worth it, but it would not be my choice.   I would love to have someone cannier and wiser than me to talk to about each day’s problems and decisions, both personal and professional.

Of course, there are many sources of advice, and many writers are lucky to have smart spouses, lovers, friends, parents, lawyers, and therapists.  All have their role to play.  But it’s because of the abundance of such helpers that I make this important distinction between a counselor, even a very smart one, and the true literary agent/consigliere.

What is the difference between a mere advisor and the shrewd, resourceful strategist who can win a Mafia war or a seven-figure publishing contract?  What might you need from such a person that your shrink or Significant Other can’t provide?


I must start with the sheer fact that our business is vastly more complex than ever before, and a writer must interact with scores of people in the process of creating and publishing a book. This creates a huge new array of possible ways to screw up that are unique to the intellectual property industry.  I have screwed up in each of those possible ways: there is no way to screw up, up which I have not screwed.  As the saying goes, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”  I’ve seen all the ways things can go wrong in the book business, costing an author a deal, money, sales, opportunities, relationships, or just a chance to do something the easy way instead of the hard way.  I’ve learned from those mistakes.

I remember how my mentor would listen to me describe a deal that was about to go awry and then say, “The first guy will say this, and the second guy will call the third guy, and the fourth guy will make a certain offer, enabling you to solve the problem in the following way.”  And then things would unfold in precisely that way. I used to think he had some kind of magic touch, some instinctive savvy about people. Now I realize he was just experienced. He wasn’t predicting the future, he was reminiscing.

So one answer to the question posed by the title of this piece comes from the sheer fact that authors are unlikely to have more than a couple of dozen properties to work on during the course of a career.  I make about a deal a week – 50 or so a year, every year since 1977 –  so obviously I’ve made more deals and seen more crises and opportunities than any writer. That has given me more chances to see what works and what doesn’t, so that when these crises and opportunities recur I am ready for them.


Another answer comes from what I call the “agent effect,” by which I mean any scenario in which one person’s welfare depends on his ability to further the welfare of another.

To accept the responsibility of being an agent is to receive super powers, enabling us to do things for others that we could not do for ourselves. Agents aren’t necessarily better negotiators or bolder, tougher or more silver-tongued than our clients. Our clients are often tough and bold, and eloquence is never a problem for them.  An agent’s advantage is that he is protecting someone else, not himself. The agent is empowered by the same gene that enables parents to lift cars off their children, or a grizzly sow to take a bullet and keep on coming when her cubs are in danger.

 This is why agents are paid strictly by commission, so that their and the client’s interests will merge. It’s also why authors seek out agents who are true fans of their work, so that the agent will feel the same urgent desire that fans feel, to spread the word about material that has enriched their own lives.

In evolution, this type of devotion is found only when protector shares DNA with protectee: we protect our families. In business, it’s triggered by shared fate, shared benefits. Same thing, really.  What else is heredity but a commission on – a sense of personal benefit from – the fate of your children? What else is a commission but the joy you feel when your actions create a mutual benefit for you and your ally?

That’s why Michael Corleone fires the family’s consigliere, Tom Hagen.  The Corleone crime family are Sicilian, and Hagen is not. In wartime, Michael says, we need a Sicilian consigliere: one who shares our blood, our DNA. Mafia consiglieri are not just hired advisors who are paid by the hour whether their client wins or loses.  They’re part of the Family: their own interests rise and fall with the Family’s fortunes.  It’s the same type of connection that makes the literary agent relationship different from any other relationship a writer may have.


A final example of the unique value of the consigliere is that while he is indeed a member of the family, he is also outside it.  He can have other clients, a life of his own. He is a businessman in his own right. While his shared interests make him loyal to the Don, his outsider status enables him to be objective, candid, and blunt.  Similarly, an agent’s greatest value to his client may be his ability to withstand being dumped by the client, which frees him to be honest.  Agents need their clients but not any one particular client. 

My old boss had a funny story about a meeting with the agency’s most important client. The writer declared how he wanted things handled, and my boss thought the client’s ideas were naive and doomed. Finally my boss stood up and walked to the closet in his office, put on his coat, and started to walk out. “Where are you going?” asked the writer. “Since you know more about the business than I do, I figured I’d leave and let you take over.”

You don’t need an agent for support. Support is a good thing to have but it’s not why you need the agent. Your spouse or lover or best friend can do a better job of telling you you’re a god. You need the agent to tell you, not that your work is great, but that it sucks.  Not that your every decision is destined to bring you accolades and baskets of cash, but that you are driving your career over a cliff.  Not to shower you with warmth and affection but to argue with you, to challenge you, to make you see more facets of a matter than you were able to see on your own.


There are certain basic functions everyone expects from an agent. It’s theoretically possible for an author to perform these functions; some do, and may even do a good job.  Some authors prefer to have them performed by a lawyer, who charges much less than an agent, or by some other associate who has a gift for negotiation and a decent working knowledge of the publishing industry.  My own experience has been that most writers who try this wind up regretting it and revert to working with an agent, but I acknowledge that agents aren’t irreplaceable when it comes to the ordinary roles and functions of the job. 

A list of these functions might run a hundred items long, but some of them are:  keeping track of changing personnel in the publishing industry, keeping track of changing business practices in the industry, keeping track of trends and changes in readers’ tastes, making submissions, conducting auctions, getting a bigger advance, getting better royalty rates and other key terms, vetting the contracts, making subsidiary rights deals, collecting payments, advising on which projects to write, offering an editorial reaction that is often different from the publisher’s reaction, explaining the strange customs and working methods of the book industry, analyzing royalty statements, speaking on the author’s behalf in disputes with the publisher, pushing the publisher for better marketing, and much more.

All of these jobs fill a busy day of e-mails, phone calls, and meetings with clients and their editors.  They result in better deals, more money, a better publication effort, and a better protection of rights than the overwhelming majority of writers could obtain in any other way.  They free up scores of hours that can be spent on writing. All in all, having an agent is clearly a useful service for a professional writer, and one that costs nothing because a good agent will pay for himself many times over.

But do you need an agent?

A bestselling author is paying seven-figure commissions for each book. Isn’t this nuts?  Isn’t it the famous author who least needs an agent? Such an author is already rich, already successful, already getting the publisher’s maximum effort.  What more can an agent obtain? The $10 million author who wants $12 million for his next book could certainly hire a kick-ass lawyer to convey that demand for a lawyer’s modest hourly fee.

But in fact, the more success bestselling authors have, the more they value their agents. The commissions are happily paid.  An author who is unhappy with one agent simply switches to another.  

The explanation is that authors don’t need agents to perform any specific, identifiable service. What only a good agent can provide is something less tangible, but far more necessary, than all these services.  The author/agent relationship is a collaborative effort intended to construct an edifice – a career – like a great medieval cathedral that is never quite finished but requires daily work over decades to achieve a durable majesty.  The value of this job can not be measured any more than you could place a dollar figure on the value of raising children to a successful adulthood.

Look at those edifices, the careers of writers who’ve survived all the carnage of modern publishing: genres that wax and wane, corporate mergers and spinoffs and shutdowns, editorial turnover, formats that gain or lose prominence, new media, fickle public tastes, radical changes in the retail and distribution industries. 

Do these survivors look back over the years and think that these cathedrals were built in part on the contribution of their agents?  Do they think the cathedrals are sturdier, larger, more richly appointed, more enthusiastically attended, famed in more corners of the world, have a greater impact on their congregations, because of what the agent added to the effort? Do they look at the wreckage of nearby cathedrals, sacked and burned in barbarian invasions, and think that their agent helped them avoid that fate?  

If they did not, I’d be an editor, so you know my answer.


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