Book Business

Curious About Agents and Publishers and Stuff

A writer friend recently messaged me with a few questions about agents and publishers and stuff. The “and stuff” is my locution, not hers. So I thought for the benefit or outrage of all, I’d answer her in this space. See how generous I am? No? Okay, be that way. Here goes:

I am curious about using literary agents vs. working with a publisher without agent representation. . . . I’ve noticed that some writers do have representation, yet their book hasn’t sold to a publisher yet. In some situations, the author has been represented for a year or more and the agent is still shopping their manuscript. I’m wondering, how does the agent help to promote the author’s work to ignite publisher interest?

This question (and those that follow) are sort of what we bigwigs call “asking a barber if you need a haircut.” As an agent, of course, I think agents are pretty great. So, keep that in mind, as I answer. First, a year in this business is not a long time. I’ve had clients who’ve gotten an offer 10, 11, or 12 months after submission. I’ve also had clients who, a year after submission, have a new project ready for submission.

To go back to the question above (“How does the agent help to promote the author’s work to ignite publisher interest?”), some agents do more than others, of course. In my case, a lot of “igniting interest” is done before submission—helping a writer to craft and sharpen an irresistible proposal. Sometimes that takes months of back-and-forth between agent and client. Then, when a proposal is ready for submission, the agent sends it on (these days via email, in my case with a fairly short pitch that emphasizes the uniqueness of the project and/or the author) to the right editors (capitalizing on the agent’s knowledge of the industry and editors’ expressed interest, etc.), which is an art in itself.

About how long does it take for a publisher to accept/reject a manuscript once an agent presents it?

There’s no good answer to this question, really. Some rejections come within days. Others take months. Sometimes an editor will express interest within days; other times, an offer comes a few months down the road. It’s all over the map. Many writers wait and wait and wait for an answer on a project. (And, as much as I wish it were different, these days eight or nine months is not unusual; and, as much as I wish it were different, some editors let their silence serve as their “no, thank you”). Consequently, I emphasize to my clients the ability and willingness to keep moving. That is, once your proposal (and, in the case of fiction, your manuscript) for Project A is done, and as tight and sharp as you can make it, it’s time to start on the next project. You may be offered a contract for Project A. Or you may be offered a contract for Project B. Or Project B may remind an editor of Project A that she declined last year and now might have a spot for it. Or Project C might get a contract, and the editor may ask, “Whaddya got for a follow-up?” and Project A or B might work. Or Project D might. Get the picture? It’s a long, long game.

Should the writer seek new representation in this case?

From the context, I think “this case” means “when a writer has waited a long time and still doesn’t have an offer.” If that’s the only reason for “seeking new representation,” then no, that’s not the wisest move. It ain’t easy to get an agent in the first place, so “new representation” isn’t a slam dunk. If a “new agent” asks, “Why did you leave Bogus and Bungling Agency?” and your answer is “because it’s been a year and he didn’t sell my book,” you’re likely to get an eye roll or a smirk. And that agent probably isn’t going to take your book-that-didn’t-sell and shop it around; he or she is going to want something fresh from you, which you could also have offered to your previous agent. And if you don’t have something fresh after a year, the new agent will wonder, why not?

Also, if a writer has already gained interest from a publisher even before submitting a proposal, should that writer still seek agent representation? Would the publisher be “turned off” by that writer if they decided to work with an agent instead of directly with the publisher?

The best time to seek representation is when you’ve been offered a contract. The second-best time is when a publisher has expressed genuine interest (not just, “sure, send me something”). A publisher is never “turned off” by writers who have representation; in fact, some editors and publishers will only consider agented works.


So, I hope this helps. I also know it will only prompt new questions. So, go ahead and ask in the comments; and I’ll answer if and as I can.

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