The "Things I've Been Asked Lately" series of posts (TIBAL) is exactly what it sounds like. People ask me questions in real life, on the blog, or on forums, and I endeavor to do my best to answer them. Of course, this is all IMHO.
Do you really need an agent to get a novel published?
This question arrived courtesy of CityGirl over the holiday season. We sat around for hours talking along with Paralith; mostly we talked about our pets and the cute things they do (we so sounded like young parents) but we also talked shop about our current jobs/pursuits. CityGirl wanted to know about this whole agent thing.
The short answer: Yes.
The short answer I would give under oath: In most cases, yes, though there are a still a few exceptions depending on your genre and the publisher you're targeting (such as small presses that run contests for best short story collection).
The long answer: No, technically you don't always need an agent, but you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't have one.
Consider this: would you buy or sell a house without a Realtor?
Truth is you'd probably hire a Realtor unless you were (a) uber-knowledgeable about property law/contracts or (b) you were selling a really shitty piece of land, or (c) didn't care if you got swindled.
My questions is therefore why would any normal person not want a knowledgeable person who knows the lay of the land, who has contacts, who knows who is and isn't a crook, who is uber-familiar with the standard contracts of the industry, to go out there and find the best place for you and get you the best deal because they're advocating for you? Because that is exactly what an agent does: she act as an *ahem* agent between you and the person trying to buy your property, smooths the way, soothes hurt feelings, and keeps everyone honest.
Unfortunately, there's a notion out there that getting an agent is just another hoop to jump through, or that agents are the evil gatekeepers to the publishing world. Not entirely certain where these notions came from.
Yes, agents act as a means of thinning the herd before the herd gets to the editors, but it's not like the entire herd was getting published back when they could all stampede the editor without an agent.
Still not convinced? Here's the real argument clincher: in the publishing industry as it stands today, editors are looking for manuscripts that are ready to be published. This means that editors don't edit, agents edit. And if you don't have an agent your story might be too much work for an overworked, overstressed, worried-about-being-downsized publishing house editor.
There are some exceptions to this. I previously mentioned small literary presses that run short story contests. They're looking for you to submit your collection on your own. They'll edit (slightly) but they're pretty much still looking for something that's ready to go to press. There's also category romances that still troll the slush piles of unagented submissions. Although don't mistake the term "category romance" for romances in general. Many romance publishers still want agents to do the first few rounds of editing. "Category romance" means those thin little books on their own special rack at the book store that change every month. Both of these would be considered niche markets: they produce a limited number of copies for a very specific audience. Anything that's hoping to have commercial appeal or sell to a big name publishing house should have an agent attached to it.
Elmore Lenard called it "the best 15% you'll ever spend." That's what an agent's fee is: 15% of your sale. (Don't ever pay an agent in advance -- that's a scam, not an agent.)
You also do not need an agent to publish a single short story in a magazine. You're completely on your own for that even if you've already gotten an agent and published a novel. Magazine/journal publishing is all DIY submissions.
Suggested reliable online sources for further reading:
Bookends LLC blog
Pub-rants (publishing rants)