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Top Reasons To Query Literary Agents Before Moving On To “Plan B”

There are many paths to publishing these days—through online E-presses, self-publishing, print on demand, and independent or university-affiliated publishing houses. But most of the writers who come to Writer’s Relief dream of being among the small percentage of authors who publish their book with traditional publishing houses, like Penguin, Random House, or Hachette. We are often asked “Why does Writer’s Relief query literary agents before publishing houses?

To get the answer, we first have to offer a quick overview of agent-editor relationships.

Agents and Editors: Let’s Do Lunch

The roles of agents and editors are mutually beneficial. First, literary agents are the front line in the submission process. They “weed out” the projects that they don’t feel will be a good fit for publishers and try to save publishers’ valuable time. Also, agents get to know the editors they submit to; they become familiar with their tastes and preferences. When an editor receives a manuscript recommendation from an agent she or he trusts, it’s not much different than if you were to receive a book recommendation from a good friend.

So, What Are The Benefits Of Querying Agents First?

Here are just a few reasons we advocate getting a literary agent for book-length projects.

Foot in the Door. The facts are plain: the vast majority of traditional “big-time” publishing houses like those listed above will not take you seriously—they won’t even look at your work—unless you have an agent. If you’re considering publishing with a smaller, independent publishing house, you may have a chance to see your manuscript reviewed without getting an agent (but you’ll be on your own with the contracts and negotiations).

If you’re shooting for that pie-in-the-sky contract, an agent is the first, best step in getting you there.

Submit to Review Board

Effectiveness. Pitching your book to an agent is like pitching your book to dozens of editors. When an agent gets your submission, he reads it with an eye toward the editors who might like to buy it. A good agent will be running through his mental Rolodex while reading your submission.

Tradition. Querying an agent first demonstrates professionalism and a knowledge of the workings of the industry. Some publishing houses will not require agented submissions. But most traditional houses will insist on it.

Author’s protection. Sending your manuscript with an agent means that someone is in your corner. Agents will negotiate contracts and will tactfully intervene if the art department puts a naked centaur on your story about 19th-century Harlem. Having an agent means you might have more control over your work.

More money. If you are able to get a book deal, your agent will be able to negotiate your advance, your percentages on royalties, and more. It’s been reported that some publishing houses are known to pay out smaller advances to writers who don’t have agents to go to bat for them.

Subtext. If you approach a publishing house through an agency, your work will be taken more seriously. Having your name on an agent’s letterhead goes a long way toward ensuring a good read.

But what about all the people who get book deals without an agent?

As with most endeavors, there are always nontraditional  ways of achieving a certain goal. And, certainly, the publishing climate is changing. You will most likely have heard stories of self-published authors who land a book deal after hand-selling their novel one book at a time. You also may have heard stories of writers who land a big publisher through their blog.

But the reason you’ve heard those stories is they are exceptions, not the norm. A far greater number of authors get book contracts the traditional way—by gaining agency representation before seeking a publisher. There are dozens of agent-editor deals on www.PublishersMarketplace.com every day.

More resources to check out if you’re submitting a book: How to Write a Query Letter and How to Submit Your Nonfiction Book. In the end it’s up to you to decide if you want to seek literary agent representation. But here at Writer’s Relief, it’s the method we most strongly recommend.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: What do you think? Should writers first query agents, then move to plan B?

9 Responses to Top Reasons To Query Literary Agents Before Moving On To “Plan B”

  1. Excellent summary!
    But I must add that as an older person starting to write fiction in her seventies it is hard to interest an agent and one doesn’t want to hang around!
    I went direct to a small independent publisher, got my contract checked with the Society Of Authors (UK)’ and am very happy. My first novel comes out this year, my second is written, and a third is in progress. My first novel is called Timed Out, incidentally.

  2. An agent is great if you do not mind waiting two or three years to see your book in print. First spend about a year querying agents. Then another year while your agent shops your book. Then another year before the publishing house gets your book to market. And then, at your expense, travels to publicize your book around the country.

  3. Good Heavens. How many times do we have to hear the same ole same ole. Let’s face it. It’s all about who you know (or get to know). That’s why MFA Programs exist. That’s why self-publishing exists. And that’s why there isn’t too much really interesting stuff to read. Everybody’s doing the same thing as everybody else: trying to hustle their way up the creativity ladder (as if there is such a thing). Hope Karen Snowdy has finished her book by now.

  4. That makes a lot of sense. I wouldn’t try to win a court case without a lawyer (unless I plan to spend every waking moment for a year eating, breathing, drinking law so that I’ll be taken somewhat seriously). So yeah, you CAN go to a publisher without an agent, but unless you’re going to study up on everything an agent knows about the industry, contracts, negotiations, etc., it’s just a lot safer and easier to go through an agent.

  5. Your advice is great–as usual. It’s just such a hard way to go with seeking representation. Most folks I work with, as their copyeditor, just don’t want to wait through all those rejections. As a result, most of my clients have self-published.

  6. I’m still in the process of writing my first book but already have an agent in mind thanks to a Writer’s Relief Newsflash. Thanks for all your help and advice.

  7. Great article, as always! This shows why it’s important to consider getting an agent first–before trying to find a publisher.

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