Must you have an agent to find a traditional publisher? No, you don’t. However, an agent can introduce you and your manuscript (MS) to well-known, big publishing houses willing to invest money in a new author but are unwilling—and no longer need—to search them out themselves. They trust agents to do that for them. As a result, they generally refuse to read unagented submissions.
Having an agent, therefore, means there will be many more traditional publishers willing to look at your work.
Remind Yourself of Your Goal From Time to Time
If your goal is to find a traditional publisher for your manuscript, it’s because you want to place yourself and your MS in the care of a publishing company that has the expertise to take a raw manuscript and develop it into a published book of which you can be very proud. You may also want a publisher that will market and publicize your book and put paper copies in the hands of all the large bookstores in several countries, and you may be determined to find a large, publishing house that will do just that.
- Naturally, everyone in the publishing biz wants to find the next Harry Potter or Chicken Soup for the … series or discover another Sue Grafton, but large publishing houses won’t waste time and effort on combing through hundreds of manuscripts every week to find these gems. They count on agents to do the preliminary work for them.
- If you submit a thrilling, attention-grabbing story that has been beautifully edited to a major publishing house on your own, without an agent, your work will not go into a slush pile and sit for a long time before it’s read—it will never be read. A big publishing house has no slush pile; it has a big wastepaper recycling bin instead.
- An agent selects and reads material sent by potential clients, and either accepts or rejects each submission. When an MS is accepted by an agent, it will be sent to publishers who would otherwise not even consider reading it, never mind publishing it.
- Your search for an agent to represent you may take a very long time and you will receive many rejections. However, if you have faith in your work and want to get your MS into the hands of a major publisher, finding a good agent is the route you must follow.
- Note that I qualified the comment with the adjective “good.” There are a lot of agents who are incapable of recognizing a potential best seller or even a good one, even if it jumped up and bit them on the bum. Don’t allow rejections to upset you.
- Remember that you—not the publisher—will pay the agent. A percentage of your royalties will go to your agent and you will sign a contract and agree to the terms before publication.
How Do You Find An Agent?
- The Rules
- Avoid agents who charge fees for reading your MS; however, you may be expected to pay a minor fee for office expenses—paper copies, for example. Make sure you know exactly how much and what the fees are for before shelling out.
- Do your homework and go online to check out any agent before submitting your query letter and any other material. There are sharks out there.
- Follow the guidelines of each agent to the letter and be prepared to submit to several (many) agents or agencies before finding one.
- Prepare a query letter, a synopsis of your story, and a short biography. You will have to supply one or two or all three of those, and some agents ask for the first chapter, or the first x number of pages of your MS.
- Streamline your query letter for each agent, and make sure the agent handles your genre—romance, mystery, self-help, etc., before submitting.
- The Sources
- Consult references such as the most recent Guide to Literary Agents or The Writers Market, published by the Writer’s Digest Books (purchase or find in public libraries).
- Attend writer’s conferences.
- Join writer’s groups and enter writer’s contests.
- Consult the public library for current writer’s magazines and resource books.
- Search online for agents willing to accept new clients and check them out for reliability.
Ideally, an agent will read your query letter, consider the market for the type of book you have written and the publishers who publish similar books and, if interested, will ask for your complete MS. If the agent decides it’s good enough to interest a publisher and you are a good prospect, you will be contacted by the agent who will agree to represent you, and may or may not offer a contract at that point.
After You Submit an MS to an Agent, Here is What Can Happen
- The agent reads your query letter and/or a few pages of your MS, isn’t interested, and discards it without responding. (Yes, it happens often.)
- The agent receives so many queries, your letter and MS goes into a slush pile and both are evenually discarded without being read and the agent doesn’t let you know. (Yes, that happens, too.)
- The agent lets you know very quickly that he/she can’t take on any more clients or books of the type you have written, and suggests you try elsewhere. Sometimes, agents even tell you what they liked, explain why they couldn’t take on your project, and offer encouragement. (That doesn’t happen often but it’s very nice when it does.)
- The agent reads the MS but isn’t enthusiastic enough to want to represent you or doesn’t have the time, and sends a form letter telling you to try another agent. (Be happy the agent bothered to respond.)
- The agent likes the MS, agrees to try and find a publisher for you, sends it out to two or three publishers who aren’t interested, and the agent gives up and doesn’t let you know. (It’s very upsetting, but it does happen now and then.)
- The agent likes the MS, sends it out to publishers until he/she finds one who likes it, too, and the agent negotiates the best deal possible for a new writer and there is great rejoicing all around. (That’s the dream!)
It is as difficult to find an agent as it is to find a publisher but the big advantage of having an agent is that most big publishing houses won’t read any MS that comes to them unrepresented. On the other hand, there is no sense in wasting too much time on following this route. Unknown authors have a good chance of reaching a wide audience by giving up the search for an agent and submitting directly to smaller publishing houses. Happily, that’s what I did. My book, Murder On A Monday, is being published by High Tide Pubications Inc. in the spring, and, yes, there was great rejoicing all around!
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