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What route will you take? Agent or editor?

What route will you take? Agent or editor?

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:


Pro Con
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!)


Pro Con
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

My advice:

  • 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!