Agent or Publisher?

There’s an age-old problem that aspiring writers face, which has gotten even worse in the current decades. Fewer and fewer publishers accept ‘slush pile’ material, ie, unsolicited submissions of manuscripts. More and more, they will only take agented material. Even those that still do look at your work without an agent expect you to send a query letter first, so your chance to get your foot in the door depends more on your ability to write a letter than to write a novel.

At the same time, agents are now faced with reading the slush pile themselves. Thanks to the above situation, agents have more and more and more unsolicited submissions to deal with. (I heard several say that it’s 500 to one… for every author they request the full manuscript–not even every author they sign–they have to read 500 submissions they reject.) So they have a strong tendency to prefer to sign with authors who have some sort of track record, preferably a publishing contract.

So what you have is a catch-22 where the agents would rather you had a publisher before they look at your stuff, and the publisher would rather you had an agent before they look at your stuff. Depressing? Well, yes. But there is also hope. There are more agents and publishers out there than ever before; more new authors getting their careers launched this year than ever before; more books being published and demanded than ever before. And you can do the whole process by mail or by email, without having to actually track down an agent or publisher and pitch it to them face to face, sometimes with only seconds to do it in. So in some ways, it’s a much easier market to break into than it was in the past.

In addition, it’s easy to lift yourself into the top five percent of people sending stuff in. Being a reasonably competent writer cuts out 90% of the competition. Being professional, another 5%… just not sending your stuff in on purple paper, in handwriting, stapled together, and with one page upside down so you can tell if they really read it. Being able to write a good query letter and synopsis as well puts you in the top five percent. Then it’s just a matter of persistence and patience.

So it can be done. But the question I want to pose is: do you send your work first to a publisher, then when you have landed one, get an agent onboard? Or do you send your work first to agents, then when you have landed one, have them help you get a publisher?

http://www.katfeete.net/writing/agent.html has at last given me a logical answer to this conundrum. I highly recommend the site, but here’s the gist of it. Publishers will not look at work twice, no matter what. They will do anything short of not reading it to reduce the amount of slush they have to go through. However, if you send it to an agent and they reject it, and then later on a publisher accepts it, you could go back to the agent and say hey, it’s got a contract, want to try again? This might work. So the agent might look at your work twice, once it has a credit. The publisher will not. So send it to the agent first.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cliff Burns
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 08:57:49

    I think you’re right on this one–agent first. And, of course, the best thing is to have someone who already has an agent recommend you to them…but how often does that happen? The gate-keepers of publishing (agents and editors) can be by-passed thanks to new technologies like blogging and POD books. Create your own buzz and bring the gate-keepers to YOU, rather than scratching timidly on their door…or banging your head against it ’til your skull splits…

  2. asherose
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 09:02:39

    That’s true! I tend to think more about getting into traditional publishing than I do about methods such as POD and the like. Lois McMaster Bujold has a great article on how the consumer can now ‘pull’ the books toward them via Amazon and other such distribution methods, rather than having the books ‘pushed’ to them strictly by bookstores. The market is no longer completely bottlenecked at the distributor/bookseller point.

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