You don't need an agent to self-publish. You generally do need one to get a major publisher. Sometimes publishing companies approach you if you have established yourself as an expert in your field. Here's where agents come in handy.
Agents are useful to negotiate your contract with a big company – they usually can’t sell your how-to book much better than you can. Contrary to popular belief agents don’t sell books. Subjects, recognized expertise, great proposals, great writing and connections sell books, but if you don’t use agents in a negotiation there’s a good chance you may lose money – you can bet that publishers come to the table with lawyers.
Because she was so famous that publishers were coming to her with offers, Suzy Prudden’s and my mother, Bonnie Prudden, sold most of her books herself. She didn’t always make the best publishing deals but she made millions on her books. Suzy and I have had both good and bad experiences with agents. One agent I worked with killed a book deal I had gotten by myself. She killed the deal over recording rights, an issue I didn’t remotely care about - she never asked me if it was important to me. The result was I didn’t do business with a company that would have published four books for me. Agents have, on the other hand, gotten more money for us than we would have made for ourselves.
The way to work with agents and lawyers is to make certain they know what YOU want going into a negotiation so they don’t kill deals you don’t want killed for the wrong reasons. If you’re going to self-publish you don’t need an agent. You do need a good editor.
There are books on how to get agents. I have used the Guide to Literary Agents: Where & How to Find the Right Agent to Represent Your Work to great advantage. There are also agents listen in The Writer’s Guide. If you are going to use a book to get an agent, you have to write a zinger of a query letter that lets them know that (a) you have a book a publisher might buy and (b) you are ready, willing and able to self-promote. Self-promotion is the thing that all writers have to be willing to do. That's setting up book signings, that's active back of the room sales, that's creating a high on-line profile, that's speaking wherever possible. Don’t forget, agents get 15% of your income if you sell to a publisher.
The most important thing that I can tell you about agents is that they know their fields and they have contacts in the publishing world. If you are going after an agent make certain to research what they specialize in because that will be an indication of their contacts. They generally say what they specialize in and you can also tell if you have a fit by looking at the books and authors they have represented. If they are working in the field you are writing in, they know what will sell. They aren’t always good at telling you what is wrong with your book, but you can ferret out the information if you listen carefully and objectively. The absolutely most self-defeating thing you can do is get mad at an agent for giving you honest feedback.
I recently worked with a client who got so angry at an agent for telling him the truth about his book that he had to drop the project. If an agent spends time telling you things, figure out how to use that information and make your project better. One of the reasons that self-publishing has such a bad rap is that authors (a) do not get feedback and (b) do not listen to feedback. If you need to, step back from your project for a month or two before re-reading it. Once you are away from the project for a period of time you get more perspective on it. As a general rule, when you are up close to a project you like it so much you can't see its flaws. Giving yourself detachment is the best tool you can have to see where you can improve your work. Seek feedback even if you have to pay for it. It's important. As a general rule, giving yourself time so that you can get your book published is better than rushing your book through and having a product that either won't get published, or won't get sales.
There are agents who will charge you to read your book. I have not had a great deal of success with them. They have taken my money and given me nothing of value in return. I don't mind people no liking what I write as much as I dislike people who take my money and give me nothing valuable in return. I would highly recommend that they are rip offs and to avoid them. If reading your book is their only profit center, they have no incentive to improve it so they can make money getting it published.
This blog is taken from my book "How To Write A Book That Positions You As An Expert In Your Field" available on Kindle.