If You Want to Get Your Manuscript on the Desk of a New York Editor, You Need an Agent
Barb here. Okay, that title probably lays out the point of this blog post pretty clearly, but this is a complex topic.
Of late, I’ve heard some rather “loud” voices in the industry telling new/hopeful writers that not only do they not need an agent to be successful, but that an agent will actually be damaging to their careers.
In one online discussion, I recently (stupidly) jumped in to say, “Well, of course if someone is self-publishing, he or she doesn’t need an agent, but if a novelist wants to be traditionally published, an agent is necessary. How can a writer get a manuscript on the desk of a New York editor without an agent?”
I was instantly—and quite vehemently—told that I was “wrong,” and that no writer requires an agent to get a manuscript on the desk of a New York editor… and that unagented writers sell novels to New York editors all the time.
I bowed out of this discussion quickly, but I did worry that a lot of new/hopeful writers were listening to what I considered very poor advice.
Arguments Against Going with an Agent
These three issues are commonly discussed:
1. Issue: An agent has too much voice in what gets written and doesn’t get written… and what gets shopped and what doesn’t get shopped to publishers.
Response: Yes. This is certainly something to consider. I have a friend who wrote up a proposal for a project that crossed a few boundaries on the “disturbing” level, and her long-time agent said, “I can’t sell this in the current market, and I don’t feel comfortable submitting it.”
Ouch. What do you do when your agent won’t send out a project? This does happen. But… I don’t think it’s common, and I’ve never personally had it happen, and I’m beginning to realize that in some cases, I should have listened to my agent. J.C. and I are with John Silbersack at the Trident Media Group. John is a very experienced agent who handles the Dune estate for the Herbert family.
Recently, I decided to try my hand at a romance novel. John told me, “Either do Regency or contemporary. At present, very little else is selling.”
I didn’t want to do Regency or contemporary (smiles), so I wrote a Victorian romance. The book is a lot of fun. John read it. He liked it. He was happy to submit it all over New York, but he told me to be prepared because he’d probably have trouble selling it due to the setting. That was last November and… so far, no one has made an offer (even though a number of editors have liked the book). Several have said, “She’s good, but this setting isn’t selling right now. Can you get her to write contemporary?”
So, our agents may limit us, but I think for the most part, they just offer advice. Most agents will shop our projects even when those projects are not the most marketable.
2. Issue: Agents work for the publishing industry, not for the writer.
Response: This kind of statement makes me bang my head against the desk slowly. Of course agents work for/with the publishing industry. But… of course they also work for/with the writer. The writer works for/with publishing industry. The publisher needs the writer.
In traditional publishing, this is a three-way symbiotic relationship.
I am familiar with an agent who hates the publishing industry, who views it as one great mass of evil whose only goal is to cheat writers of their last dime. As a result, this agent does not make many deals.
As writers, if we’re going to pay our rent and buy groceries, we need an agent who is at least willing to go into negotiations. Of course our agent must look out for us first and foremost (and the editors know this), but you are much better off with an agent who is trusted and respected by editors in the publishing industry. You might even be able to make a living.
3) Issue: Are you really going to trust a complete stranger with your money?
Response: This is another somewhat misleading statement. One does hear horror stories now and then, and a few of these have become legend.
But in reality, a literary agency is a business like any other business.
Any writer with sense will research an agency before he or she signs on. There are a number of well-established literary agencies with solid reputations. Most of the established agencies have accounting departments. Checks flow from the publisher to the agency’s accounting department. The accounting department cuts a check for 15% to the agent who negotiated the deal and 85% to the writer.
If a writer is uncomfortable with this arrangement, he or she can simply set up separate accounting. This is what we did.
In all our book contracts, our agent arranges for the publisher to send 85% of monies earned directly to us and for 15% to be sent to the agent. This is becoming a common practice.
Why You Might Need an Agent
1. Negotiating Contracts
Now here, instead of an agent, you can go with an IP (intellectual property) attorney and just pay a one-time fee. I know a few writers who have done this and had a good experience.
Again, JC and I are with John Silbersack at Trident Media, and our agency is always on the lookout for new “clauses” that are suddenly slipped into contracts. Sometimes even innocuous-sounding clauses can have long-term impact. Trident Media has its own legal department, and we are more comfortable using the combination of our experienced agent and the Trident legal team when it comes to negotiating a contract.
Note: No matter who negotiates the contract, it is up to you to read every word, ask questions, and make sure you understand each clause before you sign it. Remember your grandfather’s advice and never sign a document before you’ve read it.
2. Inside connections
For me, this is becoming increasingly important. With the changes in the publishing industry, and the mergers, and the vanishing imprints, even people who are very connected are having difficulty keeping up.
I think it would be challenging for a new writer to try and submit an unsolicited manuscript in the current market, because just figuring out “where” to send it and to “whom” to send it has become tenuous.
Our agent is well connected, and even he’s had trouble with this. Just last month, he sent my Victorian romance to a long-time editor at Berkley, and by the time it reached her desk, her position had been “eliminated.”
3. Getting your manuscript in front of a New York editor.
This last item is the “thesis” of my blog post.
Is it possible to somehow get a manuscript on the desk of a New York editor without an agent? In theory, yes. I don’t have to look any farther than myself.
In 2001, I got a little novel called Dhampir through the slushpile (without an agent) and onto the desk of an editor at Ace/Roc. She read it and made an offer.
However, keep in mind this was 2001, and the publishing industry was different fifteen years ago. Some of the imprints were acquiring a lot of books. Borders and B&N were doing well, and mass-market paperbacks were booming.
Also, by 2001, I had sold one novel (for a professional advance) to a small publisher, and I had a long list of professional short story sales. My cover letter and my writing credentials somehow got me out of the slush pile. I honestly don’t know if these would have cut any mustard in the current climate.
Last week, I decided to do some research. At this point in my career, I am pretty well connected, and I am acquainted with a number of New York editors. I did a verbal survey to see if any of them read unsolicited, unagented manuscripts. All of the answers were the same. Here is a quote from one editor at an imprint of Penguin Random House that sums up the responses:
“It is rare for editors to even see unagented manuscripts. Neither of the senior editors here look at them, and I occasionally look at them. I'm guessing I read 10-15 agented manuscripts for every non-agented one. Basically non-agented manuscripts are just classified as slush so would go into that category. In the last 5 years we've only had one author that we acquired without an agent, and he came from the slush pile. He now has an agent.”
So… if you want to go traditional, think a bit on this quote. Everyone is responsible for his or her own writing career. Think carefully, think critically, and no matter what you hear, make these choices yourself.