Why You Should Consider An Agent If You’re Hoping To Publish Traditionally

You can only spend so long revising and editing a novel. Somewhere between revision 3 and revision 12, you’re probably going to be done with your book. But now what?

If you want to get your novel traditionally published, you’re gonna need to query some agents. But why?

(*Tinder, not Tumblr)


To publish your manuscript, you have four options:

Four Types of Publishing

  1. Traditional publishers
    • Is well established
    • Has its own Editors and printers
    • Has reach for getting your novel stocked in stores and online
    • Has marketing influence for getting your novel in front of reviewers and in the public eye
  2. Small publishers
    • Have their own Editors and printers
    • Have some reach for getting your novel stocked
    • Sometimes have some marketing influence for getting your novel in front of reviewers and in the public eye
  3. Indie publishers
    • Lets you direct and design, while facilitating the creation your print and/or ebook
    • Sometimes connected to traditional or small publishers, this is a different branch but has some of their support
    • Minimal gate-keeping, great for very niche books
  4. Self-publishers
    • You’re in control
    • No gatekeeper
    • You’re responsible for everything from line-edits to covers to marketing.

Each branch of publishing has its own fans, some more fervent than others. But, the only one that almost requires, and works best with, an agent, is traditional publishing.

1. Why Would A Person Choose To Try Traditional Publishing?

Besides the resources and access that you can’t get without being in the industry?

The biggest reason someone chooses to go ‘traditional’, is because you only get one debut novel. Once you’ve published something, either on your own or with a smaller agency, you’re now an established author.

Which is great! Right? You’ve got credentials!

Well, if you liked the results and the people (if any) you worked with, this is great and there’s no problem.

BUT. If you think you might ever want to go Traditional, they’re gonna look at the book sales of everything you’ve published. And if they’re lack-luster, that can sway them against you.

You can always query agents and, if you have no takers, decide to go with any of the other publishing options. As there are fewer Traditional Publishers, and they tend to go for less risky novels, the chances of being able to publish are much higher (and 100% for self-publishing) without them.

It’s easy to work your way from larger, traditional companies, down to smaller companies. It’s a lot harder to do that in reverse.

2. Why Not Just Query Publishers?

Isn’t an agent just a middleman? Why query them and wait for THEM to query Editors at publishing houses when I can just query the Editors myself?

First off, for those who are unaware, Editors and editors are two different things.

  • Lower-case editors are people who do some sort of manuscript editing:
    • Developmental editing – dealing with plot, pacing, and characterization
    • Copy-editing – dealing with word choice and phrasing
    • Line-editing – dealing with grammar, formatting, and punctuation
    • Etc… (there are a lot of types of editing)
  • Upper-case Editors are heads of Publishing Houses or branches and decide (often with Marketing’s approval) if your novel should be published. Things they consider:
    • Quality
    • Marketability
    • Brand – is it in line with the types of books they typically publish
    • How saturated that genre-market is right now

Secondly, many Editors only accept submissions from agents.

Third, with both agents and Editors, once you’ve queried and they’ve said ‘no’ unless you’ve DRASTICALLY changed your novel and spent quality time (like months or years) revising your novel, you can’t re-query.

I mean, nothing’s stopping you, but it’s considered rude, ignorant, and can get you black-listed (and/or sent directly to their trash folder).

Which means? Even if you get an agent later, your agent won’t be able to query that publisher again. And that agent might have known a way to pitch your manuscript in a way that would appeal to that Editor, or know the right edits you needed to make your story appeal to marketing. You’ve basically given away your chance to work with that Editor.

Once you decide to query…

3. Why Would Agents Reject Your Manuscript?

Agents aren’t just there to skim money off the top of your sale. They’re there to see how far they can take you and your book! The better you do, the better for everyone. And many of them work on commission.

When they take on a project, they have a lot of things to consider:

  • Of course, they’re considering the quality of your story
  • Different people like different things, they’re looking for a story to fall in love with
    • They need to be as in love with your manuscript as you are if they’re going to have the drive to sell it to a publisher
  • How much work your story needs
    • Even if they love it, if it needs a lot of edits and revisions to get it ready for the market, they might decide they don’t have the time to commit right now
  • How full is their current workload
    • If they took you on, but then didn’t have time for their pre-existing clients, things will start to slip through the cracks
  • How similar your manuscript is to their current clients’ active submissions
    • They don’t want to be competing against their own clients for publishers!
  • If the market is buying novels like yours right now
    • Even the best book can be skipped if the market isn’t right
    • If this is the case, try shelving it and querying again in 1-5 years

With such tough odds to get an agent, why bother?

4. What Are The Benefits Of Having An Agent?

  • They know the market
  • Many of them have contacts at publishing houses
    • Knowing the right person doesn’t get your book published, but it does mean the submission is tailored based on their knowledge of the Editor
  • They know how to read contracts– so you don’t need to also hire a lawyer
    • They can recognize a good contract
    • They know common loopholes to watch out for
  • Some agents are editorial-agents
    • They’ll give you revisions and edits to make on your manuscript before it ‘goes on submission’ (i.e. the agent queries publishers)
  • Some agents want to nurture your career
    • They’re not just here for the one book, they want you to grow and learn and get better. And write more stuff that they can sell. They want a long-term relationship.

The benefits sound good, but there’s one big question.

5. Where Do You Find An Agent To Query?

Not all agents are made equal. Same with publishers of any brand. Always do your due-diligence before querying someone.

Sites to check for the legitimacy of an agent, agency, or publisher:

Warning Signs:

  • You should never pay a reader-fee
  • Vanity Anthologies – publishing credits, but no pay, and minimal editing…
    • Do you really want writing credits from a poorly edited, cheaply made, anthology?
  • ‘Contests’
    • There are many honorable contests, there are many more small or online contests that have none-to-poor reputations.
    • Some charge large entry fees and publish all entrants
  • Solicitations, especially with poor English
  • High commissions
    • 10-15% is the standard commission for domestic sales
    • 20% for foreign rights
  • Fixed fees

Now that’s out of the way, where do you look?

5 Sites and books with literary agents and their desires:

So now you can find a list of agents and make sure they’re legitimate.

6. How Do You Pick An Agent To Query?

Just because you’ve found an agent to query on a list, doesn’t mean they’re the right one for you. There are still a few things you need to do before querying and this means going to their website and/or their agency’s website. When in doubt, defer to their personal website.

  1. Make sure they represent your genre–and age range
    • Otherwise, you’ll be rejected out-of-hand
  2. Make sure they’re currently open to queries
    • Agents often close for holidays, vacations, or when their backlog gets too long
  3. See how much experience they have and where
    • Less established agents can be good for several reasons:
      • They often have more time so you have better response times
      • They are actively building their lists–so more queries are requested
      • If they’re at an established agency, they can draw on their mentors and coworker’s agency knowledge and connections to help submit your novels
    • Established agents can be good, as well:
      • They have connections of their own
      • They’re experienced at recognizing what will sell and how to sell it
      • And they just plain have experience
  4. Decide if you want an editorial-agent
    • Some agents submit your novel in its current form with little-to-no edits
    • Some, more editorial agents, will give you marked up manuscripts and ask for you to revise before they submit your manuscript to an Editor
  5. Read their wishlist and biographies to see if they appeal to you
    • Maybe you like their voice, even if just in a bio or a tweet
    • Maybe you think your story is a good match for their list of favorite books
    • Maybe you’re a fan of the novels that they’ve agented and feel that your manuscript is a good fit for those

Just be careful that you don’t decide one agent is perfect for you. It can take dozens of queries before you get an agent. Steel your heart and treat it like Tinder, wait for that agent who swypes right on you.

7. How Do You Keep From Getting Form Rejections?

If you’re querying and all you’re getting are form rejections and no-answer-means-no-thank-yous, it’s time to look at submission package.

  1. When you’re first querying, send out 5-10 queries at a time. If all you’re getting are form rejections, you need to revamp your query and first chapter.
  2. If you’re getting form rejections on partials, look at your pacing and character development.
  3. If you’re getting form rejections on fulls, look at your ending, make sure it lives up to the promise of the novel.

Now you know why someone might choose to try traditional publishes, why they need an agent, and how to find the right one.

Let me know if you have any questions and good luck, getting your story out into the world.

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12 thoughts on “Why You Should Consider An Agent If You’re Hoping To Publish Traditionally

  1. Pingback: What Good Is An Agent? Answers From Writers. | Morgan Hazelwood: Writer In Progress

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