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Best Practices for Selling Your Book to Agents and Editors (or How to Avoid Being Delusional about Getting Published)
Written by
Brooke Warner
November 2015
Written by
Brooke Warner
November 2015

Deciding you’re ready to publish is a huge deal; it’s also the point where you hand over control to someone else, putting the power in the hands of an agent, an editor, the universe.

Most writers have traditional publishing aspirations. They want an agent to fall in love with their project and champion their work; they’re looking for the external validation of being accepted by a publishing house; their fantasies about getting published involve a red carpet experience that’s increasingly elusive in this industry.

I get it. Who wouldn’t want what traditional publishing, at its best, offers its authors: an advance, a built-in team; a publicity campaign. So yes, go for it, by all means, but also be vigilant, self-advocating, and savvy during this process, and remember that publishing is not always at its best. It’s easy to get delusional while shopping your book, hoping for the bite from an agent or editor that will change your life. It’s also easy to be self-berating, and to get anxious or depressed. So beware, and practice self-care by following best practices and setting firm limits:

Shopping to Agents
Limit the number of agents you sent to at any given time to 20. Follow up after two months. If they don’t get back to you, they don’t want to represent your project. Move on. Remember that agents only get paid when they sell your book. They have a trained eye toward what publishing houses want, and they represent projects that they think they can sell for significant money. Consider that a $5,000 advance garners an agent a measly $750 (15% commission). No matter how much they might love your book, they’re financially motivated and they sell books for a living. Agents vary in terms of responsiveness. Some get back to every author. Some are straight-shooters, telling you flat-out: “I don’t think I can sell your book.” Others will use euphemisms, dodging the conversation about how ridiculously competitive the book industry is, saying things like: “I didn’t connect with the project as much as I hoped I would.” It may be important at this point to get an assessment of your work. Is it really publish-ready? If you know it is, and especially if you’re getting compliments from agents, or regretful rejection letters, it’s likely agents can’t take you on because of your lack of author platform. If it’s incredibly important to you that you get an agent’s representation, you might have to revisit your book or your platform or both. If it’s more important to get published, move on to Plan B.

Shopping to Publishers
I encourage writers with niche or non-commercial projects to shop directly to publishers, bypassing agents (though some want or need to go the agent route first). The process is the same. You simply send your query letter to editors instead of agents. Bigger publishers will not accept unsolicited queries (meaning they have to be agented), but there are many small- and medium-sized publishers looking for projects, who want to collaborate with savvy authors who don’t necessarily need to be celebrities. My advice to those of you who shop to publishers is the same as above: Follow up after two months. If they don’t get back to you, don’t press. Move on. But cast your net wide here. Shop to as many publishers as you want to, until you feel you’ve exhausted all of your options. Where the agent pool is plenty big, they all have to sell to the same very small pool of publishers who still pay advances. If what matters most to you is a good fit, to land with a house that champions your work, then these deals are out there, though the process requires a lot of tenacity (and you still need an author platform). Note that a zero advance offer should give you leverage to negotiate higher royalties, and maybe even to ask for some monetary support from the publisher for your marketing and publicity, but you shouldn’t expect this. Decide in advance how long you’re willing to pursue this path (I recommend no longer than one year), and do your research. Only pitch to publishers who are a good fit for your book. Don’t rule out university presses. And if you get an offer, be careful not to be so grateful after months of shopping that you forget to negotiate better terms.

Alternative Publishing Paths
The point at which aspiring authors step off the shopping path and embrace alternative publishing (hybrid publishing, partnership publishing, self-publishing) depends on their tolerance for rejection, their patience with the process, and their personal publishing ambitions. More and more I’m working with authors who are opting out of shopping their work altogether. They don’t want to deal with traditional publishing and see the many upsides of publishing independently. (A few authors at She Writes Press have even turned down traditional deals in favor of an independent model.) Others come this decision as a last resort. For some, choosing to publish independently means giving up on a dream, or needing to work through what it means to them to green-light their own work. Alternative publishing paths involve paying to publish, so money is a big consideration here. Do you value your work enough to pay for it to see the light of day? Do you have a judgment about subsidizing your own work? Do you believe industry rejections mean your work isn’t good enough? If so, you need to hear that it’s no longer the case that manuscripts are rejected because they’re not publishable, but instead because traditional publishing is contracting; because more and more books are being published every year; because authors don’t have strong enough platforms; because a house has recently published something similar. Publishing independently allows you to create the experience you want. Hybrid publishers are increasingly operating a lot like traditional publishers—giving you a traditional house experience, with hand-holding, a built-in team, and traditional distribution. Self-publishing allows you to call the shots. You can hire agents, consultants, and coaches to guide you through the publishing process. Independent publishing is a blossoming middle ground for authors, and in many cases you can replicate the experience you always dreamed of having—though you pay for it instead of being paid for it. So you might also need to disassemble your fantasy to create a new reality. But with the life of your book being at stake here, it’s worth doing the requisite soul-searching.

What was your publishing path? If you traditionally published, was it the dream you hoped for? Did you bypass an agent and sell your work directly to an editor? How did you go about doing that? Did you publish on a hybrid press, or self-publish? Are you glad you did?

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  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Kristin, this is such common thing you're describing—like being under the influence of the popular crowd. For a long time traditional publishing has been the gold standard. We all grew up under a particular paradigm. Many people have always dreamed of being traditionally published and all that it means—getting that stamp of approval, like you say. It's validation that your work is good, that it's worthy!! But around the time that author platform started becoming more important than the actual content inside the book, everything changed. I watched this happen, and it was a crazy experience. We went from publishing books we thought were good/that mattered to publishing books whose authors had a platform, where we could rely on the authors connections to sell the book. This really did happen over the course of maybe 2-3 years. So it's not like you—the aspiring author—just flip a switch and say Oh, now I don't care about traditional publishing or what they think. It takes a MAJOR mindset shift. But the fact that you have already self-published and had a great experience is very telling, and so is your experience with your agent: Big Five or nothing. There are all of these people competing for such a small piece of the pie. You might want to shop your book directly to maybe ten small presses—set a timeline on that of maybe 3-4 months, and then publish independently. My two cents, though it seems you're already leaning toward making a change. Good luck, Kristin!

  • Kristin Louise Duncombe

    Hi Brooke

    Thanks for your reply. I am feeling really torn right now.  My first book sat with an agent for six months.  He only pitched it to the big five, and when they passed he let me go, saying "if they won't buy it no one will."  I self published and it has been a fantastic experience.  The book continues to sell, receive positive reviews, and most importantly: IT LIVES!  I finished my second book last June, and my new agent started shpping it this September.  Time ticks on, nothing is moving, and I have started a new writing project.  Thing is, that second book is ready to "go live" and I keep asking myself why I didn't just self publish.  I really did get influenced, once again, by this idea that traditional publishing will always be "better" somehow, but I really wonder if that idea is passé.  What I struggle with is WHY it feels so hard to just turn my back on the agent/traditional publishing deal.  I feel like I am under the influence of the "popular crowd" at school - the one Mom always said don't waste time with!  But like a young person who won't listen to Mom, I keep hanging around waiting for the stamp of approval - and it is not making me happy!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Yes, Maureen, I've heard this story so many times. I'm sorry for your anguish and inspired by your resilience!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Kristin—definitely three to six months. No longer than that.

  • Maureen C. Berry

    Hey Brooke-yours is solid and timely advice. Thanks.  

    My first non-fiction manuscript was bought one year ago by a small, niche imprint of a mid-level publishing house. Last month, my project was “put on hold” after a yearlong roller coaster ride. Since I didn’t like the direction the publishing house wanted to go, I dissolved the contract. My rights were reverted without penalty. It was amicable enough even though I’m sure my anguish was greater.

    To try to answer your question, Was it the dream I hoped for? Yes and no. There were plenty of highs-the MS being bought, the book received an upgrade, working with an agent, editor, and publicist. The lows-the time from contract signing to book publish is long, the project was put on hold, other similar books going to print in close proximity as the scheduled release date.

    Not to be daunted, I sent the MS out again. Within six weeks, (a respectable time frame), I received a thoughtful rejection letter (yes, it's true)! The agent offered a few recommendations about the ms. But the bottom line - my platform is not as strong as it needs to be.  

    So now I am in the process of assessing whether to publish traditionally or self-publish. In both instances though, I need to grow, or "revisit" my platform. 

    Thanks again.

  • Kristin Louise Duncombe

    Hi Brooke

    Thanks for this great piece. I'd like to know what you think is a reasonable amount of time to wait for an agent to sell an MS.  Three months? Six months?  A year?

    Thank you for any insight!


  • Novelist Alexandra Ares

    Can you please give us a list of fiction editors from these small and medium publishers?