Forgive me if I seem obsessed with this subject, seeing as I've written about it a few times before. But I can't seem to get it out of my head.
It’s an age-old question, and one that gives rise to strong passions on all sides. The issue comes up eventually for every writer, editor, and agent in the land: Do you need an agent, to get published? My short answer is no; but if you go it alone, you won’t know what you’re missing. You don’t know that you don’t know.
For me it's a lot like dating: If you got what you wanted, would you know what to do next? Are you prepared for the 20-page contract from Penguin?
Just yesterday, for the first time in about a year, I updated my mailing list. It has just over a thousand names. I want to always keep current with which editors work where, what kinds of books they handle, and their direct-line phone numbers. And by the time I was done, it hit me:
Exactly 106 editors on my list changed jobs in the past year, or just disappeared. Some got promoted, some fired. Many were replaced by someone I didn't know before, so I needed to call and introduce myself. Many who stayed put, changed to a new email address. Some are now handling a different portfolio than before. Many have quit the business altogether, some through corporate downsizing. (I know that Random House cleaned house a couple of years ago, and offered early retirement to dozens of editors. I offered jobs to two of them.)
It's nice to buy Writer's Market each year, but it's outdated before it goes to press. Do you know who handles your genre at Dutton? At Macmillan? Sourcebooks? There’s a good chance that those names have changed in the past two years.
Agents subscribe to the newsletters where these changes are announced. They attend conferences regularly and mingle with the gatekeepers. They get inside info about upcoming projects that will never be announced to the public, and one of them might be the perfect fit for you. Sure, anyone can get lucky by making a cold call to the switchboard at Hachette. I hear it has worked a time or two. But it’s a lousy strategy.
Are YOU keeping up? Agents do, constantly. It's who you know.