Skip to main content

Do Writers Need Literary Agents?

Do writers need literary agents to get published and find success with their writing? Are there times when getting an agent doesn't make sense? We answer these questions here.

Before I jump into this topic, I just want to make one thing abundantly clear: I love literary agents. I think they're an essential part of the publishing process at the top level. They make it so writers can focus on writing; they help editors find great books. So this is not a post about whether literary agents are important or not. Rather, it's about whether all writers need literary agents for all writing projects.

Image placeholder title

(20 literary agents actively seeking writers and their writing.)

Believe it or not, there are times when a writer needs a literary agent to accomplish their goals. And there are times when a literary agent is not required. In fact, there are some projects that don't make sense for agents, because they work on commission.

So let's take a look at when agents make sense for writers and when they might not.

Do Writers Need Literary Agents?

The quick answer is, "Depends."

If your goal is to get published by one of the imprints at Penguin Random House or HarperCollins, then you'll need a literary agent just to get over the transom. Many mid-sized publishers require an agent as well. In these cases, writers need a literary agent.

(How to hook a literary agent.)

However, many mid-sized publishers and smaller presses don't require agents. These publishers welcome submissions from writers with open arms—and Submittable pages. In these cases, writers don't need a literary agent, though they may want one.

After all, agents can still help negotiate better terms on contracts and try to place future projects with the large publishers.

Are There Times When a Literary Agent Doesn't Make Sense?

As the former editor of Poet's Market, I would get asked every so often where the listings for agents who rep poetry are. The harsh reality is that there aren't many agents who represent poets. In most cases, the poets are either already super well known or writing in another genre (like fiction or memoir).

(Do literary agents cost money?)

The reason agents avoid poetry is that they work on commission. So they don't get paid until their authors are paid, and then, they receive 15% of that payment. Unfortunately, there's not much money in poetry—for the most part.

Literary agents are also lukewarm to short story collections without a novel on the way. Because most large publishers don't want to publish a story collection without the promise of a novel or two afterward.

Scholarly and regional works are usually not going to be a good fit either. Even if the projects are great, it really does come down to commercial appeal and an agent's need to keep the lights on. Remember: 15% of $1,000 is only $150. So agents are understandably looking for upside in the projects they represent.

Final Word on Writers and Agents

As I mentioned earlier, I love literary agents. They can be a wonderful boon to a writer's project and writing career. But they're not right for every project. My advice—once you've finished your manuscript or book proposal—is to think about which publisher(s) are a good fit for your book.

Then, check out their submission guidelines to see if you need a literary agent to get in the door. If you do, then you need a literary agent. If you don't, try submitting to the appropriate publishers even as you're querying agents. When you get an acceptance, you can always try to rope an agent in to negotiate the contract on your behalf or do it yourself. Either way, there will be reason for celebration.

12 Weeks to a First Draft

Dive into the world of writing and learn all 12 steps needed to complete a first draft. In this writing workshop you will tackle the steps to writing a book, learn effective writing techniques along the way, and of course, begin writing your first draft.

Click to continue.

10 Tips on Covering Events as a Freelance Journalist

10 Tips on Covering Events as a Freelance Journalist

From planning ahead to staying late, Alison Hill shares 10 tips for journalists while covering events as a freelancer.

From Script

Character Studies, Writing the Immigrant Experience, and Six Adaptation Steps Before You Adapt a Book (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, navigate different character study approaches in your writing, and tracking emotional journeys.

Lora Senf: On Trusting Children With Middle Grade Fiction

Lora Senf: On Trusting Children With Middle Grade Fiction

Author Lora Senf discusses how one chilling text message led her to writing her new middle grade horror novel, The Clackity.

Katrina Leno: On Writing Around an Idea

Katrina Leno: On Writing Around an Idea

Critically acclaimed novelist Katrina Leno discusses the process of bringing her childhood memories to magical life in her new young adult novel, Sometime in Summer.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: A New Podcast Episode, "Your Story" Prompt, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our latest episode of "Writer's Digest Presents," the new "Your Story" prompt, and more!

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2022

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2022

Here are the top live streams, podcasts, and YouTube channels as identified in the 24th Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

What Is Fan Fiction in Writing?

What Is Fan Fiction in Writing?

You might have heard the term, especially if you’re in online fandoms, but what exactly is fan fiction? Managing Editor Moriah Richard explains.

5 Ways To Use Short Stories To Grow as a Writer

5 Ways To Use Short Stories To Grow as a Writer

Short story writing can be a gateway to writing your novel—but they’re also fun and worthy stories in their own right. Here, author Dallas Woodburn shares 5 ways to use short stories to grow as a writer.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not having an online presence.