This month I’m answering all of the questions you have about publishing! Many people think it’s a straightforward manufacturing process—closer to producing zippers or bubble gum or anything else we use and hold every day. But the truth is, publishing is much more complicated than that.
This week’s question:
Do I need an agent [to publish my book]?
Excellent question! I get asked this question all the time. And the answer—like everything else in publishing—is more varied than you’d expect.
An agent acts as both an advocate for authors, and a gatekeeper to trade publishing houses, especially the Big 4 (Penguin Random House with Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan) and all of their imprints. The Big 4 publishers, and even many independent publishers, do not accept proposals on submission; instead, they buy the rights to publish proposed books at auctions held by agents. Publishers rely on agents to thoroughly vet proposals and only pitch the books that they feel most confident will sell well.
On a practical level, this means that agents wear a lot of hats. At any moment, you might find an agent performing any of the following tasks:
The answer to this is maybe!
If you are hoping to be traditionally published at an imprint of the Big 4—then yes, definitely. Like I said, even some independent publishers rely on agents to help them find higher quality proposals more quickly. If there is a particular publishing house you’re interested in, then look at that publisher’s website to see if they accept unsolicited submissions (no agent required), or if they only accept proposals on submission (agent required).
Some small traditional publishers and independent presses, especially those in niche markets, do not require agents. The publisher that I worked at for many years is an education publisher, and we never required agented submissions because the industry is small enough that the acquisitions team can take on a lot of the tasks that agents do. Every publishing company is going to be a little different, so if you’re not sure, check their website.
If you are interested in self-publishing or hybrid publishing, then no—you don’t need an agent! Hybrid publishers, especially good ones, will have their own vetting process, but usually they do that themselves rather than going through an agent.
Sometimes, finding the right agents who might represent you is half of the battle! Often, it can feel like online dating, and a lot less fun. Here are some tips I recommend:
I always tell authors to make a list of 15-20 agents to start with. It’s likely that most of them won’t be able to take you on for one reason or the other, so you’ll want to have plenty of options.
Agents will be looking for you to submit a book proposal to them. If you want more advice on a good book proposal, see my series on book proposals here.
Most agents will have instructions on their website or their agency’s website about how to submit a proposal, if they are currently accepting new proposals. Sometimes, an agent’s roster fills up and they can’t take on new clients at that time. That’s ok—just move on to the next person!
If an agent is accepting submissions and has instructions, FOLLOW THEM TO THE T! Download their proposal template, fill it out and submit it how they want it submitted. This process is annoying because, much like filling out job applications, everyone wants something a little bit different. Have patience. Now is the time to build up your fortitude, because it can feel discouraging after doing all of that work if your proposal isn’t accepted.
Sometimes agents will ask you to fill out an electronic form on their website, or using a site like QueryManager. That’s totally normal, too. Like I said, every agent is a little bit different.
It’s a good idea to include a query letter with your proposal, especially if you’re submitting your proposal by email. Your query letter gives agents a quick peek at what your book is about and is probably how they decide if they even want to read the proposal. So you need to make a good impression. Here is a template I’ve created that works well. It’s very similar to the template I shared last week for requesting endorsements.
It was wonderful connecting with you at….
Thanks for responding to my DM on Instagram about…
[Title & Positioning Statement]
[SHORT Overview, Audience, + Rationale – 3 sentences]
[Author bio – why are YOU the best person to write this book?]
I’d love to discuss whether my book would be a good fit for your list.
I’d love to answer any questions you have about my work.
Thank you for considering representing my book.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Website/Relevant social media]
So once you’ve submitted your proposal, what will make an agent say yes? Agents are going to look for a book that they feel confident will sell well in the general market. And by “sell well,” I mean proposals that can be reasonably expected to sell tens of thousands of copies and are likely to hit bestseller lists. They make this determination by looking at a few things:
As I’ve written before, your platform is the system you’ve established for reliably sending your content to a dedicated audience. Contrary to popular opinion, platform is not just about your social media numbers! Your platform is more likely an ecosystem of multiple brand components that all work together to put your name in front of potential readers’ eyes often:
Publishers, and therefore, agents on publishers’ behalf, want to see that you have a big enough platform to sell lots of copies of your book. There’s lots of debate about the right “number” you should have, or whether agents and publishers even require a number in the first place.
The truth is, some agents require certain numbers—and others don’t. Every agent is different!
If you’re a celebrity or a speaker or someone who’s developed a certain brand that has attracted an audience, your agent/publisher is going to want you to continue playing in that sandbox. This is why celebrity memoirs do well—because they’re revealing even more details about a person that the public already loves and admires. If you’re a speaker/thought leader on a certain topic, then ideally your book will also be on that topic.
It’s not impossible to shift away from your established brand if you want to—people do it all the time—but it’s a harder sell. If you do want to do that, you’ll need to show that you’ve already primed your audience for this new topic and they’ve received it well. For example, perhaps you started posting on social media about your new idea, and you can show that those posts have received a lot of engagement.
An agent also wants to see that you’ve got the writing chops to actually follow through on what you say you can do. This is why your sample materials are incredibly important! It’s worth getting your book proposal and sample materials edited professionally so that you know you’re putting your best foot forward.
They also want to see that the idea itself works—that it appeals to the right market, that it offers readers truly something of value. For more information about book ideas that work, read my series on Bestselling Book Ideas.
Sometimes, if an agent sees potential, or if you have a big enough platform to be attractive even without great writing skills, an agent will help you refine your proposal or match you with an editor or ghostwriter who can help.
Unfortunately, it’s likely that you will get rejected at least once! Like I said, I know it’s crushing to receive a rejection after you’ve spent so much time and work on a book proposal. But I know too many authors who receive just one or two rejections and give up altogether. Here is my advice for keeping up hope, responding to rejection, and moving forward.
Take heart from publishing stories like Stephen King’s. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen shares that he would nail all of his rejection letters to a wall. Pretty soon, he needed to replace that nail with a spike!
The moral of the story is: Don’t let rejection stop you from believing in your book.
You stop when you want to—but, again, don’t stop believing in your book. If you’ve received more rejections than you can handle emotionally, or if you keep receiving feedback that your book just isn’t working for whatever reasons, then I recommend taking a pause. Stop sending out queries, and seek feedback from a book coach (like me! I’m happy to help!) or someone who can help you make changes and pivot.
If you really think your book is marketable and you feel confident you can make it successful on your own, then you always have the option of self-publishing or hybrid publishing. The world of publishing is so much more accessible now than it ever has been, so take the opportunity to learn something new and enjoy the journey!
I hope that this helps you! What has your experience with agents been? What questions does this raise for you? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you!