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Do I need an agent?

Last month, we looked at how to get published traditionally in Malaysia—and we brought up the idea of a literary agent. So do you need one or not?

Here’s the whole ’nother post on literary agents we (didn’t) promise you. Keep in mind that no publisher in Malaysia (that we know of!) requires you to have an agent at the moment. You’ll only need one if you’re trying to break into the international market, or if you’re trying to sell foreign/translation rights.

But still, good to know lah!

Do I need a literary agent?

What does a literary agent do (in the UK/USA)?

Whilst traditional publishers still represent the official gatekeepers to the industry, the entry point to getting published no longer begins with submitting a completed manuscript—or even a query letter and opening chapters—to a publisher. More often than not, the first foot in the door is catching that elusive unicorn: a literary agent.

A literary agent’s primary and most obvious role is to sell the writer’s work to the publisher. They are expected to know (or find out) what publishers want and match that to the manuscript and author they are representing. Part of this consists of putting together the final query letters and materials that the publishers see.

Translation: You pitch to agent, agent pitch to publisher. Agent = middleman.

Like that only, need agent for what?

Because… agents do more than just sell. They handle financial and legal matters, including

  • negotiating contracts and payment schedules,
  • selling various rights and licenses, and
  • ensuring the contracts and deals comply with industry standards and best practices.

A good agent will have the clout, ability, and business acumen to get the author the best possible contract that maximises the author’s income streams rather than the publisher’s. After all, agents don’t work for free—they stand to earn between ten to fifteen per cent of the author’s income, even up to twenty per cent for foreign markets.

A lesser-known task of literary agents is to groom their clients and manage their careers. Not only must the manuscript be marketable, but the authors themselves must also be palatable to the public. This includes working with the author on their platform and public-facing engagements. Whether they are promoted for their celebrity status, credentials, or eccentricity, the author’s immediate sphere of influence—including their social media presence and/or other personal and professional networks—can and does influence a publisher’s decision.

A fairly new phenomenon is the provision of editorial assistance. In the past, agents focused on selling the manuscript, leaving editorial work to the actual editors in the publishing houses. However, some agents now provide editorial notes that writers are requested to work on before the manuscript is submitted to publishers. This acts as an additional service to the author and as a way to improve the saleability of the manuscript.

Translation: Actually leh, agent = business manager. They kautim all the business stuff so you focus on writing, not selling.

So why Malaysia don’t have?

Few literary agents exist outside the UK and USA English-language trade publishing industry (even in Europe). Those that exist are more likely to deal with foreign sales, translation rights, and other subsidiary rights rather than being the first liaison between author and publisher.

Publishers in Malaysia and Singapore all accept direct submissions and do not even use the same language of “solicited”, “unsolicited”, “agented”, or “unagented” in their guidelines. Most simply state that writers should send their completed manuscript to the given submissions email address. Some require certain formats or ask for a cover letter, but there are no standard rules or guidelines yet.

We believe that this is because local publishers do not receive as many submissions as those overseas. Writing is often still seen as a past time or hobby, or for the select “talented” few. As such, Malaysian publishers do not deal with the sheer volume of submissions that overwhelms trade publishing in the UK and USA.

The industry is also relatively informal and has more small independent presses than large publishing houses or conglomerates. This laid-back scene could also be a key factor. As the industry is small, it’s easier for publishers to work directly with the writers.

Translation: Market too small, no need agent. Just sell direct.

Anyway, I want to self-publish so no need agent lor

That depends!

If you want to sell translation or movie rights, getting an agent might help you negotiate a better contract! A few successful self-published authors have used agents to advance their career. These include Andy Weir (The Martian), who jumped from self-publishing into a traditional publishing deal, and Hugh Howey (Wool), who sold paperback rights to separate publishers but held on to his e-book rights.

Hybrid authors like Howey benefit the most from an agent’s experience in selling translation, foreign, and movie rights, as well as breaking down the sale of territorial publishing rights—an aspect often out of reach for self-published authors, whether through lack of contacts or lack of business know-how. Getting the advice of an agent—or a lawyer specialising in rights—would be the best way for self-published authors to navigate the tricky and difficult management of rights that goes beyond the text in their books.

Translation: When you’re famous, maybe you might need one.

Ok. So I can ignore agents for now

Yup! The need for literary agents hasn’t made its way over to Malaysia yet. If you need one here, it’s more likely for the sale of subsidiary rights (translations, movie deals, foreign rights) rather than the publishing deal.

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