Finding an Agent and Publisher
You should think of the people you’re working with at each stage of the publishing process as your publishing team.
Each one contributes something different and has different interests, but what you all have in common is the desire to see your book through to publication and on to the greatest possible success.
This team can include many kinds of roles, from research assistants to publicists to designers to writing coaches, but there are three roles that will be paramount: your editor, your agent, and your publisher.
Let’s take a close look at each of them.
It is wise to work with an editor even on the proposal. You will likely need to pay them upfront and out of your own pocket, but doing so will greatly improve your odds of success.
A “developmental edit” usually includes a thorough read of your manuscript and a detailed editorial letter that outlines overarching conceptual or structural changes. A “line edit” includes all of the above, plus a line-by-line markup. The cost for these in-depth reviews ranges from $250 to $25,000, depending on who does it.
An earlier, more lightweight review can be done by a professional reader, who assesses the commercial potential of the manuscript or proposal for about $75 to $1,000.
If you seek a mid- to large-size publisher, you’ll send your proposal to a literary agent. If you’re looking for a small, regional, or university press, you’ll send it to them directly.
A good agent will cost you but will provide plenty of support in exchange. They know the editors at major publishing houses and what they are looking for. They can help with everything from your title and your bio, to the development of the plot, to basic editing and proofreading, to knowing the competition.
Your agent is a salesperson and a buffer between you and the publisher, helping negotiate terms and pass along communications. They might help with marketing and strategy, connect you with good publicists and designers, and advise on which offer to take.
This is why an agent receives a percentage of your earnings – they touch nearly every aspect of the book. Ideally, you’ll choose an agent that will help you not only with the current book but with your long-term publishing career.
Most literary agencies charge a 15% commission on advances, royalties, and most subsidiary sales (note that this is 15% of the 15% you typically make as an author after the publisher takes its 85% share).
For foreign rights, a 20% share for the agent is standard, since they have to split their fee with co-agents abroad. The smallest agencies can charge up to a 30% commission on certain sales. And most will charge you for out-of-pocket expenses like postage, overnight delivery, and messengers.
Here are some questions to ask an agent, whether you reach out to them or they reach out to you:
- What other books like mine have you sold?
- Do you help authors develop their material?
- Will my contact be primarily with you or your assistant?
- Will you help me promote my book when it comes out?
- Are you a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.?
- Do you have client and editor references I can call?
- What publishing houses do you work with on a regular basis?
- How many books have you sold in the last year?
- Are you known for selling a particular kind of book (ex., business, science, African American, romance, literary fiction)?
- Have you negotiated terms with all the major publishing houses?
- Do you have co-agents who help sell your books overseas?
Here are some red flags to watch out for:
- An agent who charges “reading” or “development” fees, which should be free
- A contract that locks you in for a set amount of time (either party should be able to walk away with 30 days’ notice)
- A contract that locks your next book up with that agent (you should be free to work with any agent you choose)
If you find someone you like, send them your proposal or manuscript. Here are some questions to ask them after they’ve had a chance to review it:
- What specifically did you like about my material?
- What specifically stood out?
- What did you feel were the problems?
- Are there specific sections that you feel need strengthening?
- Is there anything that you feel should be added?
- Is there anything else I need to do to make my material ready to sell?
- Do you have the time to mark up my material so I can better understand your thought process?
You can change agents for the same book, but it can be messy. If your agent has submitted your manuscript to publishers and it remains unsold, it can be very difficult to find another agent willing to take it in. If you do change agents, be sure to get detailed records or cover letters from your ex-agent so you know where it’s already been submitted.
If you’re lucky enough to pass the initial screening and meet with publishers, you want to make the best impression possible. Come in person if possible. Get a card from every single person you meet there, and send them thank you letters afterward.
Here are some specific questions to ask:
- What other books have you published that are similar to mine? Have these been successful? Why or why not?
- What changes do you foresee in my book’s content or direction?
- What are the weak points in my proposal/manuscript, and how would we fix them?
- What are the strong points in my proposal/manuscript, and how can I improve on them?
- What kind of publicity/marketing plan do you envision for my book?
- What kind of publicity/marketing have you done for similar books?
- How do you like to work? Do you prefer to receive a complete manuscript or to get several chapters at a time?
- When do you see my book coming out and why?
Here are the kinds of publishers you may want to consider, including the pros and cons of each.
It’s generally better to be the big headliner book at a small but well-respected independent press than to be far down the list of priorities at Penguin Random House.
The downside of the small guys is that if your book blows up, they might not have the resources to put behind it, whether for publicity or extra print runs. That is a far less likely scenario, however, than never getting your book published in the first place.
If none of the large publishing houses are interested, you will likely need to go to smaller, independent presses (defined as publishing fewer than 12 titles per year). That doesn’t mean your book won’t be successful though. Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October was first published by the Naval Institute Press, Chicken Soup for the Soul and its dozens of offshoots by Health Communications, and Fifty Shades of Grey by a small Australian press. Independent publishing is a multi-billion dollar business.
There may even be upsides. Independent presses are more likely to give you personal attention and see you as a valued player in their portfolio. Because they publish so few books, they are more likely to work their hardest to keep each one alive. Independent presses also often specialize in one topic or area, which means they know their industry well. But this means that less than a third of titles they publish end up in bookstores, as they often bypass the general market and sell directly to their niche. If prestige is a concern for you, the size of the press doesn’t matter so much as its reputation.
What are the downsides of going with a small, independent press? Mostly that they have less money.
They generally pay much smaller advances (in the $1,000–3,000 range) if they pay any at all. Once the book is out, they also pay less in royalties, starting at about 5% of the cover price, whereas the Big 5 pay 7.5% of the cover price for paperbacks and 10% for hardcovers. This is because they have to cover higher costs that come from not having economies of scale.
Small presses also have smaller marketing budgets nowhere close to the thousands of dollars a large publisher might invest in promoting your book. They also have smaller distribution networks and often contract with larger publishers or specialized distribution companies to handle order processing and shipping. But some very small publishers might not even have that and rely on local sales, web sales, and word of mouth only.
Traditionally, university presses were sleepy outfits who published books they thought were important, with little or no concern for market demand. But as the industry has consolidated, and large publishers got more conservative, university presses have picked up lesser-known authors who nonetheless have blockbuster potential. Over 50% of their lists are now made up of mainstream trade books, including memoirs, histories, and fiction.
Academic writers who have written a popular book but would like the prestige of a university press to advance their careers may choose to go with these publishers. If authors hope their books can eventually be used in classrooms, university presses have the experience and contacts to help make that happen.
As university presses receive more submissions, they rely more and more on agents to filter submissions for them. That said, many of them have regional publishing programs dedicated to local authors.
Anyone can become a “publisher.” Micropublishers can be as small as one person working out of their garage. They are easier to access because there are so many, but they won’t do much by way of developing or promoting your book. They won’t pay an advance, may not edit, and produce only an ebook or print-on-demand book with little to no distribution. They won’t get your book into bookstores. But they can be a welcome alternative to self-publishing completely on your own.
Although the number of routes to publishing has exploded, it’s harder than ever to get your book through the traditional publishing process. To meet this demand, a new category of “vanity presses” has arisen. These “pay-to-play” companies charge you as a client to edit, publish, and distribute your book. Generally, vanity presses don’t have a clear stake in your success and are best avoided.
It’s a good idea to address your emails and letters to a specific editor within a publishing house. Find their email address and tell them:
- Why your book is right for their list: Use the research you’ve done about their author portfolio.
- Your book pitch: Examine the copy on the back and jacket flaps of books they’ve published to get a sense of what they’re interested in.
- Your “why me?” pitch: Let them know why you are the perfect person to write this book.
You’re likely going to face a lot of rejection as you send these emails, so it’s important to use them as learning opportunities. Are there consistencies in what they say is missing from letter to letter? Which points have you not made clearly enough? Is your beginning weak? Does your ending fall apart? Or is there a weakness in your writing, characters, or plot?
Even if your book doesn’t end up selling, rejection letters can help you pinpoint what you need to work on, and also your strong suits as a writer. Maybe one chapter grabbed the attention of agents and editors, and you can reorient the book around it. Maybe a character that really resonated with people can be expanded into a central protagonist.
Whatever happens, take the time to compose a thoughtful reply and to thank editors for taking the time to read your submission. And if you don’t hear back, don’t be afraid to follow up.
It’s impossible to predict success
A good thing to keep in mind is that no one knows for sure what books will be successful. A study at the Wharton School of Business about predictors of success in trade publishing overwhelmingly showed that no amount of number crunching or analysis can predict what will be successful. So if you can’t get a large publisher to talk to you, don’t take it as a sign that your idea is doomed.
In the next post, we’ll dive into the in’s and out’s of the kinds of publishers’ offers you’ll hope to be receiving for your book.