I get asked this question a lot. And my general response is to say that it is a personal choice. Once you have completed your manuscript (MS), edited it and perfected it (and potentially sought professional manuscript development), there are four pathways (as I see it) open to you:
- Find an agent to represent you;
- Submit your unsolicited MS to publishers;
- Network, network, network and find ‘connected’ people to send your comprehensive Cover Letter and Synopsis to; or
It can be tough to know which path to follow. There is no right or wrong choice. There are so many factors at play that it’s hard to respond in a concise ‘black + white’ way, but I will try…
So, should you approach an agent first?
Once upon a time approaching an agent would’ve been a no-brainer. However, my experience tells me that it can be just as tricky to get an agent to represent you, as it is to get a publisher to publish you. They are very selective about who they represent, and rightly so! There is a lot of hard work that goes into selling a manuscript (MS) and they have to believe in the manuscript’s potential as much as you do in order to do the job justice. I’d hate for an agent to take on my MS if he/she wasn’t really ‘into it’, that would be a sure way for it to sit at the bottom of the pile and never see the light of day – meaning a dead end for my book, as no one else will be championing while it is contracted!
Some writers prefer to use an agent, as they’ll do the hard work for you in terms of seeking the right publisher and negotiating deals. Of course, the benefit of working with an agent is that they are ‘in’ the industry every day, so they know what is happening and they have connections. They can also (sometimes) sell a book into a space that is recorded as ‘filled’ on the publishers’ websites. Never underestimate a good network in the publishing world. People who know people actually can go places.
Agents are also great if you have something obscure, or a concept for a non-fiction, or something that is generally harder to place. If the idea has legs then an agent can be a magnificent champion of the idea; taking it to the right people and articulating the idea into a sales pitch.
And if you do get offered a publishing contract then an agent will help navigate all the ins and outs, to ensure you are getting the best possible deal with all the right trimmings. They are experienced for looking for aspects that should/shouldn’t be included in the contract i.e. e-rights, or international rights…
And publishers love good agents because it means that the manuscripts they receive from them have already been vetted for quality, by an agent whose opinion they value.
How to choose the right agent?
This is an important question, not just anyone will do! What you need is a good literary agent. You want to find someone who you connect with, and who has your best interests at heart. You also want someone who holds great relationships with publishers and editors in different ‘houses’. You certainly don’t want an agent who is so good at ‘going in for the kill’ that he/she alienates publishers. Bedside manner is important, if you don’t like them and they don’t appear to respect you, then perhaps they aren’t the best person to champion your work. You want publishers to see your work in a good light, and this can start with the relationship they have with your agent.
If you do manage to lock-in the right agent then these can be very fruitful relationships. Your agent should be the champion of your manuscript, going into battle to get the best deal for your MS. They can use their extensive relationships to place your work where it otherwise might not find a place (not everywhere accepts unsolicited manuscripts). They will also make sure that your book continues to stay on the publisher’s radar to ensure it doesn’t get pushed aside after printing and initial sales.
Before diving into a relationship with an agent, make sure you know a little bit about them, interview them in the same way they are interviewing you: what is their background, how did they become an agent, what other authors do they work with, what books have they recently placed (this is important; you don’t want an agent who was spectacular in the 80s, but now rides on those wins. They may no longer have relevant relationships in the industry).
Will working with an agent first affect authors if they want to approach a publisher directly later on?
This primarily depends on the relationship you have with your agent and the agreement that was set in place. Obviously if you are ‘signed’ with an agent then it would be in particularly bad taste (and possibly going against the contract you have with them) to seek out publishing deals on your own terms. However, if you choose to end the relationship with an agent then there is nothing stopping you from approaching publishing houses.
Read about approaching a publisher in Part 2 of this article.