by Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D.
Copyright © Gini Graham Scott
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A question that frequently comes up for writers is whether to get an agent or pitch a book directly to editors and publishers.
Ideally, if you have a commercial book, either nonfiction or fiction, it’s best to get an agent – and an agent will want to represent you. In this ideal scenario, a good agent will have the connections and can place your book faster with a bigger and better publisher. Plus the agent can negotiate a bigger advance and better terms. So then the big question becomes how do you get to that agent? If you already have a high-profile, are involved in a big in-the-news event, or know people in the news and media business, you can usually quickly connect up with an agent, and even choose among eager agents.
Common Problems in Finding a Good Agent
Then there’s everyone else – which is most writers with a book. Without that big name or big story connection, it is often difficult to find a good agent with a strong record of sales to major publishers. One problem is that good agents are often busy with other clients, are selective in taking on new clients, want only high profile clients, and may take weeks or months to respond. Then, too, some agents will only consider new clients by referral. So expect some of these common barriers to finding an agent, even if your book is one that an agent will be eager to represent.
Even after you get an agent, a common problem for many writers is that the agent isn’t doing enough. Another problem is that the agent has submitted the book to some editors, but they have turned it down, and the agent isn’t sure where to go next. A third frequent complaint is that an agent may be initially hot on a book, but after a few turn-downs, loses interest. Still another problem is that an agent usually cultivates a select circle of editors – perhaps two or three dozen. But if those editors aren’t interested, the agent has limited contacts or lacks an interest in pursuing your project outside the circle. In such cases, getting or staying with an agent may not be the best way to go. You may do better on your own.
Another consideration in looking for an agent is whether your book is suited to a particular agent – or to agents, generally. While most agents handle general commercial nonfiction, many emphasize certain specialties or only handle certain types of books. Among these specialties are fiction, children’s book, self-help, health, and business books. Also, agents commonly submit most of their books to their own circle of editors. So target your book to agents who handle your type of book.
Deciding If Your Book Is Better Suited to an Agent, Direct Pitching, or Both
Consider, too, whether your book is best suited for an agent. Often, you will do better in pitching certain types of books yourself. In general, agents are best for books which have the potential for large sales, whether commercial nonfiction or fiction, or for special markets that have big sales potentials (such as popular psychology, self-help, and business books). In such cases, where big sales are possible, agents are the ideal way to go if you can find a good one, because they mostly focus on working with the bigger publishers who handle such books.
However, if your book appeals to a specialty market or has limited sales potential, you might do better pitching your book directly to editors and publishers – or consider self-publishing to launch your book. But only go the self-publishing route if you have the interest and ability to distribute books to your target market (such as if you are a speaker and can sell books in the back of the room or if you have an active social media presence), because distribution is the hardest and most time-consuming part of self-publishing. The advantage of self-publishing, if it’s suitable for you, is that once you establish a sales track record, you are in a stronger position to successfully pitch your book to a larger publisher.
Some types of books where you might do better with your own direct pitching include:
- specialized self-help books (such as dealing with home improvements, buying a house, and saving on income tax)
- academic books (especially those most suited to university publishers)
- professional books (such as those which would mainly of interest other professionals in your field, such as books for lawyers, doctors, and psychiatrists)
- business books (unless it’s a book that will appeal to a broad general market as well as managers)
Commonly, specialty books have limited sales potential and are produced by special divisions in big houses or by small to medium publishers which specialize in a certain area. As a result, agents may often not show much enthusiasm for representing such books – or they may not know the small or medium publishers to contact, due to their focus on the larger publishers and more commercial books. In turn, many small and medium publishers are used to dealing directly with writers; some even prefer to do so. They may not offer as big advances as the bigger publishers, because they don’t have the budget; but they usually can publish your book more quickly – and they are often more receptive to your book than a larger publisher. In such cases, it’s best to contact the publisher yourself.
When to Use a Dual Submission Approach
What if you are not sure about the potential for your book? One good approach in that case is to look for an agent and a publisher at the same time, and refer any interested publishers to your agent, if you find an agent you want to work with and the agent is receptive to your actively seeking leads. That’s an approach I often use myself. I send out lists of book projects to editors once or twice a year, and have several agents representing me on different books. Should any of these mailings result in a lead for a book where I have an agent, I turn the lead over to that agent to follow-up. Typically the arrangement I have is that the agent gets 10% where I supply the lead, instead of the usual 15% when the agent does it all. However, if the agent has provided extensive feedback on developing the book proposal, I think the full 15% is fair.
When you use this dual approach, be sure to tell any agent you contact about any publishers who have expressed interest. Sometimes getting this interest can help you get an agent, who will then contact other publishers, building on what you started. Alternatively, try initially querying the smaller and medium sized publishers, while you look for an agent, since some agents will prefer to contact the bigger publishers themselves. This way, you can explore two avenues at the same time – either getting a smaller or medium-sized publisher or an agent who will pursue the larger publishers. Then, if you get an agent, turn over any leads to that agent. If you don’t get an agent, try contacting editors at the larger publishers yourself, if you think your book might have a wide audience. Or go with a smaller or medium sized publisher, who has already shown an interest in your book.
In short, there are times when it’s better to seek an agent and times when it’s better to do it yourself, though often you don’t know what to do, particularly when you don’t know if an agent will be interested or respond quickly enough. That’s when the best choice may be a dual approach, where you test out the waters to see whether you can find an agent, or whether it may be better to work with a smaller or medium-sized publisher. Should you go for the gold or go with the bird in the hand? It’s not always clear which to do. But if you can, try for both, and if you can’t get the gold, maybe the bird in the hand will fly high for you.
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About the author: Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D., J.D., is the author of over 50 books, primarily nonfiction in the areas of business, personal development, relationships, psychology, criminal justice, and social trends. She has published several fiction books, has several film scripts under option or in production, and writes children’s books. She has a regular column with Huffington Post (www.huffiingtonpost.com/gini-graham-scott), dealing with social trends and insights from everyday experiences. Her books on writing include Sell Your Book, Script, or Column, How to Find Publishers and Agents and Get Published, How to Get Published and Deal with Clients, Co-Writing, Copyrights, and Contracts, and The Complete Guide to Distributing an Indie Film, all available through Amazon and Kindle.