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Method in the Madness: Finding a Good Agent or Publisher

Author:  Gary Kessler
Date:  27-03-03

Once you have written (and polished) your book or article, you are struck with the question of how you can share this work with others. If you wish to share it beyond your immediate circle of friends and family, you will want to publish it.

To do so, you need to know:

  • whether you need an agent or can submit your material to publishers directly
  • and how you can most efficiently and cost-effectively go about this.

The first consideration in manuscript submission is whether or not you need a literary agent to seek and represent the sale of your work.

You Don't Always Need an Agent

Agents aren’t required for all approaches to publishers. Agents will only become involved when there is enough money in a publication deal to make their time and effort worthwhile. This means they operate almost exclusively in the realm of major trade publishing houses.

You do not need - and, in fact, probably will not be able to engage - an agent:

  • if you are self-publishing;
  • if your work is an article, short story, or poetry;
  • or if it is the type of book that is more appropriately published by a small, medium-sized, or academic press.

For these types of manuscripts, you can submit directly to publishers.

What an Agent Will/May Do For You

A good literary agent will:

  • Target the search for a publisher on publishers that are the best fit for the author.
  • S/he will fully understand the provisions of the contract offered by a publisher (most lawyers can’t, because most lawyers don’t specialize in publishing terms) and will be able to explain the terms of the contract to the author.
  • S/he will negotiate the best possible terms and advance for the author.
  • Possibly edit--as part of the basic service--the manuscript to make it more marketable. But be careful. If the agent offers to edit the manuscript for a fee or recommends someone specific who can do this, it’s quite possible that the agent actually is in the edit-for-a-fee business rather than the literary agency business.
  • Run interference for the author during the publication process and the marketing phase.
  • Help authors take the best-possible advantage of the publishing rights.
  • Handle the business matters for the book, including the collection and disbursement of royalties.

Literary agents work through networking. They network with publishers and other agents to determine what is on demand - and at what general price. They usually make their offers of representation based on this knowledge. They also network to determine what publishers will fit best with the clients they are representing.

What Do You Pay an Agent?

Reputable agents will charge a standard commission on the advance and royalties from all uses of rights.

  • Commission is 15% currently for U.S. print publication.
  • Most agents charge a reasonable fee for copying and postage on manuscripts they send to prospective publishers.

All agent fees and commission should be collected out of book sale proceeds as they comes in from the publisher(s). Publishing receipts generally come through the agent to the author, so the agents usually take their cut out as it passes through their hands.


A large number of businesses pose as serious literary agents. They use the publishing hopes of neophyte book authors to prey on them. Thoroughly check out prospective agents by the methods outlined in this article.

Watch out for:

  • agents who ask for money up front
  • agents who ask for a reading fee
  • agents who recommend someone to improve your book for a fee

Submitting Directly to Publishers

You can directly submit to any publisher that will accept unagented submissions. Whether or not they do is usually noted in the submissions guidelines they post on their websites and list in the various guides on agents and publishers.

Small and medium-sized publishers and academic publishers normally deal in unagented works (but pay no or low advances). Agents come into play where there’s a big enough advance in the offing to provide them a good commission (usually from the big New York publishing houses).

The Right Agent or Publisher

You can use the same basic research method to find both reputable agents and publishers.

Do careful research up front and target only those agents and publishers who will help you produce a high-quality book. Agents and agents you target should be able to point to previous success in profitably selling books similar to yours.

This means you need to zero in on agents and publishers that would represent your work in the best light, give you the best benefit, and be the most reputable available. Unfortunately, unless you don’t mind making no money or taking a loss on a book you’ve spent considerable time writing, the ability to sell books like yours should be the bottom line in your evaluation of your agent and publisher options.

How to Find the Right Agent or Publisher

There are several ways to find out what agents and publishers are available and to zero in on the best fits for your book. All of these ways can be employed to obtain a master list of possibilities:

  • Go to the local big box bookstore and find the section presenting books that are most similar to the genre you want to publish. Note down the publishers of these books and check out the acknowledgment sections to see if specific agents are identified (and praised by their client author). You can find “similar books” listings on some library websites and online bookstores like www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.
  • Go to the local big box bookstore and go to the writers’ reference section. Buy some of the books that list agents and publishers. The most useful of these are the annual Writer’s Market series published by Writer’s Digest (which can also be obtained on constantly updating annual subscription at the Writers Market website) and Jeff Herman’s annual Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents.
  • Go to the local public library and ask for the latest edition of the Literary Marketplace, known as the LMP, which will probably be in the reference section. (It’s in two volumes the size of big-city telephone directories). This is the bible for the publishing industry concerning who does what and how to get in touch with them. The LMP contains a pretty comprehensive list of publishers, along with the genres they represent, the number of books they published the previous year, and contact names and addresses.
  • Look for a subsidiary rights section on agent and publisher websites and note agents listed there (and elsewhere) who frequently place books with target publishers.
  • Follow the discussions on the Publishers Weekly website (www.publishersweekly.com) for what is selling and to whom - note, especially, the “Hot Deal” section.
  • Subscribe to Publisher's Lunch, an email newsletter covering what’s being published and publishing deals being made.
  • For a fee, Agent Research & Evaluation will review a precis of your work and provide you with the names of agents who have sold similar work. The Writer’s Digest School also offers this service.
  • Search the Internet for agent lists. Two places to start: Bloomsburymagazine.com offers listings of agents and www.writersservices.com offers listings, from The Writers Handbook, of U.S. agents and U.K. agents.

When you have a list of appropriate agents or publishers, you can start focusing on the most desirable of these.

Managing Your Agent of Publisher Hunt

Set up a record-keeping system to keep track of the status of your submissions. At minimum, you should include check-in categories of where you sent queries and follow-up material (with specific names and contact information), dates of submissions, and dates and content of responses.

When you send queries out with self-addressed stamped envelopes (SASEs), remember to use the individual addressee as the return address so you can identify who is sending a response to you. (Agents/publishers sometimes send short form letters that don’t identify themselves.)

I Have My List and System Now What?

You are now ready to review all of the information you have gathered on your master list and categorize. Arrange listed agents/publishers from those most attractive (offer good benefits and services and represent/produce books close to the content and style of your book) to the least desirable.

Concentrate on the top three or four categories (but save the categorized master list--you may eventually have to consider querying agents/publishers in the lower categories). Find out all you can about the reputations of these agents and publishers on the following publishing industry watchdogs:

[And, of course, see what the buzz about a particular agent is in the WritersNet Literary Agents forum. You will more than likely find someone with first hand experience of dealing with the agent you are considering. Ed.]

This process of determining who will actually deal with you honestly will have weeded out a high percentage of the agents and publishers you had on your master list.

Don’t mourn over how short your vetted list now appears. Take heart that the time and money you are now going to put into querying agents and publishers has a higher probability of success. Think of all those aspiring writers who didn’t vet their choices first, who are now engaging in unproductive and ultimately expensive and disheartening discussion with unsuitable and/or disreputable agents and publishers.

Copyright 2003 Gary Kessler. All rights reserved.

Gary Kessler, a frequent contributor to the WritersNet discussion board, is a novelist and freelance book editor who has edited more than eighty-five published books for some twenty traditional publishers since 1997. He has worked inside both trade and academic publishing houses and has released books of his own in traditional publishing, POD-production, and electronic publishing forms. He is the editor of the two-volume Writer’sNet Anthology of Prose, which was released in 2002. Gary’s previous career was with the U.S. Government’s foreign media news agency, for which he served in embassies in East Asia and the Mediterranean and also served as the news agency’s managing editor. He provides writing and publishing tips for authors on his professional website at www.editsbooks.com.

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