(More to the point, do I?)
Frances Garrood raised this question over on the MNW blog. Frances has two fine novels to her credit, and, of course, "two" is the magic number for the Macmillan New Writing imprint, the number beyond which you must move to another imprint within the Pan Macmillan family. On the other hand, if you make that move, it's expected that your editor will go along with you, so the net change may not be all that great.
Back in the golden age of publishing (back when all editors were Maxwell Perkins and all authors were Hemingways, Wolfes, Fitzgeralds, or similar cultural icons; back when 'advances' were just that--a way to keep a writer fed and out of the rain while they finished their latest opus), an author's primary relationship was typically with their editor, and there were many cases of author's moving with their editors, not only between imprints, but from one publishing house to another. Editors nurtured their writers, acting as guide, confessor, friend, drinking buddy, banker, and, I gather, sometimes even doing a spot of editing on the side.
That's the legend (and, like the Arthurian legends, it's more fun to enjoy it without looking too closely into the specifics). Certainly editors dominated the literary landscape and agents played only a minor role. For those of us who have worked with a good editor, this would seem to be the logical state of affairs; after all, if an editor is doing their job, the editor has the most intimate relationship with a novel of anyone excepting the writer.
So, if you're lucky enough to be published at a house where you have an ongoing relationship with a good editor, do you really need an agent?
I'd answer with a definitive maybe yes, maybe no.
When do I think an agent would be useful to someone who has a good editor? Under any of the following circumstances, an agent might be in order even if you're already happily published:
1. You wear many writerly masks. Editors have many jobs beyond gently pointing out our more egregious blunders. One of them, crass as it may sound, is to develop writers as saleable commodities for their publishing houses. Sure, Iain Banks may be able to maintain an identity in two unrelated genres, but I'd bet no editor encouraged him to "branch out" into a wholly new identity. (Ken Follett has said that be received stiff resistance from everyone in publishing when he decided to switch away from his thrillers and write his first historical novel. Hardly surprising.) An editor needs to convince a house to publish a book in the first place, and then needs to cultivate that writer’s success (if any) by building their brand. Encouraging a writer of, say, military fiction to try their hand at a Harlequin romance doesn’t really make much sense for the house, the editor’s career, or most probably for the writer’s career.
Now, to be fair, no agent is likely to greet a writer’s desire to adopt a second genre with cheers of encouragement—unless the writer’s career in their first genre is flagging. But the agent is more likely to be able to go along (perhaps quite grudgingly) with the writer’s mulish, wrong-headed determination, because the agent is in a position to select from all the possible houses and imprints in the wide world to place the book (possibly under a pseudonym); the editor has no such luxury.
So, if you’re foolish enough to have novels in more than one genre, you most likely will need to seek an agent.
2. You have a novel you believe in that has been rejected. If your editor has said no to a book, that doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be published. It might mean that the editor can’t convince the house of its commercial prospects; it might mean that it doesn’t fit with the way they hope to build you as an author; it might mean that the editor is simply wrong about the book. The why of it doesn’t matter. You have three options open to you: a) Forget about it; b) Get an agent to shop it elsewhere; or, c) Send it over the transom to another publisher.
Forgetting about a book you think deserves a chance is an uncomfortable decision to live with. Tossing it over the transom is fine, but there aren’t many publishers who are open to unagented submissions. If you believe in the book, getting an agent is probably the best course.
3. You need more guidance. The MNW crowd is lucky in that Will Atkins is a flexible, generous editor who is willing to kick around ideas and even offer advice about what you might try next, but he still has to view matters from the perspective of what is possible within the (admittedly large) Pan Mac empire. An agent can take a broader view of your career…if you are so lucky as to acquire an agent whose perspective harmonizes with your own. (Good luck on that.)
4. You just want someone else to talk to. Hey, it’s a lonely business.
5. You want to be able to drop the phrase, “I was talking to my agent the other day…” into conversations. In Southern California, this hints at a connection to the movies and makes you seem more glamorous. In other parts of the country, however, people will probably assume you are talking about your insurance agent.
Note that I prefaced this with “even if you're already happily published.” If you aren’t happy with your publisher, or you feel you could get a far better deal that you are receiving, then you probably need an agent--if nothing else, as a reality check..
In my case, if I wrote only thrillers, I’d be only too happy to avoid the process of seeking representation; so far I’m an instance of Case #1, above—though, living here in the Belly of the Beast as I do, #5 has some appeal.
I’m sure I’ve overlooked some perfectly good reasons. Feel free to supply them.