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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For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Letter rack by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts