Is an agent really necessary?
Would self-publishing (through Amazon, for instance) be a better option?
These three interesting questions came up on the Facebook page “All Things Nautical” recently, attracting even more interesting answers.
Let’s look at the first one, first:
When is the best time in the novel-writing process to start sending out proposals?
The reaction was definite. While it’s okay (and sometimes a very good idea) to send out a proposal and outline for a non-fiction book before the book is written (or even started), a novel must be Finished. To tell a prospective agent or editor that the novel is not finished is usually a cause for instant rejection.
And, not only should it be finished, but it should be polished, too. Which means no typos, no aberrant formatting, no redundancies. As one correspondent added, it should not only be finished, but scrubbed repeatedly by you and also at least one other competent and educated reader.
Another, who used to work at a publishing company, fervently agreed. The best favor you can do yourself is to find a good editor, technical reader, and proofreader before you submit your manuscript, she wrote. Some of the manuscripts that came in were perfectly “horrible to read”—and while the publishing company had its own editors who were perfectly capable of fixing all those awful errors, “the less work the company has to do, the better, in the eyes of the company.”
Others advised multiple submissions (usually consisting of first 3 chapters and a synopsis). However, the publisher’s guidelines may indicate that they will not accept multiple submissions (i.e. sending the same submission to various agents and/or publishing houses). The problem with this is that some houses take 6 weeks to three months to reply and a few never get back to you. Receiving a rejection after waiting weeks and then submitting somewhere else can mean you spend a year in just 3-4 submissions. Trying to do the right thing can be very frustrating ...
Second: how to hunt out that ideal agent.
Good advice was to phone a prospective agent, saving a lot of time and effort. Nowadays, many agents will respond to emails. You can find this out by going to one of the publications that list agents and their fields of specialty and whether or not they will accept the manuscripts of "new" (i.e., debut) authors. Literary Market Place and Writer's Market are two. The best, perhaps, is Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents.
Whether you phone or query via the internet, the call or the email should be short. Remember the “elevator” advice—pitch your idea in exactly the time that it would take to get from one floor to the next if you were in an elevator with that agent.
But, is an agent really necessary?
Some said yes, one pointing out that agents have more clout and knowledge than authors when it comes to the major houses. If you want to approach one of the Big Six New York publishers, you have to do so through an agent, as none will consider a manuscript sent in "over the transom." However, securing an agent can be as hard—or harder—than finding a publisher, and even then there is no guarantee that they will find a home for your book.
You don't need an agent to approach most smaller publishers. And a smaller publisher will often commit its entire publishing team to your book, whereas none of the Big Boys (or Girls) in New York will commit much of anything unless your name in Bernard Cornwell or Philippa Gregory -- in which case the sky is the marketing limit.
A small word of warning -- if you query a "small" publisher, make sure it is not just an imprint of one of the major publishers. These are listed on this very good site posted by blogger Scott Marlowe.
Personally, I think that unless you are very lucky in snaring an enthusiastic agent with good contacts in good publishing houses, you might be better at selling your idea yourself. An agent, however, is very useful in negotiating a contract, and keeping the publisher to the agreed terms. For anyone who does manage to sell a book without an agent, I strongly recommend joining the Authors Guild, which has a free -- and very quick -- service vetting contracts. It can save many pitfalls.
Self-Publishing as an option
Well, there is that self-publishing (the “indie”) route. In these hard economic times publishers are very conscious that every book is a gamble, and they all would like that gamble to be a sure bet. Accordingly (unlike agents), they are more reluctant to take a punt on an unpublished author, no matter how good the writing might be. So, indie publishing is an increasingly attractive option.
Be prepared to do all the marketing yourself, though, as one correspondent warns. Companies that offer self-publishing services do not do ANY marketing, despite what they might say. Amazon is an exception, since it's the biggest book retailer.
No wonder they say that writing the book is the easy part!