If you’re familiar with the way the traditional publishing process works, you know that it is advisable to try to find a literary agent first, who will then submit to publishers on your behalf. Many publishers, especially the major ones, won’t accept unagented submissions.
And take heed: If you send your manuscript out to a bunch of publishers without an agent, you could be harming your chances down the line. Most agents won’t resubmit to a publisher who has already considered a project, even if it was sent to the publisher unagented, and even if it subsequently undergoes a revision (unless the editor specifically asks).
But there are some exceptions where it’s acceptable, even advantageous, to submit to publishers without a literary agent. Here they are:
You met an editor, made a personal connection, and they offered to consider your work
If you attend a writer’s conference or are otherwise well connected, you might end up meeting an editor who may well express an interest in your work.
So sure! You have their attention. Send it to them.
Even if you do this, however, I would still try to simultaneously be trying to find a literary agent. Mention to the editor when you reach out that you’re in the process of trying to find an agent so they’re not caught off guard. Don’t worry, an editor won’t think this is weird (or at least, they shouldn’t), and if they like your work they might even end up helping you find an agent.
Your book fits into a niche market
There are a ton of small and regional presses out there that specialize in very specific markets, and it’s often customary for authors and editors to simply work directly together, because it’s simply not viable for agents to take the time to represent authors for very niche projects that will translate to very small advances and sales.
It would be tricky for me to break down all of the genres and topics where this would apply, but do the research to see what is customary for your genre/niche and check where similar books to yours were published.
You tried querying agents, you came up empty, and you want to try with editors directly
Did you query every literary agent under the sun and come up short? What’s the harm in sending it out to some editors?
Now, bear in mind that this is the longest of long shots, especially if you’re going to try with one of the Big 5 publishers. Most editors won’t consider unagented projects and you may end up in a dust bin.
But I have seen it happen!
What to know about dealing directly with publishers
Here are some recommendations for how to work with editors when you’re unagented:
- Be transparent with the editor if you are simultaneously searching for representation. Many editors would actually prefer to work with a literary agent because it streamlines the process and usually means less work for them. Others may not be so psyched because agents tend to get better deals for their clients and will be tougher negotiators. Err on the side of transparency.
- If you get an offer, it’s okay to use that offer to try to find an agent. Sure, you did a lot of the hard work, but if you do get an offer without an agent, having an agent to negotiate the contract alone is worth 15%. Don’t leave the editor hanging endlessly as you try to find an agent though, and once again, just be transparent.
- If you do the deal directly, consult with a publishing attorney or someone who knows publishing contracts. Even if you’re a lawyer or have one handy, it’s important to find someone who knows what’s customary in the publishing industry rather than a general expert on contracts. You need to find someone who knows things like pushing for separate accounting and which rights are customary to grant to a publisher to help you make sure you’re getting a good deal.
- Do your research. There are some fantastic small presses out there who can really give your book a leg up. There are others out there who may be well-intentioned but who aren’t going to do more for you than you could do on your own self-publishing. And then there are scam artists out there who will try to prey on your vanity and offer you a disadvantageous “book deal.” Vet anyone you’re working with very thoroughly.
There are lots of different paths to successful publication, so don’t rule out this option, but be extra careful that you’re taking the right steps for your book.
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Art: Letter rack by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts
The advice to get a knowledgeable attorney, if you’re going to negotiate directly, is absolutely crucial. You need to be sure that you can retain or recover any rights not being actively used by the publisher, and you need to have clear language about what happens to the assigned rights in the event the publisher closes or sells out. Also: are your reverted rights only to your submitted manuscript, or to the final edited form, as published?
There have been a lot of small publishers either go under or sell out in recent years. A number of well-established romance publishers (including All Romance, Samhain, Ellora’s Cave, and Torquere) folded in 2016 alone. A lot of authors were caught off-guard, unable to collect royalties owed and unable to republish until rights were reverted… someday, maybe. The 2012 closing of Dorchester — a publisher that dated back to 1971 — stunned their authors, many of whom were already owed overdue royalties. In 2013, Night Shade sold out to Skyhorse in a deal that many of their authors didn’t like.
Terin Miller says
Another excellent post, Mr. Former Agent Man! You’ve returned with helpful advice and warnings to writers out there.
I had an experience, in fact, going directly to publishers without an agent — having had three agents in my life, two of which seemed unable to or that interested in actually securing me a publisher; the first agent was legendary and the most helpful and generous with his time (though cantakerous by demeanor and on purpose), Ray Puechner, who took me under his wing and encouraged me to write my first novel at 17 after liking a short story I’d had published in our high school “literary magazine.”
Ray was convinced I was always on the verge of “breaking through,” starting with my first novel and circulating it to everyone big he could think of, having it considered by Thomas Crowell and Knopf. But, to my lifelong regret, because he tried so damn hard, I never secured a publishing contract from his efforts before he died of cancer the night of the last time I saw him in 1987.
The next agent was busy essentially dealing with Ray’s death and other family crises and, after a rather kind rejection from an editor at Ballantine for a mystery I’d written, suggesting he’d have taken my Texas thriller if he hadn’t JUST signed someone else with a series set in the same region, she wrote me a nice letter explaining she had to pair her list of clients to those who brought in money.
My last (so far) agent was connected to a big agency, and represented me, at least in name, for about a decade, much of which I was overseas working on other projects. I came back to learn she had essentially forgotten about me, and my manuscripts, three of which she had accepted to represent after reading what was my second novel attempt with the same narrator as my first; I presented her with another novel, even though the first three had apparently been set in a corner to gather dust as she found deals for some “bigger names” on her list. She rejected the fourth novel, after some repeated queries over a year or so to discern if she’d had a chance yet to read it; and, miffed, I asked her to go over it to point out specifically what was wrong with it, in her estimation, and how I might be able to revise it. I say “I asked.” She will likely say I “insisted,” which is true. And she wound up doing what I’d asked, on her honeymoon. I chose to drop her as an agent, thinking I’d have better luck with another one. And knowing what I’d asked her to do was what I’d been spoiled by having done by Ray for the decade he represented me. And embarrassed at having made her feel the need to essentially hold my hand on her honeymoon.
Why am I telling you this? So your fans will realize that even getting an agent is not necessarily a ticket to publication.
And because I have since had published 3 out of four novels by small, independent, publishers; and self-published one myself (the one that convinced my last agent, in 1993, to represent me, along with her list of writers that included a Pulitzer winner and some others).
The first was the Texas thriller; a publisher in Belgium wanted to publish it after soliciting it from me via a discussion on Facebook. But his research indicated it should only be an “ebook,” as “print” was losing fashion. I actually had/got, I think, a reasonably good deal with that publisher; I was paid royalties, and received royalty statements, monthly. The second was, and came out roughly the exact same date, May 13, 2013, a novel set in India (a revision of a novel with the same narrator and essentially same story line that Ray had been most excited about and suggested might be my “A Razor’s Edge.”) That publisher sent me a contract, which I was thrilled to get, and I signed it. And, after it being published, and his soliciting a short story from me for a magazine he was starting, for free, and telling me and promising me it was already selling like hot cakes in India, with the contract guaranteeing me royalty statements bi-annually, after 1 1/2 years I contacted him about the fact I’d not received a royalty statement, or royalty, yet. And he’d moved from his home to a big office in New Delhi and then, just as fast, disappeared. With my earnings, presumably. Which he promised me as recently as last year. Another publisher that came for me on Facebook.
The last publisher of my novels, of what amounted to a trilogy using the same character Ray had so loved, is based in the U.S. and India (as the novel is set largely in India again). In between, I self-published what amounted to the second of the three novels, a sort of mystery/adventure hybrid called Down the Low Road, which did well on Amazon, as I used CreateSpace, and always did well on tours. That publisher, of The Other Country, has sent me royalty statements annualy, conveniently around tax time (though I have to ask); credited me with an advance in books, which I sold myself at various events; and has since, as is the norm, deducted the price of copies I’ve ordered to sell at events from my earnings.
But the last publisher, who also contacted me because he partnered with an artist who was similarly “scammed” by the publisher of my first India book, sent me a contract that I had a publishing rights attorney look over, and the attorney saved me from making a disastrous deal whereby I would have given up rights that I should not (as I had with the first publisher).
So. It is definitely possible to be published by catching the eye of an acquisiton editor, without an agent. It is also possible to never be published with an agent. And it is possible to be published, because that is the goal, without it making anyone rich, or by being so thrilled to have a contract you forget to look to see that the “countersignature” of the publisher is one Lucifer F. Diablo.
Write first. Find an agent, or a publisher, or a friend, interested in your work enough to put some effort into publishing it for you. Self-publish if you think you really want your story out there, and you don’t care if it doesn’t ever win any more sales than your family or friends.
But the first step is to write as well as you know how. Then to try and find a way to have someone else publish it. And remember, as I always do and Ray got me to think: Ernest Hemingway might have been an unknown if his patron/acquaintance Robert McAlmon hadn’t wanted to call himself a publisher, and hadn’t published “three stories and ten poems.” And James Joyce’s Ulyssses might never have been, if it weren’t for his friend and admirer, Sylvia Beach.