I often speak at writers’ conferences where I listen to many would-be authors gripe about how much hard work it takes to find an agent to represent one’s book. I don’t know that I’d say it’s hard work to find an agent—after all, you’re not doing any heavy lifting or even breaking a sweat (though you might if you’re a particularly anxious mailbox stalker). It’s more like time-consuming and soul-crushing work! Pursuing a publishing deal is not for the thin-skinned: Stories about big-name authors who submitted to as many as 100 agents before they find an agent and get a book deal abound. You’ve got to be in it for the long haul.
True, the Big Five publishing houses generally won’t review unagented submissions and many mid-size publishers won’t either, so if your dream is to become a mega-bestselling author, one day you will likely need an agent. But there are a lot of viable alternatives that don’t require an agent at all. You could start that way or stay that way.
You Have Alternatives
It’s becoming increasingly common for authors to pursue alternate routes to publishing books in the face of extremely long response times and extraordinarily bad odds. More first-time authors are self-publishing to distinguish themselves and make some cash; agents and editors are more proactive than ever in seeking out successful indie authors who’ve built strong platforms.
Additionally, printing and marketing technologies such as POD and social media have resulted in a wonderful explosion of micro-publishers and small publishers devoted to discovering new talent. These generally don’t offer large advances if at all and instead rely on profit-sharing models, but one of many upsides is that you don’t need an agent to submit your work (so at least that tiny advance is all yours!).
You Don’t Have to Choose
The thing is, you don’t have to choose one or the other. While you’re spending years trying to find an agent, why let your manuscript grow mold in a desk drawer? If it’s print-ready (and I would hope that it is if you’re seeking an agent), maybe you’d like to self-publish it and start building an audience so that, when an agent does finally show interest, you have more ammo with which to persuade her to sign you up (and likewise to get that publishing deal).
At the very least, start working on your next book while you shop or market your first. Or get that first book out there so you can prove yourself while you query agents for your second book.
Find an Agent, Or You Could…
- While the largest publishers struggle, the indie scene is thriving, perhaps for the first time since media conglomerates started consolidating the entire industry some decades ago. Independent publishers often have the experience and at least a modest budget to help launch a career or nurture a small but loyal following. Major successes could lead to a bigger house picking up your unused rights (for example, if you’re published in hardcover, another company might negotiate with your current publisher for paperback rights) or to a bigger deal on your next book. Remember, you don’t need an agent to submit to most small publishers.
- Certain genres such as almost anything in the YA or paranormal romance categories are hot now, so if your book fits, why not capitalize on the trend and see if you can make a little moolah by self-publishing? If you do well, it can only help you get an agent for this and future books. You may even decide you prefer being independent.
- Even if you get an agent, there’s no guarantee she’ll be able to sell your book to a publisher. Experiment in the interim by self-publishing an ebook, which can be done with little or no cost, and play with pricing, marketing techniques, even different cover approaches to see what gives you the best ROI. If the reader feedback is negative, you’ll get a much-needed reality check before wasting more time seeking an agent when it would be better spent revising, taking writing workshops, or meeting with a critique group.
- Every agent wants an author with a great manuscript and a well-developed platform. Use your first book or other works such as short stories and blog posts with a great website, email capture system, and marketing plan to start building a mailing list and readership. Seek out reading opportunities. Attend conferences and make friends with published writers who are willing to endorse your work. Whether you get your agent and then get a deal or ultimately self-publish, you will need a strong platform to sell books, so your time is never wasted on these efforts.
It’s Your Own Damn Fault
If you’re just sitting on your thumbs waiting to hear back from agents, you’re wasting a lot of time that could be very productive for you and your writing career. No amount of griping is going to make agents miraculously read and respond more quickly, or allow them to psychically browse their gigantic submission piles so they will recognize your talent instantly. And if you are hearing back from agents in a timely manner but no one is biting, it’s probably time to get really honest with yourself: Is your query letter strong enough? Is your book marketable? Are your sample pages engaging and effective? Sometimes it takes a long time to get a “yes” because you simply aren’t ready for one.
Bottom line: If your career languishes while you send out queries and wait for responses, you’ve no one to blame but yourself. Use that time productively by following the suggestions in this post, or investigate other options. Post a comment here describing what you’re doing to help further your writing goals while you wait to hear back from agents. Inquiring minds want to know 🙂
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.