Do you want to be published by a traditional, big name publisher like Penguin or Pocket? Then:
Yes, you probably need an agent. Most major publishers won’t look at unagented queries or manuscripts. Try Publisher’s Marketplace or Preditors & Editors to find an agent. You might also consider joining a writer’s organization (there are many; look for one based on your genre), where you can get lots of advice or meet agents at conferences.
Of course, if you’re a multi-published author who has personal relationships with editors already, you can probably work your own deals and don’t have to have an agent. Some small presses might even be willing to look at your manuscript without an agent.
For me, the 15% my agent takes is worth it because:
- She finds and changes unfavorable clauses in my contracts.
- She keeps track of the legal details, like rights and option clauses.
- She sells translation rights, and seeks film sales.
- She’s the ‘bad guy’ when dealing with publishers.
- She’s on my side, and fights for what I want.
- She knows the industry, and I can ask for her advice.
- When I want to branch out into new genres, she opens the door for me – or even points out doors I hadn’t noticed.
My agent did me the great favor of pointing out that I have a ‘young’ writing voice, and suggested I try YA – something I never would have tried without her input.
If you want to go it alone, and e-pub, obviously you don’t need an agent. I would argue that you still need a story editor and a copy editor, but you can hire them yourself. One possibility: Manuscript Master, run by the talented Lisa Costantino.
The publishing world is in the midst of massive changes, and many traditionally-published writers have done the royalty math, and realized that they can make as much — or a heck of a lot more — money acting as their own publishers as opposed to going the old route.
Other bloggers have addressed this issue much better than I can. Here are a couple links to get you started:
The Business Rusch Publishing Series by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Joe Konrath’s A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing