You have a manuscript. It’s been through a few drafts. It’s been workshopped and read by trusted friends who know a thing or two about writing. After careful consideration, you feel like it’s time to find a publisher. You can go one of two routes: Try to find an agent, or query editors directly. So, what should you do?
(There’s the self-publishing route as well, but that’s another post!).
Here’s my little pro/con table for each:
|Can get your manuscript into the hands of big publishers (and therefore, open up the potential for bigger advances/more sales)||Can take a lot of time—querying, waiting for responses, etc. This can be a months-long or even years-long process|
|Can do a lot of work on your behalf||An agent gets paid by taking a cut of whatever deal you get|
|Focus can be on what can sell vs. what is written well||Focus can be on what can sell vs. what is written well (yes, I mean to put that in both columns!)|
|Can be more direct—you cut out the middleman of agent, cutting down on the length of the publishing process||Large publishers won’t entertain queries direct from writers|
|Small or mid-level publishers can give writers more attention||Because of above, chances are any deal you get would be with a mid-level or small publisher, and they have relatively little money to give to writers as compared to large publishers|
|Small or mid-level publishers tend to be more receptive of literary work that might not have huge market potential||You might have to do quite a bit of publicity or marketing work on your own|
- Take an honest look at your work from a marketing angle. Do you think it has potential to be a bestseller or reach a wide audience? If so, then an agent might be a good choice.
- If you would categorize your work as more literary or work that might appeal to a small, select audience, you might be better off querying editors directly.
- Are you willing to wait for a big-money deal, or the potential for big money? Or do you just want to get your book in print? If you really think your book has the potential for big sales, then you’ll want to try to get the manuscript in the hands of a big publisher, and that’s only going to happen by going through an agent. You might be able to get published more quickly through a small press, but the potential for big payoff is going to be less than with a large publisher.
I initially queried dozens of agents. I knew it would be a long shot, because my memoir was not explosive or shocking like many of the memoirs that come from big publishing houses. It’s quiet and takes place in Minnesota—not exactly a marketer’s paradise. But I wanted to at least try. I will admit I dreamed of getting in with a big publisher, of being in that very small percentage of authors who come out of nowhere and hit it big.
I got a lot of “nice” rejections from agents. They verified what I knew in my heart—that this was a quiet story, a story that big publishers would not invest the time and money in trying to market it. But I thought it could find a home with a smaller press, so I created a list of editors to query.
That is how I ended up with the University of Minnesota Press, and I couldn’t be happier. It feels like the right home for a story like mine. I’ve delighted in the attention my book has received from all the staff, and it’s nice to go into the office and they actually know my name. It makes me feel that there are people out there who care about writing and writers—sometimes you only often hear the horror stories instead.
I probably could have saved some time if I had taken a more honest look at my book. But I’m glad I at least tried some agents, because in the end they had good advice and made more clear the road I needed to take.
Have you tried either route? Are you trying to figure out what route to take? Comment below!
Amy Kortuem said:
This is great advice, Rachael – thanks for sharing!
Danika Dinsmore said:
This is a great post and I agree that it comes down to being honest with ourselves about what we want and what we’ve got in our hands.
I went with a small press after going through one agency first, who I adored, but who evolved into a fancy picture book packager and I had a middle grade novel. I was happy for their success, but sad for myself, and didn’t want to go through the pain of another agent search, especially since I had two books in the series already written. I just wanted them published.
I’ve enjoyed working with the small press, but will pitch my next project to agents to see what the other side is like.
Another pro with working with a small press is that the shelf life of my books is probably longer. They didn’t forget about me after 3 months.
Danika, thanks for reminding me about shelf life! That is so important! I love seeing books that the University of Minnesota has published that remain on store shelves year after year.
A friend of mine had a YA book published by a major publisher (I’m talking major!) and since it didn’t do as well as they wanted, it went out of print quickly. She really struggled to find a home for her second YA book. It’s like agents and editors didn’t even take into account her first book because it disappeared so quickly.
Best of luck to you on your agent search!
Danika Dinsmore said:
Yeah, that’s rough. So many people think (and I used to be one of them!) that once they get an agent or a big publisher that it will be smooth sailing from then on out, but there are just so many factors involved. I think the best thing authors can do is learn how to market themselves.
Wise words! Authors should market themselves no matter who is publishing their work. Even the best publishing publicist is working for many authors at any one time and can be spread thin.
Yes, my memoir also received a lot of polite replies. I settled with that…but now I have a new direction in which to go. Thank you!
Good! I hope this was somewhat helpful. The “polite” replies gave me a lot of guidance.
Yes…all my replies told me that memoirs were not selling…
That’s so false! There’s always room for good writing in every genre.
Great post. Thanks for this info.
Lisa Simons said:
Wonderful blog entry, Rachael. I hope I someday can read this again before I strike out with a manuscript of mine.
We will make a great plan for you!