Agent or Publisher? The Road Less Traveled By, Part One

One of the questions I’ve been asked the most by readers and aspiring writers is, “How did you find a publisher?” I understand this enquiry deep in my marrow because before my book was published, it was the question I also had for every person I’d ever met who’d been lucky enough to see his or her work transformed into ink and paper. Sometimes I’d ask the question out loud, but most of the time I just kept the question on the tip of my brain and gazed intently at the charmed creature in front of me, trying to see the glitter and magic that had moved the work of pure imagination into the realm of public consumption.

Now that I’M one of those charmed (lucky) creatures myself, and my first novel is traditionally published, sitting still-stunned-to-be there in stores, on bookshelves, and in libraries all over the place (hard copies of my book have even made it to Senegal, West Africa, and New Zealand),

I can tell you with certainty that it wasn’t magic pixie dust that got me here. It was an old-fashioned, stubborn belief that my story was a good one, and someone, somewhere would figure that out and take me on as a client. It was also, through trial-and-error, a realization about what I wanted for my book, and what I was willing to gain and give up when I chose to stop sending my queries to agents and instead began focusing my attention on smaller-scale traditional publishers.

For those who don’t know already, there are many, many avenues to publication. One avenue which I did not choose and so therefore have nothing of value to contribute, is that of self-publishing or hybrid publishing. With the advent of eBooks, self-publishing has taken on a new life, and for some, this is the path that makes the most sense. With this choice, the author pays to have his book published, sells and markets the book himself, and keeps all the profits from that book. For people who are naturally good at sales, who have a built-in audience (like teachers of certain subjects or innovators of business with tips to share), or who don’t necessarily care whether their books make it into libraries or some bookstores, this is certainly a viable option. None of the above describes me, however, so I started with the agent route and then switched to looking for a small traditional publisher. If you are interested in self-publishing, there are tons and tons of articles about what to do and which self-publishing companies are the good ones, so get to Googling and get to reading, and the best of luck to you!

Back to my own journey, though: In this post, I’m going to talk about the most well-known avenue to publication, which is to query and gain a literary agent. Once the agent accepts you as a client, he or she will begin working to sell your books to a publisher. One misconception I think a lot of authors have is that an agent will get your book to the “big five” (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan). That’s simply not true. Agents may try for the big five, of course, but they will also often try to sell your book to a smaller publisher that may be more accessible. As you well may imagine, getting a “big five” contract is extremely difficult; I recently read a statistic that editors and publishers only accept 1-2% of the manuscripts they receive. That’s a figure from ALL editors and publishers, mind—not just the big five. So the first thing you have to come to terms with is that for MOST writers, this is going to be a long, discouraging road.

But remember: It only takes one yes.

When I finally finished White River Red: A Novel , I first took this well-trampled road of trying to find an agent for my book. I began by scouring Duotrope, which I had used for years to help me find magazines to submit my short stories to, setting my parameters to agents who I felt might be interested in my book. And here I stop to offer my first piece of advice:

  1. When it is time to start look for publication, figure out which key words fit your book best.

I decided that my book fell into the following categories: “general fiction,” “women’s fiction,” “historical fiction,” and “Southern fiction.” It was not “young adult” but nor was it “adult fiction” (that means something else!); it was not “horror” or “literary” or “romance.” There are hundreds of genres, and the first thing you have to do is figure out what your book’s genre is. This will help not only with the selling of the book to an agent or publisher but will also come in handy when you’ve sold the book and it’s time for marketing–these genre words become important hashtags for your social media sites.

I also Googled “agents looking for historical fiction” and visited MS Wish List, which is, as the title suggests, a site dedicated to the manuscript wish lists of agents and publishers. This brings me to advice number two:

2. Do your research homework!

This step takes SO. MUCH. TIME, y’all! I can’t even describe how many hours I spent clicking on agent sites, scribbling down what they wanted and how they wanted it (see my post on query letters). I created a Word document (because I just don’t get Excel!) and, in alphabetical order, listed the agents’ names, their websites, and what they wanted in terms of querying. I had read somewhere that you should only query about five or six agents at a time, so that if you get five or six rejections right out of the gate, you will know you need to tweak your query letter or your first chapter and not have exhausted all your possible sources with a “bad” first impression. Here’s the thing, though–it takes some agents FOREVER-AGES to respond back to you (to be fair, they are drowning in submissions). So I sent out about ten at a time, and when one came back rejected, I’d send out another one to replace it. I also very carefully used the strike-through function in Word to cross the agent off my list but did not delete him or her because I didn’t want to accidentally query the same agent twice.

3. I said it once, I’ll say it again: Wear that tough skin and keep going.

Rejection is just part of the process. It hurts, it discourages, but unless you’re very lucky and a super-star, it happens to all those who want to write. (Again, visit the post about query letters and pay attention to the part about all the famous folks who got rejected.)

I did the above for about a year. I had a lot of rejections from agents, and a few interested requests to look at my full manuscript, which in and of itself is a big deal because of the large rate of automatic rejections (take every win, guys!). I sent those agents my manuscript, and while I waited for them to read the book and get back to me, I started snooping on them. I looked at their public Twitter accounts and read things they’d written in blogs for the industry. What I discovered in reading these was that many agents have vastly different worldviews than I do, maybe because of the area of the country they live in, or maybe it’s just the nature of the business. I’m not going to paint anyone with a broad brush here because I know folks are different all over, but the ones I was looking at were not people I really wanted representing me. This sent me into a quandary–did it matter if my agent believed some things that went against my own beliefs? I mean, he or she would just be selling my book, right? The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how personal a relationship is between an agent and an author. I decided I wanted someone I could trust to care about my work like I did, and that meant someone who would not ask me to change vital aspects of my book just so it would sell better. Please understand me when I say emphatically that I’m sure there are thousands of great agents out there; I simply started to question if this path was what I really wanted for myself personally.

As I was reading more and more about the industry, I happened upon an article about choosing to go straight for a publisher and skipping the agent altogether. I started investigating the subject more and resolved to look at that option. I knew that the “biggies” in publishing didn’t accept queries from authors (only agents), but I started wondering if that was okay with me. As I mentioned before, I didn’t want to go the self-published route–I still wanted a traditional, royalty-paying publisher–but was I willing to adjust my thinking on having to have an agent?

The answer to that was “yes.” How I shifted and began looking for (and finally finding) the perfect publisher for me will be addressed another day. Until then, please stay healthy, keep your wits about you, don’t succumb to fear or despair, ask questions, demand answers, and for goodness sake, laugh every once in awhile. As Julian of Norwich wrote while living through The Black Death (the bubonic plague):

I wish you joy, dearest chums!

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