Actually, that headline should be: To have an agent or not to have one. That is the question. Right now, I’m answering…no. Let me share with you my observations on life without a literary agent and how I wish this aspect of the publishing business would change:
I’ve had several literary agents in my brilliant career. They each had their talents, and for some authors, they might have been perfect. But there’s only one I’d recommend out of the bunch. She and I split when I started writing things she wasn’t repping. The others…well, I’m not going to whine about them. I’ve done plenty of that already to friends. Any author who’s had a less-than-stellar relationship with an agent will be able to imagine the reasons for breaking with one.
I went into the agent hunt recently, though, because editors want to deal with agents, not authors. My heart’s not in it, however, so I’ve started querying editors directly. And, yes, I am knocking on a lot of closed doors.
As authors know, virtually all publishing houses are closed to unagented submissions. Editors won’t respond to authors who don’t have agents, won’t read their manuscripts, sometimes won’t even read their queries.
So going without an agent means an awful lot of dead ends, even for a multi published author, who has an Edgar nomination on her resume and a film option in her bank account (that would be me). In other words, when I query editors on my own, a certain amount of doubt in editors’ minds should be removed from the process due to my experience. They don’t have to wonder if I have it in me to revise a novel for publishing or if I know about how to market a book or if I understand the legalities of the business or how to put a plot together.
I also offer another reassurance to skittish editors: I tell them in my query that I use an entertainment lawyer for negotiation (same one who did my film option deal). This is to let them know they won’t have to fret about muddying the editor/author relationship with the haggling that comes over contract details.
Several editors have responded to my recent query about an upmarket commercial fiction novel and requested to see the manuscript. I won’t out them, so don’t ask who they are. I applaud them for thinking for themselves and evaluating whether to say yes to an unagented author, regardless what their imprint’s submission guidelines are.
Back in the day, when I first entered the publishing world mumble-mumble years ago, some of the big houses were still open to unagented submissions. Being unagented meant you’d be waiting a heckuva long time for a read even when an editor said the magic words, “send the manuscript.” But it didn’t automatically mean “no, sorry, won’t even take a look.”
The turning point in houses closing their doors to unagented submissions came during the anthrax scare, when white powder was being mailed to various places. Then, one by one, the big houses started building walls to keep out unagented authors.
Only a few imprints remain open today to the unagented — mostly “category” romance at Harlequin imprints, or some small publishing houses.
I wish it weren’t so. Maybe because I’ve bounced around this biz for those mumble-mumble years, I’ve become somewhat cynical about the whole submission process. I’ve come to the jaded opinion that there are maybe a dozen (or fewer) agents whose submissions are read quickly, even immediately, because they have a reputation for backing winning horses.
The rest of the agents are clamoring for attention, trying to get editors to read manuscripts after a conversation or just a damned good cover letter. And, lately, from stories I’ve heard, even good agents seem to be having trouble with that, getting timely access for their clients’ works and timely responses to the read.
In today’s world, I can self-publish it if no one bites on my new book. This change in the industry, where big publishing houses have a lower share of the market than self-published and small press-published novels, is part of the digital/Amazon revolution. Amazon recognized that authors are customers, too. Some publishers are catching up to that changed paradigm.
I hope at some point all editors will evaluate for themselves whether to read unagented material.