Regardless of whether you’re writing a novel, nonfiction book, children’s book (or something else entirely), once you’re ready to submit your work in the hopes of landing a publisher, you’ll have to decide:
Should I approach agents or editors?
The easy answer is: Most writers should pitch agents first, especially since it’s hard to go wrong with that approach. But a variety of factors play into this decision.
Is your book appropriate for a New York publisher?
If you hope to see your book published by the likes of Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, or Hachette, then you need to start an agent search. That’s because virtually no New York publisher accepts materials directly from authors; it has to be agented. If you try to submit without an agent, your work is most likely to go straight into the trash can (either literally or digitally).
But this question can be a little more complicated than it first looks:
- There are occasionally opportunities to pitch New York editors at writing conferences, or you might meet one at a workshop or social function. They might express interest in your work and even invite you to get in touch. If you do have such a personal invitation, don’t hesitate to follow up on it, but understand that editors will rarely be able to move forward with the project if they want to make an offer. At that point, they’ll tell you to get an agent, and of course—if you have an editor’s interest—the process of finding one should be easier than if you don’t.
- Not all projects are (by a long shot) appropriate for New York publishers. By “appropriate,” I mean something that has enough commercial potential that a publisher would seriously consider making an offer on it. Or, a book needs to have the potential to sell tens of thousands of copies and merit bookstore shelf space across the country. Unfortunately, writers can have a hard time telling what projects are destined for commercial success—too much personal bias!
Is your work best suited to a small, independent publisher or academic press? (Do you know the right publishers already for your work?)
Some books are niche by design: the audience may be very specific, and there are only a handful of publishers that focus on that particular audience or category. Take graphic design, for example: You could probably count the number of active publishers in that category on one hand, and if you’re a graphic designer, you probably know what they are even without researching. Or, if you’re a scholar, you may already know the specific university presses that regularly produce work in your field.
In cases such as these—where you may know the publishing landscape better than an agent because you are a specialist—then there’s little need to have an agent represent you. You already know the market, and the publishers are likely open to receiving materials directly from authors.
With any kind of general fiction, however, the lines can get blurrier. There’s a very wide range of small and independent publishers out there, and they’re not created equal. (I comment more on small presses here.) Some, like Graywolf, don’t accept unagented material; their size and prestige matches that of a New York house. With others, you may benefit from having an agent assist you with contract negotiations, while small, mom-and-pop publishers may balk if you bring an agent to the table.
For any type of commercial or genre fiction, the best strategy is to look for an agent first, and if you can’t find one to represent you, then you can research and submit to publishers that happily accept material directly from authors.
Avoid submitting to agents and editors at the same time
Some writers (usually the impatient ones!) decide that they’ll query agents at the same time as the editors. But I strongly advise against this. An agent wants a clean slate to work from, and if you’ve been sending your work out—even just to small presses—that makes her job more difficult. If you desire an agent or have hopes for a Big Five deal, then there’s no question: approach agents first, publishers second.
When working through an agent isn’t necessarily the best thing
When you’re a specialist and you know the right publishers for your work (as described above), then having an agent may or may not be of use to you. Sometimes publishers that work in niche areas offer very small advances and less flexibility in their contracts. While you may want an agent to help negotiate the deal, giving them a 15% commission on everything you earn—if that’s all they do for you—can make little sense, especially if you didn’t need them to secure the deal in the first place.
But that’s still what some authors end up doing, because they feel better about having an agent in case something goes wrong, and to feel like someone is “taking care of business” for them. Whether your agent will do this successfully and devotedly will depend on the agent. Never forget that if your advance is small (less than $10,000) and your sales aren’t much to look at, they may not have a strong incentive to do a lot of hand-holding or nurturing, unless they’re truly invested in a long-term relationship, with profitable book deals ahead.
There are such things as literary lawyers who can negotiate a contract for you based on a flat fee or hourly rate. Sometimes this is a preferable course of action, especially if you’re not pursuing a career focused on traditional authorship.
Also be very careful of signing with agents who have a track record of sales to hybrid publishers, publishing services, and other small outfits that almost no one has heard of. Such agents may have financial incentives to deliver you into the hands of a company that will end up charging you money. Publishers Marketplace is a good place to check on the track record of deals an agent has made ($25/month); also run a Google search on the name of the agent (and/or publisher), then add the word “scam,” to learn about the writing community’s perception of that agent or publisher.
To learn more
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.