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What an agent won’t tell you about publication

After 4 years of undergrad, I was surprised that we finally had an event on campus about book publishing. Although I know quite a bit about the industry, I thought I’d go, just in case.

The person speaking, was an agent/editor (for those who don’t know, an agent helps pitch your book to publishers, polish it before pitching, and helps you through publishing and contract negotiations. Meanwhile an editor is within the publishing house and edits your book before it comes out, often much more in-depth and over various stages).

Given her success, this agent/publisher has to be fairly good at her job. However, there were a few things mentioned that I wish were addressed differently. Her comments are in bold, paraphrased. My response is below.

  1. Once you send your book to agents, they will call you up and fight to represent it. Maybe this happens for some people, but no one in the writing community, that I know, has had this happen. For one, it takes on average around 100 queries to find an agent, if you find one at all. Secondly, because agents are receiving so many manuscripts, they have to really, really love it (enough to bet a lot of time and money on it) so even if it’s perfect from a craft perspective, the odds that multiple people like it that much is low.

  2. Once you have an agent, the publishing houses will fight to represent it, offering you lots of money and competing to acquire it. Similar principle as above. The reality is the publishing industry really relies on a few “star” authors to bring in the money and fund their ability to take chances on other books. They receive a lot of pitches and have to like it enough to again, bet a lot of time and money. At this stage, the market can play a large role so you might have written the best book that they love, but if it won’t sell, they won’t buy it.

  3. Don’t worry at all about platform. True, there’s less of a push than before to grow your platform (in part because its not clear that having more followers = more sales) but especially when you as the author are doing a lot of the book marketing, you need to at least know a few people in the industry, from bloggers to other authors, who can help get the word out. Quality over quantity here because 1000 followers who don’t engage with you is worse than 10 who you actively interact with. The idea is to make people want to spend time to read *your* book over other things– so promote other writers, interact with them, basically do what you would want them to do for you.

  4. Shell out $20/month+ for publishers weekly to look up agents who did sales on similar books. Okay, so could this be helpful? Sure. What’s wrong with it? For one, you are going to be querying over a long time, so unless you buy it for one month and take great notes so you can use it in the future, you’d need it over many, many months. Secondly, given that many writers don’t need more costs than they already have, why not do the same thing but for free? MS Wishlist (#mswishlist on twitter or this website) lists what agents are looking for, Writer’s digest posts a lot about agents looking for submissions (ie here), and a lot of agents you can find (*gasp*) by googling literary agent + your genre.

  5. You need an agent. And traditional publishing > anything else. Now you do need an agent if you want to publish with the big publishing houses since many won’t accept submissions unless you do. BUT you can still publish with a smaller press or do hybrid or indie publishing. Of course there are pros and cons to each and you shouldn’t indie publish just because you never found an agent, but for some people indie is better than traditional, and vice versa.

  6. If you want to be in publishing you need to be in New York. If you want to be in the big 5, this is likely true since they’re located in New York. However, there are publishing hubs in other cities (Philly, LA, San Francisco) and regional publishers all over that you can start (or have your whole career) in. There are also many roles (ie freelance editor, etc) that you can do from anywhere.

All in all, while an agent can be a great resource, they have one perspective. Just as one author might taut indie publishing as the best and another traditional, they can be right for some and wrong for others. There are always different ways to do things, especially in book publishing.

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