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Agents And Publishers - Who Do I Approach First?

Aug 31, 2007
You may well think that the choice of approaching an agent or publisher is academic before you have even finished your book but nothing is further from the truth. This short article discusses the pros and cons of agents and publishers - and which one you should go for.

A decision that many writers put off for as long as possible seems to be the one where they decide if they want to get an agent or go directly to a publisher. One school of thought says that having an agent is definitely preferable, the other says - why pay an agent commission when you can do it yourself. Let's look a bit closer at these two points of view -

Agents: The advantages to having an agent are best described as ones that remove certain amounts of stress from the writer, allowing him or her to get on with what they do best - writing. A good agent will negotiate a better deal with a publisher than you probably could, will have their ear to the ground to know what's hot and what's not - and hopefully tell you where your book lies in that regard.

A disadvantage to having an agent is, simply, cost. An agent will either charge fees or commission on sales, the rate varying from agent to agent. This works well for you if you haven't made any big sales but can cost you a shedload of money if you hit the big time. For example, it's been reported that Little's, who handle the Harry Potter books for Rowling, cream off millions per year in commissions. Mind you, I imagine Rowling isn't too worried! This is of course an extreme example but it is worth keeping in mind.

Also, you may have to sign-up for a set period with an agent, or guarantee them the sole agency rights to a certain number of books before they will agree to represent you. This isn't greed, it's just business - they will be investing time and effort in you and will require a certain return from you in the form of this type of commitment. Again, it's something well worth keeping in mind.

Publishers: The advantages of dealing directly with a publisher seem obvious: fast track to the correct editor, no agents commissions to pay and less red tape all round. All these points are valid but, as is usual in life, they too carry their downsides.

Your editor may well have very definite ideas of what he or she will or won't accept from you as a book. If you want to change tack in your writing, a publisher's editor is probably not altogether the best person to explain this to - the editor wants a certain type and style of work from you as this is what they 'signed-up' to. Any deviation from this type may well result in, at the least, a straining of the relationship between you! Also, a publisher may want a far more restrictive contract with you than you would like - and you may well not be offered such options as foreign rights, large-print rights and that holy grail for all writers - film rights.

On balance, I would always advise new writers to try their hardest to gain the services of a good agent. I know this is difficult and writers can often get into the Catch-22 situation of being unable to get a publisher interested without agent representation, yet unable to get an agent interested until they have some work in print.

One way around this is to approach publishers directly - then when (and if) you receive an offer of publication you can wave the letter under an agent's nose. The chances are much greater at this point that any agent will be interested, of course! You may well then ask - 'Why bother with the agent when I have the offer?'

Several reasons. The first - and most important - is that I can predict that, in 99% of cases the agent will secure a better deal for you than you could for yourself. Won't the publisher be upset? Not usually - it's just business as usual for them and this sort of thing happens all the time. A tip - if the publisher really does kick off in this situation be wary. It may well be that they were trying to short-change you on the deal and are now worried that an agent will spot this and take the business elsewhere. Be warned!

On balance, then - go down the agency route. Let them have the headaches about gaining a publisher for you, negotiating terms and all the other details that go with getting a book from acceptance to publication. And you? Just get on with your next book!
About the Author
Steve Dempster writes articles for the web and works of fiction. If you would like to get the know-how a novelist needs to write professionally, take a look at this.
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