To Be or Not to Be Agented, That is the Question

May 17, 2015 | By | 30 Replies More

IMG_5063I never asked this question. Instead I asked how quickly I could get myself an agent.

Unagented authors aren’t taken seriously, I reasoned. You can’t approach big houses without one and I wanted readers and a big contract. Getting an agent was the only way to achieve this goal.

So I sent out queries, alphabetically, to all agents interested in books like mine. Half way through the B’s, I struck gold: a reputable agent, whose name began with B, asked me to send my manuscript along. She wanted to know who had already seen it and hoped it wasn’t under consideration elsewhere. Oh, and it might take four months to get feedback, she said. She had a system and didn’t read manuscripts during business hours, when she was busy representing her clients.

I went for it. This, to me, was a yes, mostly because it wasn’t an outright no. Long story short, four months later, she picked me out of her slush pile. She loved my novel and once I’d made a few changes, and signed a contract (big moment), she began shopping the book to top publishers.

When she had good news, or interesting rejections, she passed them along. She shielded me from nasty rejections. Hers was a full time job and she took me seriously. Thus I began to understand how the industry worked.

As time went on, I noticed a pattern. Editors often loved my book even when rejecting it. They saw promise. This book was too quiet, but perhaps my agent could send along my next?

Such feedback was at once heady and disheartening. But after all, top editors were considering my novel and debating whether or not they could break it out. Sometimes I was rejected because editors couldn’t see it winning prizes. Once, my agent forwarded a voicemail from an editor bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t get his marketing department on board. He finished by saying, “Your writer can definitely, definitely, definitely write.” I was in agony. But yet I lived on that rejection for months.

I slowly learned an interesting lesson. It didn’t matter how good my writing was. What mattered was whether the marketers believed my book could sell, and in numbers.

Back I went to the drawing board. In due course I sent my agent a second novel. She decided I’d hit the jackpot and was convinced I had written a wonderful novel. In our celebratory lunch she told me she wanted it to be translated into at least six languages. I was walking on air.

Then came the reality check. Yes, said the publishers, this is marvelous but we cannot sell it. Yes it is beautifully written. But how will we get it on the Best Sellers List?
Why not submit to small independent publishers, I asked my agent. “I don’t think that will be good for your career,” she replied. But I didn’t yet HAVE a career! The real reason is that agents represent you in order to make money. They aren’t in it for charity.

Falling-1At a Pen Faulkner literary event, I chatted with someone in publishing. Publishers have eliminated midlist authors, she told me – the authors publishers traditionally expect to grow. But now they don’t grow writers. Instead they are looking for one hit wonders.

I continued to experience near misses. My agent and I waited, along with a top publisher and several enthusiastic editors there, for the verdict from an executive editor. You see, it was “we” now. My book had become my agent’s book as well as the book of these potential editors. We were in it together.

It was a no. The executive editor decided they couldn’t make enough money off my book.

We were devastated. But here was the blessing of having an agent. My project was her project. She believed in it even more than I did.

Finally, the book was picked up by a small independent publisher. I could perhaps have approached them without an agent. But would I have done so? I’d had such high hopes. But battle weary, I was now thrilled to go with this publisher, since all they wanted was to put out my book and let it find its level. The experience was a positive one.

What did I learn from having an agent? I learned my work was good by objective standards. I learned that if you don’t know your worth, an agent does wonders for your ego. An agent fields rejections, remaining undaunted. She puts her reputation on the line for you. And that is huge.

But with the advent of ebooks, things have changed. Profits are smaller, even while sales are higher. Readers are looking for books and the industry thinks they’ve got things in hand, and that marketers know what they’re doing. Do they?

Sadly, my agent recently closed shop for personal reasons. It was bliss having somebody root for me, reading and believing in me. I will always be grateful for that. But will I seek representation elsewhere? Not sure. My kind of book might have its best shot with small independent presses.

I want my books to be read, of course. But a small readership is better than none at all. I got from my agent a vote of confidence in a market that is floundering. But this is a brave new world, of e books and independent presses. If you have confidence in your worth, maybe the time has come to go it alone.

Amanda Holmes is the author of I KNOW WHERE I AM WHEN I’M FALLING, a novel. Her stories have appeared in such publications as Ploughshares, The Christian Science Monitor, Rattapallax, Main Street Rag. She blogs at www.irrelevanceofhope.blogspot.com Her website is www.byamandaholmes.com   twitter @byamandaholmes

 

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

Comments (30)

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  1. Mary Latela says:

    Amanda, in your technically savvy search for an agent, you learned something crucial “I slowly learned an interesting lesson. It didn’t matter how good my writing was. What mattered was whether the marketers believed my book could sell, and in numbers.”

    The agent is not your therapist, big sister, best friend. Her wages depend on choosing well – what will sell, what will sell big. She has one item which you may need … the KEY to being read, more or less objectively, but always listening for high interest and sales. Thanks for your strong reminder. Mary Latela

  2. Craig says:

    Great article. I had an agent, and she helped place my debut novel with a small press (couldn’t have done it without her), but she retired shortly after the contract was signed. I wondered often during the last year whether or not having an agent would have provided me with more appearances and promotional opportunities. My publisher assisted some in that regard, but being a small press they are careful with their resources and there were times that I had wishes I still had an agent by my side throughout the promotional phase. Anyway, I now find myself in the same boat as you, trying to decide if I need an agent for my next book or not. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!! Very helpful. All the best!

  3. Amanda, so much of your story resonates and in some ways parallels my own.
    I remember being very excited for (and a little jealous) when one of my peers in our MFA program got an agent while we were still students.
    She asked why I was so excited and said something like, “don’t get too hopeful, having an agent is just another level of rejection.”
    At the time I thought she was cynical, not I know she was realistic.
    all the best,
    carol

  4. Carol Hedges says:

    Read with HUGEinterest. I was with David Higham ..one of the top London agents. BUT as you say, suffered constant rejection after 4 books placed with Usborne. Agent started to disbelieve in me, I felt. Changed genre..agent hated it. We parted company. The OTHER problem with agents is they take 10% off your meagre royalties….

    • Don’t you get the sense that there’s this whole underbelly of literary fiction out there – or at least fiction that by all estimates is GOOD, but that just never gets noticed. But again, a small readership is better than none at all. Thanks for your comment, Carol, and best of luck with the book.

  5. Very interesting -I’ve been picked up by a small independent and am about to be published. That in itself is great but don’t under-estimate how good you have to become at marketing and how hard it can be for small publishers to deliver what you need. Steep learning curve.

    • Absolutely true, Catherine. Marketing is the next battle. And it’s as much work marketing a book as it is writing one, it seems to me. However, if an agent gets you a big publisher this still doesn’t necessarily mean they market your book. I’ve heard other horror stories on that score – but that is a whole other article!

  6. Pam Schmid says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your story! This is the very question I’ve been pondering lately. I’ve queried goodness knows how many agents for my memoir, and a handful have asked for and read the full manuscript. But while many have told me how much they love my writing, it’s always been, “We don’t know how we could market this.” I’m heartened to know your book found a great home at last. I think I will continue on two tracks — query agents, yes, but also seek out some small indy publishers that are less concerned about strong sales out of the gate and more focused on publishing quality work.

  7. Fantastic and thought-provoking post. This has me rethinking some things. Great points and thank you for sharing your experiences!

  8. When I finished my first novel, Tranquility, I sent out over 200 queries to agents. Eight months later, after three requests that went nowhere, over 100 rejections, and another 100 or so no replies, I started querying independent presses. In January of this year my book was published with one of those presses and has become a bestseller for them. Yes, I’ve had to do a lot of my own marketing, but I also receive more of the profit and a very personalized business relationship. Big publishers and agents seem to only want high concept stories with potential to be national bestsellers that will be made into a movies, translated into other languages, etc. That’s a tough situation for a new author.

    • What a heartening story, Laurie. I agree. The rules are surely changing in the publishing world. Big publishers seem to want ALL or nothing. But writers just want a readership – and with a readership we complete the circle. Thanks for sharing.

    • Shelley Day says:

      Hi Laurie, I am in a similar place to you, my debut novel to be published by a small Indie press in the summer. You talk about how much work ‘marketing’ involved,, can you offer any hints of where I might find out how to do ‘marketing’ ? Is there some checklist somewhere (probably a case of ‘dream on’!) or did you just follow your nose? Did you learn anything along the marketing road that it might be useful to share with newbies like me? Tall order, I know, but I thought I’d ask anyway! Thanks for your time! Shelley

  9. Thanks for a really useful and through provoking piece, Amanda, especially in the light of my just having my novel turned down by a ‘reputable’ London agent whose stated reason for the rejection was because they weren’t taking on any more non-fiction. Derrrr – novel… non-fiction….?? Hmmm.

  10. Fran says:

    An inspiring blog post and lots to think about. I bought your book to read while I think! Your trailer video really intrigued me. Good luck with the book sales. I have tried a range of agents but not small publishers yet. Next step ….

    • One of the downsides of going with smaller presses is that they have less clout when it comes to marketing. Thanks so much for your feedback and especially for buying my book!

  11. Aine Greaney says:

    I just parted ways with my agent. She and I also ran into this syndrome of the work being praised by editors but deemed not marketable. Toward the end, I could detect her new disinterest in me, but she said she would begin Phase 2 , i.e., begin o submit it to smaller, independent presses. She never actually did. I am now back to pitching it to independent presses myself, and I must say it feels so much better. My career is far too important to entrust it to someone who sees me and my work as a commodity or a way of possibly paying her rent.

    This is a great post and a very thoughtful view and analysis of the entire process.

    • Good luck with it Alne. It’s hard to go it alone. But having gone the commercial route, it gives you a kind of freedom. It’s this or nothing – and if you believe in your work, perhaps someone else will too. Again, a few readers is better than no readers at all!

      • Interesting article and comments! Here in South Africa, there are no real agents to speak of and authors need to go it alone to approach publishers directly. It is all such a learning curve for us , isn’t it?

  12. Misha says:

    I too had an agent who believed in me and did her best to sell my book. When that didn’t happen, we parted company and I went on to have a series of YA novels accepted by Zharmae Press, an independent publishing house in the US. House of Shadows published by Penkhull Press in the UK, and another novel under another name also accepted by an Indie publisher. Result. And all without benefit of agent.

    • It’s a new world, Misha. I think we must do the best we can to get our work into the hands of readers who value it. If that means fewer readers, so be it. Good luck to you.

  13. The more I read about going it alone,the more convinced I am this is the way forward. Not to say that agents and publishers are not worth their weight in gold,(and to find somebody who truly believes in you is a major boost),but the world, it appears, is more willing to help those who take the bull by the horns and help themselves.As you rightly point out, the big marketing budgets no longer exist – or if they do they’re earmarked for the tried and tested names already well established. I’m OK with that. There’s freedom and enterprise in walking naked.
    I’m glad you got published in the end, Amanda. As much as the near misses must have been frustrating, what a fantastic experience and learning curve too. The ride alone must have been worth it.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • I just started working at a major independent DC bookstore, Tracey, and so I’m learning about the life cycle of a book. It’s quite enlightening. One thing I’ve noticed thus far, is that some independent publishers have orders far exceeding their output. This suggests that they are publishing titles which conventional mainstream publishers overlooked. And there is a hunger for such titles. Keep going at it, and good luck to you!

      • Thanks for this encouraging and informative response, Amanda. It is information like this, appearing on the edges of the perceived immediate wisdom, that can often indicate a future that hasn’t yet arrived but is on its way.Watch this space!

    • I agree with your comment here Tracey! I feels like even the big bestselling authors with publishers still have to do a huge amount of marketing and selling of their book anyway so it’s almost just better to perhaps go it alone ! Though it does require abit of a budget!

  14. sanjoy says:

    Your post throws light on many of the areas. Writers fail to realize agents are not there for charity and they would try to promote a well known author than an emerging writer. Thanks for the post!

  15. Because of my age I want to get on with my new career as a fiction writer, so after a few polite rejections and some call-ins which got me over-excited, I tried approaching a small new global press and my first novel will be out this year. I had the contract professionally checked over and I am well aware that I need to learn more about marketing. I am so grateful to these publishers that I am determined to do my bit. The novel is ( rather aptly!) called Timed Out. The publisher is Driven Press.

  16. This post is just what I needed to read today, Amanda!

    I got my book deal two months ago sans agent with Post Hill Press, an independent publisher.
    My husband landed his book deal without an agent for his acclaimed book “Quest for Flight: John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West”. (University of Oklahoma Press)

    While yes, I had dreams of getting published at a Big 6 (or is it Big 5?) which means I’d have a stellar agent representing me, it didn’t turn out that way. I’ve come to terms with that and I’m excited to work with my publisher.

    While I didn’t have an agent who did “wonders for (my) ego”, I have been blessed with a very special mentor. A bestselling author, she believed in the quality of my writing and my book proposal, and that helped me immeasurably.

    Thanks again for writing this excellent post!
    take care,
    Dyane

    • Quality over marketability. It’s a very interesting question. So glad you found a publisher for your work, Dyane. I’ve often wondered – do I want my book to appeal to the unwashed masses? It would be great if it did – but I wrote it for a particular readership which might not be such a large one. Let books find their readers. This is what independent and university presses allow. And I am so thankful to them!

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