Saturday, December 20, 2008

To agent or not to agent

I wrote a letter off this morning, giving fairly much unasked-for advice about whether a new writer should go looking for an agent.

Not sure whether it's wise and excellent good advice, after all, but I hate to waste writing,
so I thought I'd go ahead and consider it a 'technical topic'.

Dear Friend,

OK. You're close to the end of a good draft of your first manuscript.
Congratulations. This is a great milestone. Most people who sit down to write a book never get anywhere near this far.

Here are the next stages of your journey --

I. Finish the MS
It will take longer than you think.

A) After you type, 'the end', set the manuscript in a drawer for six or eight weeks. (Start Manuscript Two.) Then come back to your manuscript and rewrite it so it is much better.

B) Send the REWRITTEN ms to 'Beta readers'.
Betas are other writers and the occasional skilled non-writer who will read the whole manuscript.

Ideally, Beta readers do not look at anything but a polished manuscript. If you can, find someone who hasn't already seen the work.
Betas are not proof-readers. They do not catch your spelling errors or make suggestions about awkward prose. You have already fixed all that.

Betas do not tell you, "I really enjoyed it."
That is what your mother is for.

Betas say specific, to-the-point, useful things like,

-- "The first three chapters are pure backstory. Give it up. Start with Chapter Four."
-- "George wouldn't do what you have him do in Chapter Eight."
-- "In Chapters 11 to 14, nothing much happens. Add some action or just dump the whole set of scenes."
-- "Why didn't Henry just talk to Greta when he found her sneaking around in the boat house?"
-- "The lovescene in Chapter 23 would require a contortionist and an octopus."
and sometimes ...
-- "How did she see Farley steal the poodle when it's totally dark in the refectory?"

Beta Readers pick up Big Hulking Story Problems that you do not see because you are too close.

(While the Betas are reading Manuscript One, you are working on Manuscript Two.)

C) When you get ms1 back from the Beta Readers, go over it and fix what is wrong.

You may discover you've spent nearly as much time after you type 'the end', as you did getting to 'the end'.
This is a good sign.

II. Assess Your Market

Who do you plan to sell to? Harlequin? Avon? St. Martin's? Wild Rose?

If you don't know what these companies publish, go to a brick and mortar and study every single book on the Romance shelf. Go online and assess the e-press, if that's your goal.

A) Is your ms as good as what's out there? If not, return to step I and repeat.

B) How much do these companies pay?

Go to the 'Show Me the Money' site here, for an estimate.
A book at Avon may have an average earn-out of $23,000.
A book at Wild Rose may have an earn-out more like $135.

Unsurprisingly, it is much, much harder to get published by Avon.

C) What kind of mss do these publishers buy? What settings? What word count? What level of sexual explicitness? What themes and stories?

D) What are the submission guidelines of the companies that interest you most? Do they accept unagented mss?

You will find submission guidelines on the company websites and in books like --

Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents.

2009 Writer's Market by Robert Brewer.

E) Study the submission process
at Miss Snark's website here. (Browse the archives. Read.)
at Evil Editor here.
at Preditors and Editors here.

III. Which Route to Submission: Agent or Publisher?
Q: Do you go for an agent, or do you approach the publishers directly?
A: It depends.

Category Sales.

Probably submit directly to the publisher

Harlequin accepts unagented submissions.
For a first sale to Harlequin, you probably don't need an agent. The Harlequin contract allows little negotiation, so the agent doesn't have a chance to do her magic. When you get to your second and fifth book, it's time to think about an agent.

The Harlequin submission guidelines are clear. (Go to the site.) They do not accept simultaneous, whole-ms submissions. Check on their policy re simultaneous queries.

E-Publication and Small Press and POD press.
Submit directly to the publisher.

Agents will not generally accept an author whose work is destined for the e-pub/POD/micropress market. There's not enough money in it.

Erotica is, or may become, an exception to this.

Single Title Sales.
You got yerself choices here.

Though some companies accept unagented submissions -- Avon, for instance -- You probably want to think about signing on with an agent. See the Pros and Cons below.

Some companies do not accept manuscripts 'over the transom'.
To publish with them, you will need an agent.

You know whether companies require an agent because they say 'no unagented submissions' on their website or they simply do not tell you how to submit. See the two books above for the various guidelines, laid out clear and easy.

Agent PROs
-- The agent knows the industry. That is her JOB.
A good agent will submit your work to the exactly correct editor at the publisher. The difference between selling your work and not selling it may depend on whose desk it lands on.
Is someone at Tor in love with time-travelling werewolves? Is the guy down the hall disgusted with them?
You don't know. She does.

-- An agent makes the submission process faster and easier.
A good agent will move your manuscript to the top of the heap on the editor's desk. It is only after the editor has read every agented submission that she turns with a sigh to the 'slush pile'.

-- The agent gives you a foot in the door.
A good agent is trusted by the editors. Her opinion counts. A manuscript that seems 'iffy' gets a more attentive reading because the agent recommends it.

-- The agent protects your interests at contract time.
Your agent negotiates a better deal on the contract. This is where the agent pays for herself. She asks an extra thousand in advances, but sells the foreign language rights. She knows she has to add a line on separate accounting.

Agent CONs
-- A bad agent is worse than no agent at all.

-- It's 15% of your money. Ouch.

-- An agent is probably not needed for early Harlequin sales.

Oh ... let me add this.

IV. Querying.

Q: How to query agents?
A: Make a list of your dream agents. Send queries to the top eight or twelve. You work down from the top, because you might get signed by one of the first agents you query.

If you get a refusal, send out another query.
Keep ten or a dozen queries in the air.

How to find your dream agent?

-- find one who reps authors you respect. Find one who reps work a bit 'like yours'?

Google that author's name and 'agent'.

Or, at Amazon, 'look inside the book' for the word 'agent'. This will often pop up the acks in the front of the book and the name of the agent.

-- Subscribe to Publisher's Marketplace. Here. Not expensive, and it'll tell you who is selling what (and to whom.)

V. Final agent thoughts.

A) It's as hard to get a good agent as it is to get a good publisher.

This is not amazing, since an agent is unlikely to take you on unless she thinks she can sell you to a publisher.

B) Getting taken on by a good agent is not a guarantee that you're going to be published. But it's a huge step on the road.

C) If you send your manuscript to ten publishers and then go looking for an agent, you will find them shy and reluctant. You've 'poisoned the waters'. They now have nowhere to market you.
Best to agent or not-agent from the first. There is no, as Yoda would say, 'try'.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful information! I am about to send my manuscript out and this really opens me eyes.

  2. Hi Katiebabs --

    Wonderful! Congratulations on finishing!
    This is so fine.

    I wish you the very best of luck.
    (Picture me with fingers crossed every which way and typing with my long eloquent toes.

    I don't know whereas the advice I give above is all up-to-date and accurate.
    Well intentioned is about as far as I can promise.

  3. Thank you so much for setting this all out so succinctly. I've finished my first manuscript, and I'm working on the beginnings of the second. It's the perfect time for me to see this!