What if You Get a Book Deal on Your Own and Then Want an Agent?

by Steve Laube


One of our readers asked this via the green “Ask us a question” button.

What happens if you get a book contract before you have an agent? What if, by some miracle, an editor sees your work and wants to publish it? (1) would having a publisher interested in my work make an agent much more likely to represent me, and (2) would it be appropriate to try to find an agent at that point (when a publisher says it wants to publish you)? My fear is that querying an agent and receiving a response could take several months, but I’d need to accept a potential contract with a book publisher right away (I would think). Is it appropriate to ask the editor to speak with an agent on your behalf to speed the process?

This is a great topic but there are a few questions within the question. Let me try to break it down.

Many times we have had authors approach us with contracts in hand and seeking representation (happened just last week). Of course this will get an agent’s attention immediately. But there are caveats:

a)      Who is the publisher? There is a big difference between a major company and your local independent publisher. Not all publishers are created equal (see the Preditors & Editors warnings). I remember a situation where the publisher who had made the offer to the author was not well known in the industry, they appeared to be a startup, and the terms in the contract were onerous. This was not a publisher we could recommend the author work with. We declined to represent the project. The author signed the contract anyway. A few years later the author came to me detailing their regrets.

There are also packagers, subsidy publishers, and vanity presses that can easily confuse a new writer into thinking that their contract offer is similar to getting a contract offer from Random House. This is not a criticism of those companies but merely to present their contract offers as a contrast to what is offered by Traditional Publishing. Do your due diligence and practice discernment.

b)      Is this a real contract offer or an editor who said they were interested? This is a big difference. I once had a writer literally beg for representation because an editor had said they were interested at a conference (and when I wrote “literally beg” I mean with all the fullness of what that phrase suggests). Found out later the editor had been stopped in a hallway and after hearing the author’s pitch said to the writer, “Sure I’ll give it a look if you have an agent send it to me.” [FYI: That is not a contract offer.]

c)      What is your content? To maintain our integrity we would still need to see your book. We never will represent someone’s work without seeing it first. Our company becomes associated with that material. But if your contract offer is from a major house, trust that we will not sit on the content for long. There is no need to ask the editor to get involved at this stage. It would put them in an awkward position, especially if they would prefer working with a different agent! Also do not ask the editor which agent they prefer. Again you would be putting them in an awkward position. Better to ask, “I’m thinking of working with Steve Laube as my agent, are there any red flags that you feel comfortable sharing with me?” [I anticipate a few jokes in the comments with that set up line.]

d)     Who are you? We may have never met or talked. We need to find out if you are who you say you are. If we have met in the past, remind me of the context.

I have a client right now who I met at a conference. The writer pitched their idea I thought the idea intriguing but challenged the writer to “blow me away” with their sample material and send it to me. At the same conference the writer connected with an editor at a major publisher. That editor became quite enthused and worked directly with the author for a few months refining the project. I did not know this was happening and was simply waiting for the proposal to arrive at our office. Good news is that the editor and publisher offered a contract. The author immediately contacted me with the deal in hand. I asked a few questions including:

a)     “Can you send me the material that got the editor so excited?”

b)      “Have you agreed to contractual terms yet?” Fortunately the answer was no. NEVER agree to terms with a publisher if you want to have an agent become involved. If you do, the agent is handcuffed in their ability to adjust certain rights and terms to your benefit.

c)      “Why do you want an agent? You already have a deal in hand!” The author said, “Steve, I know my limitations. If I were to represent myself I would have a fool for a client.” We signed and have been working together ever since.

I also want to make sure the writer knows what an agent does for a client beyond just the sale or the book deal. It is a myth that all an agent does is have exotic lunches and influence editors with their wiles and force of personality. In today’s publishing labyrinth an author needs a guide. I firmly believe that every author needs a good agent by their side. But that is a post for another day.


7 Responses to What if You Get a Book Deal on Your Own and Then Want an Agent?

  1. Avatar
    Sybil Bates McCormack March 5, 2012 at 6:29 am #

    Thanks so much, Steve, for this excellent post. It answered a lot of questions I’ve been mulling over the past few weeks.

  2. Avatar
    Lindsay Harrel March 5, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    Thanks for answering this question, Steve! One question to clarify: when you say that the writer with a contract in hand contacted you, do you mean through a traditional query? Does your agency (and most agents) go through queries often enough that this type of query wouldn’t languish in a slush pile while the writer sat on the contract to hear back from you?

    Thanks again!

  3. Avatar
    Patti Jo Moore March 5, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    Thanks so much for this post today, Steve. I must admit I’m learning so much from reading this blog, and I appreciate you and the other Agents taking the time to faithfully post.
    Blessings, Patti Jo 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Ruth Douthitt March 5, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    Great advice! I have a publisher already for one book series, but feel I need an agent for my next book series as I would love to pitch it to a larger publishing house.

    This is very good advice for someone in my position.

    Thank you!

  5. Avatar
    Roanne King October 28, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

    This is very informative and to the point. I found this post after doing a search using the phrase “agent after book deal.”

    I would like to expand on this question and ask what happens if the initial 1-book contract looks like it will become a series (or have at least one sequel)? Before signing a revised/new contract to include the second book, is it possible to secure an agent to represent from book #2 forward? What would the process be to find an agent in this situation? I understand this could mean the possibility of seeking an entirely different publisher for the subsequent books.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube October 28, 2014 at 5:15 pm #


      A two part answer.

      First, yes you can still get an agent in between contracts.

      Second, it is extremely rare for a new publisher to pick up a series after the first is already published elsewhere. In fact I’d be hard pressed to find an example of that happening. There is synergy involved in a successful series. Each book builds on the previous. So if publisher #2 does not have the first book they lose all that momentum in-house.


      • Avatar
        Roanne October 28, 2014 at 6:52 pm #

        Thank you for the swift reply. Based on your original post, it seems that the challenge could be to find an agent who is in support of continuing with the current publisher…or who would at least consider representing for other book projects due to the success of the current one.

        I will definitely be looking into representation before signing a contract for the second book, which is still months away. Just trying to get an idea of the process so I am prepared. Thanks again!

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