YES! You (probably) need an agent. The question is actually not, “Do you need an agent?”, the question is “WHEN do you need an agent?”!
Agents are an imperative piece of the puzzle for (most) any writer who wants to write full time and actually get paid to do so. They are the first door in a series of multiple doors that have to open for you on this adventure. And the first one is typically the toughest to crack open! You’ll frequently hear stories of writers who were rejected more than a hundred times before they finally found their agent. That is not because finding the agent is so hard—they are everywhere. It’s actually because learning how to pitch to them and being qualified enough to demand their attention takes a LONG time.
I don’t care how phenomenal your manuscript is, if you don’t know how to pitch it, no one will ever be inspired by your pages. I also don’t care how amazing the entire read of your manuscript is; if you don’t understand the function of the first page, no agent is going to experience your book in its entirety. So there are lessons to learn here (we can cover the function of the first five pages of your manuscript is a separate entry) on your way to finding representation.
I used to hate agents because all they did was reject me and my authors. So I built a business that did not require their buy-in for a long time. I have authors earning some nice paychecks for their books without talking to an agent or dealing with a commercial publisher. You make more with an indie press than with a commercial press, so they sell fewer books, but the return can be immensely larger. That being said, there typically comes a time that the equation changes and having an agent becomes imperative.
ASIDE: My partner Robert Renteria (www.fromthebarrio.com) is really my only partner whose book will probably never need an agent. We have a goal of selling ONE MILLION books and getting them into the hands of at-risk youth. This is not going to happen through traditional bookstore distribution. This is happening from non-profits, individuals, high schools, middle schools and universities who are buying the book en masse (see www.thebarriochallenge.com). That is a unique situation! But the point is valuable – every author has their own goals and determining those goals will bring clarity to the agent question.
Most of my other authors want to be in bookstores and so I am having to go out and find the right agents for them again. Our books are highly developed, exceptional journeys and still I have to know my marketing and pitch them appropriately or our books won’t be looked at. Something to realize here is that authors looking for that first publishing break are in the toughest position and they have to be vigilant about learning how to understand the process and what agents/publishers are looking for.
SO! If your book requires a commercial publisher (not because you’re lazy, but because your demographic buys books in bookstores), then pursue the agent. But do so with a strategy. (We can discuss that strategy in another posting!)