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[Path to Publication] Publishing Without a Literary Agent
Written by
Elizabeth Enslin
February 2014
Written by
Elizabeth Enslin
February 2014

After Seal Press offered to publish my memoir last spring, I agonized for several weeks about whether or not to find an agent to help me negotiate contract details and guide me through the publication process. On the one hand, representation by an agent was the route I had long planned on. I had been researching agents for months and had a long list of first, second, and third tier choices. On the other hand, I figured I’d already done a lot of the work that agents take 15% for––preparing an effective book proposal, landing a deal––and wasn’t sure I wanted to share.

While waiting for the contract, I chatted by email with a few authors I knew who had agents. They all talked of mixed experiences. To my surprise, they urged me to forge ahead unagented. One had (without her agent’s help) published a book with Seal Press several years earlier and assured me that the boilerplate contract was standard and fair and would only need a few minor changes.

The advice to go it alone echoed what I’d heard several months earlier at the Write to Publish conference in Portland, Oregon. Some writers there said they trusted the small, independent publishers they worked with well enough to manage their own careers. Seal fit into that category and has strong feminist ethics as well.

Since I had always assumed I’d launch myself as an author with a literary agent, I couldn’t let go of the idea so easily. I read posts like this by Rachelle Gardner. Meanwhile, I picked up a copy of Negotiating a Book Contract: A Guide for Authors, Agents and Lawyers by Mark Levine. It helped me understand what to look for once my contract came, places that would probably need some work. My confidence in understanding general contract areas grew, but I still felt wobbly around details.

When the contract arrived, I read through it and was glad I’d taken the time to inform myself. I didn’t see anything alarming but quickly recognized a few areas that could be improved in my favor. I decided I wanted help with that. Instead of committing myself to an agent, I hired a literary attorney who charged by the hour. Since she also worked as a literary agent, she knew various sides of the industry. I liked her perspective and sense of efficiency. Within days, she proposed changes to my contract —protecting 100% of my film and merchandising rights (you never know, right?) and revising some complicated clauses on options and ebook royalties.

After some back and forth, I signed an improved contract. In the months following, I met some well-established authors who adored their literary agents and were alarmed to hear I didn’t have an agent. They urged me to find one immediately to guide me through the rest of process. Since I’d already received half my advance, I wasn’t sure how that would work. While at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, I did consult with two wonderful literary agents. I didn’t ask them to represent me; I asked them for advice on my situation. Given the reputation of the publisher and the details I’d already negotiated, they said, I was probably fine. One told me to stop worrying about a literary agent and consider hiring my own publicist. I’m still thinking about that option (and would love to hear thoughts from those of you who have worked with publicists).

I’ve been impressed by the various literary agents I’ve met at writing conferences. I value what they can provide in guiding an author’s career. I suspect I will seek one out for my next book. But so far, I’m happy with my decision to work unagented on this first round. My editors have been responsive and supportive. In fact, the editorial process has been wonderful––a topic I’ll post on in the future. We still have much to get through (cover design, publicity, etc.), but I’m confident in my ability and in my publisher’s willingness to work things out.

I can’t claim enough experience or expertise to advise any other writer on whether or not to seek representation. But I can draw out a few tips from what I’ve learned. Consider your unique circumstances and all the options (e.g., hiring a literary attorney), ask other authors about their experiences with a particular publisher, gather a wide range of opinions from those who know the industry, and inform yourselves about contract details.

Any other perspectives out there? What’s been your experience working with––or without––literary agents?

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  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    Balanced and informative. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Glad you find the discussion here useful, Karen. PR is a huge piece of the publishing puzzle. The great thing about SW is seeing so many different approaches to publishing and PR -- lots to learn from all that.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for sharing your journey, Elizabeth. I have also enjoyed reading other SheWrites sisters' responses. SW has taught me so much about what is involved in effective PR...which I am practicing on my already-published gardening book, but am returning to a couple of children's lit MSs to work on and finish...and I will need all of this information when I am ready to decide on how I'd want to publish them.

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Thanks for chiming in Stephanie, Ellen and Carolyn. It's heartening to know that others have had positive experiences publishing without agents. And thanks for mentioning the Authors Guild––another great resource. I did look at that and decided I wanted an attorney to negotiate too. But AG is a great deal. I'll definitely check out [Tips of the Trade}, Ellen. I'm excited to learn more about doing my own publicity.

  • Carolyn Niethammer

    Yes, if you are eligble for membership in Author's Guild it is worth the dues for the contract help. You get a model "dream" contract and you can also send in your contract for AG lawyers to go over. They will not negotiate for you but they will point out red flags. When I lived near NYC, one of the benefits was taking advantage of the AG seminars on Negotiating Your Own Book Contract. I left totally empowered, went home made 26 changes to my contract and sent it off with great fear. The publishers agreed to all the changes without a quibble. Who knew? Not me until I took the seminars. I now make substantial changes in all my book contracts. Nothing has ever come up forcing me to rely on those details, but I am protected for everything from a t-shirt to a movie. 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    I, too, worked with a literary attorney who went over the contract with me.  A useful resource: The Author's Guild sends you a model book contract when you join.  As for publicists... I've been promoting my book myself.  See my [TIPS OF THE TRADE] blogposts here on SheWrites for lots of advice on how authors can find their readers, and enjoy it along the way.

  • Stephanie Bird

    I found independent medium sized presses for all 5 of my books on my own. When you get right down to it, as the author you know your work best and with whom it should be placed. Agents can open some closed doors but by and large I find that they don't really get my work (with a few exceptions). I think as a indie press author, its a good idea to represent myself.