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TO AGENT OR NOT TO AGENT . . . THAT IS THE QUESTION

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message 1: by Michele (new)

Michele Torrey (micheletorrey) | 5 comments We all know the old Catch 22: in order to get published you have to have an agent; in order to get an agent you have to have been published. Sounds like an impossible dilemma, but there is hope for aspiring writers.

First of all, I don't believe the first statement is entirely true. I believe that writers can get published without agent representation, and not just at the little publishing houses but at the big publishing giants as well. So what's the secret? The secret is two-fold.

First, you must write terrific stuff. You must have an excellent, sellable product that sparkles in the slush pile like diamonds in dirt. Most editors slogging through the slush pile know by the end of the first chapter or even the first couple of pages whether your writing is up to snuff. So learn your craft; polish your manuscript with the help of an experienced critique group and don't send it out until you know it's ready. You'll only have one chance with a publisher so don't send less than your best.

Second, and here's where even excellent writers can fall flat on their faces, study the publishing market. Know precisely which publishers are publishing the kind of book you write. How? Believe it or not, amazon.com is a good place to study the market. Start searching for books like yours. Each relevant book page will list the publisher. Continue your search in the "advanced search" section where you can narrow the search parameters to a particular publisher, to the most recent years, and so on. Make a chart of likely publishers. Then go to each publisher's website and study their submission guidelines. If they require an agent, well, NEXT! Develop a "top five" list according to the parameters that are important to you (such as big or small publisher, response times, quality of books produced, simultaneous submissions, and so on), then submit while adhering to each publisher's guidelines. If and when you receive a rejection, shed a few tears, rant if you must, then straighten your backbone and send your manuscript to the next publisher on your list, preferably by the following day.

The key is to understand the market. Sending it to every publisher on the planet with the wishful dream that maybe-they-don't-publish-your-kind-of-book-simply-because-they've-never-read-anything-so-wonderful-as-what-you've-written-and-if-only-they-would-read-it-they-would-love-it, doesn't work. Editors are inundated with that kind of wishful garbage, and their response is, well, NEXT! Target your market. Send to only a few publishers at a time (I recommend submitting to no more than five at once). Continue to hone your manuscript; revise if an editor has given you sage advice that you "feel in your bones" is good advice and, above all, persist.

I sold multiple books this way. I sold the DOYLE AND FOSSEY: SCIENCE DETECTIVES series to Dutton, an imprint of Penguin/Putnam, and TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD to Knopf, an imprint of Random House.

(The nitty-gritty: Initially I received a two-page rejection letter from the editor at Dutton. Unlike the other publishers who had rejected the manuscript with their gigantic-you're-a-big-fat-loser-red-rubber-rejection-stamp, this particular editor detailed the reasons why the manuscript wasn't working. I asked her if she would be willing to see a rewrite, she said yes, and the rest is history. Same thing happened with TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD. I received a detailed rejection from the editor at Knopf, rewrote the manuscript, and it was subsequently accepted. And the rewrites were no easy-schmeazies, either. They were as meticulous and as meaningful as I could make them. I took three months rewriting TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, so long that when I did finally resubmit it, the editor thought I must have changed my mind and decided not to rewrite it after all. Looking back, I should have written her a brief progress note every few weeks to let her know I was still breathing.)

So, assuming your book is the next best thing since sliced bread, and assuming you study the market with the determination of a starving doctoral student and are targeting your submissions appropriately, then why have an agent at all? Don't agents take a sizeable chunk out of an already skimpy pie? Why throw away your hard-earned cash?

Well, it has also been my experience that agents can be pretty handy. First of all, a good agent knows how to handle all the finer points of your contract. They can get tough when it comes to contract negotiations while your relationship with your editor can remain on an editorial playing field rather than wallow in the contractual mud. If your agent is worth her salt, she will get you a better deal and more money in the long run.

Of course, there are those horrid "closed doors" in the publishing industry. You know what I'm talking about. Those publishers who will only accept submissions via an agent. Not much you can do about them except to get an agent. (FYI - the only reason those publishers had to close their doors to unsolicited submissions was because they were bombarded with tons of inappropriate, untargeted submissions by the unenlightened masses who thought market research was waaaay too much work.)

And then there are the sub-rights. Maybe I can sell my DOYLE & FOSSEY series to Dutton without an agent, but what do I know about selling the series to a Korean publisher? A Portuguese-language publisher in Brazil? Audio rights to the audio people? Movie rights to the movie gods? Well, I don't know squat about any of that, nor do I want to invest the energy to find out. I want to write the next D&F book instead. But a good agent knows all this stuff. After I had my DOYLE & FOSSEY contract in hand, I was able to land an agent who then negotiated my contract. (Agents love it when you come to them with contract in hand. That's a really, really excellent time to snap up an agent.) She later sold the series to a Korean publisher, a Brazilian publisher, and so on. Something I never would have been able to do on my own.

So, to agent or not to agent . . . that is the question. And while the answer may have its pros and cons on both sides of the equation, there's one thing for certain: you are not the victim in an impossible dilemma; you do have the power to decide.

Michele Torrey
www.micheletorrey.com



message 2: by Nina (new)

Nina | 10 comments Michele, this is terrific info, thanks so much for posting. I'd like to add one more suggestion-do your market research thoroughly and detail it in your proposal/letter.


message 3: by Michele (new)

Michele Torrey (micheletorrey) | 5 comments Hi Nina,

You're absolutely right! In the query/cover/proposal, you get major points when you specifically state *why* you are sending it to that particular agent/editor.

Here are a couple of sample paragraphs which illustrate the research I did:

To an agent: "I am querying you for multiple reasons: history is one of your passions, because you also represent middle-grade and YA fiction (which I write), and your agency takes a holistic approach to an author’s overall career."

To an editor: "I am querying you because you published a similar YA novel: 'Yankee Doodle Boy: A Young Soldier’s Adventures in the American Revolution Told by Himself.'"


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