Selling Your Book Without an Agent

Last week we talked about how to pitch your book to literary agents. But what if you don’t have an agent or don’t want an agent? Can you approach publishers directly on your own?

No and yes.

I say no first because most of the larger publishing houses will only consider books submitted by agents. They won’t even look at a book that comes directly from the author—unless you’re Stephen King or your brother-in-law works there. They depend on agents as the gatekeepers between them and the hordes of hungry authors looking for book contracts. Forget the big publishers with the million-dollar advances unless you have an agent.

But you can publish your book without an agent. Three of my books were published without any help from an agent. Chelsea House, Heyday Books, and Quill Driver Books are among the thousands of independent publishers and university presses that will consider unagented submissions. The advances may be smaller than you’d get at Random House or HarperCollins, but you also get more personalized attention because they don’t publish as many books.

How do you find these publishers and approach them?

The process is similar to submitting your book to agents. Look for publishers in books such as 2014 Writer’s Marketand Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents and magazines such as Writer’s Digest and Poets & Writers. Look at published books, especially books that are similar to yours, to see who put them out. Meet editors and publishers at writing conferences where you can pitch them the same way you pitch to agents.

As with agents, learn as much as you can about the publishers before you approach them. The most important thing about marketing your writing is to find the right publisher, the one for whom your book is a perfect fit. If all their books seem to be vampire stories, and you’re trying to sell a literary novel, move on. If they do mostly fiction, and you’re offering a nonfiction book about parenting, find another publisher. Once you find a likely place, study their website, look at the books they have published, and read their submission guidelines. Then follow those guidelines, sending a query, sample pages, synopsis, or full manuscript in the format they request. If they don’t consider unagented submissions, don’t expect to be the exception. Find a different publisher or go back to trying to get an agent.

Once you have an interested publisher, you may suddenly find it easy to get an agent to help you negotiate your contract. Or you might decide to proceed without one.

One other way to approach publishers that we haven’t discussed yet is by entering contests. Quite a few contests offer publication as the prize. Next time, we’ll talk about how to find these contests, how to put together a successful entry and whether it’s worth the effort.

I welcome your questions about any of this.

Now go write.

How Do I Approach a Literary Agent?

With caution, confidence and consideration.

Caution: A good literary agent combined with a good book can make your career. A bad agent is worse than none at all. And if you annoy that good agent, she won’t want to help you. So be careful about how you approach an agent. Make sure she’s an agent with the ability and experience to sell your book. Make sure she is the right agent for your kind of book. And don’t piss her off with a book that is not ready, that is the wrong genre, or that you have no idea what kind of readers will want to read.

Confidence: If you go in saying it’s not very good and you’ll rewrite it if they want, they’re going to say no. So don’t try to get an agent until you know your novel or your nonfiction book proposal is as good as you can make it and then present it without apologies or excuses.

Consideration: Agents are people. Like you, they have lots of things going in their lives. They get hungry and tired and cranky. So be nice to them, don’t corral them in the bathroom at a conference, don’t call them every day for answers, and if you have the opportunity, offer them a cup of coffee. Best of all, send them the book that will make both of you successful.

Finding agents:

A literary agent’s job is to connect authors to publishers and handle the negotiations. They make sure you get paid and that your rights are protected. For this, they get 15 percent of what you make. If they don’t sell a book, they don’t make any money. So they need you as much you need them.

In these digital days, finding information about agents is easy. Do a Google search for literary agents and you’ll find all kinds of listings and advertisements. But anybody can call himself a literary agent. It’s better to go a reputable source. Most legitimate agents belong to the Association of Author’s Representatives (AAR). Members agree to a list of rules and standards that they abide by. You can search on their website for agents by name or genre.You can also find agents by looking in the acknowledgements of books that you enjoy. Authors often thank their agents.

Several books list agents, including Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, Chuck Sambuchino’s 2014 Guide to Literary Agents, and 2014 Writer’s Market, put out by the Writer’s Digest folks. Most magazines for writers, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and Poets & Writers, include agents in their market listings.

All of these listings describe what kind of books the agents are looking for and how to approach them. Various agents want mysteries, fantasies, romance, books for children, nonfiction, and other types of writing. None of them want every type of writing. Once you find an agent who likes your kind of book, go beyond the listings to their websites and read everything there. Pay special attention to the titles of books they have already sold. Would your book fit into that group? If not, find a different agent. If it seems like a good fit, then go on to read how they want you to approach them.

Agents’ requirements vary. Some agents ask for just a one-page query while others request longer proposals and/or excerpts of varying lengths sent in varying ways. Some want it all in the body of an email while others want samples sent as email attachments and still others require authors to insert all their information into online forms. Whatever they ask for, send them that, nothing more, nothing less. If your query doesn’t fit on one page, work on it until it does. If you think they should see more than the few pages they request, too bad. Good agents have hundreds of authors approaching them. You want to get their attention with your great writing not with your refusal to obey the rules.

Meeting agents in person

Many writing conferences offer opportunities to meet agents for brief pitch sessions. This can be a nerve-wracking experience, but it can also give you a shortcut to a great agent. Generally authors sign up for five to ten minutes to tell the basics about their books and themselves. Agents give them instant feedback, which can range from “not my kind of book” to “Wow! I’m interested.” If they like the sound of your book, they probably will not accept it on the spot. Instead, they will ask you to send them a query, sample pages or the entire manuscript. As with agents you approach online (or in rare cases, by mail), you should schedule your pitches with agents who represent your kind of books and you need to give them what they’re looking for. You need to be one hundred percent ready to sell your book and confident it’s the best you can make it. And you need to follow all the rules for the pitch sessions. Don’t be late and when it’s time for you to give your chair to the next author, say goodbye. Dress and behave as if this were a job interview. Come in having done some research about the agent and ready to pitch with confidence. If they say no, be gracious, ask questions and thank them for their time. Don’t pitch your book to agents in the restroom or the bar or at meals–unless they ask what you’re working on.

It’s time to wrap up this post. Next week, we’ll talk about how to market your book without an agent. Meanwhile, may all your pitches be successful and your words flow like Oregon rain.

Now go write.