Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Agent v Publisher Debate

There has always been the debate of whether to submit manuscripts to agents or to publishers first and from my experience there is no firm answer to what to do. Some of this has been discussed before in previous posts. See: What Does an Editor Do?

Much of the problems lie in being unsure what the boundaries are between an agent’s job and a publisher’s / editor’s job. There is a lot of crossover and the boundaries are not clear.

I was once told at a SCBWI meeting:

“Literary agents reject almost everything they read.”
Is this true?

I have also heard that many already published authors have submitted work to agents and publishers under pseudonyms and been rejected. We are often told they are business people and we should approach them in a business like fashion. See my post on Submitting a Manuscript. We have also read before they are looking for that sure-deal. See the post on World of Children's Publishing

But, does this mean they are not interested in new authors?

Both agents and publishers reject a lot of manuscripts, but I’ve always assumed this is because of the quality of the writing, and the market for the story. Obviously, bad writers are of little use to them, they are looking for good writers. I like to remind myself, all authors are new at some point.

Agents and publishers are both knowledgeable readers who love books. Why else would they become an agent or a publisher? Many agents are former editors.

There are plenty of books I don’t like and can’t get past the first page of. I may recognize their value, but for whatever reason, they don’t speak to me. That doesn’t make them bad books. They might even be great books. Just not for me. I can imagine this is exactly true for agents and publihsers as well. Everyone has different tastes.

Take a look at the wide selection of agent’s blogs around, as they can help determine a particular agent's taste. Most of them are American. This is what Jane Dystel from the Dystel & Goderich Literary Management says about being an agent: Jane Dystel's blog

In an effort to try to unbury the boundaries in my own mind, I have worked out:

An agent’s job is to sell manuscripts, do deals, and make money for the author, publisher, and themselves. To do this they have to believe they can sell your book. Who would take on a book if they think there’s no way they can sell it? But what gets overlooked is the other part of the equation - they also have to love the book. If they don’t, it’s not necessarily a reflection on your writing, or even your salability. Agents get hundreds of manuscripts every year; they can’t love them all. It takes too much time and effort to work on a book you’re not passionate about.

A publisher’s job is to decide which manuscripts they would like to publish and whether to commission specific books and projects. A number of titles and series of books, particularly in education, are commissioned by editors with specialist knowledge of the market. Most of the books I have had published have been commissioned by such publishers who prefer to work direct with the author rather than with an agent.

Many manuscripts are sent via agents to publishers and I’ve heard publishers look at these first as they believe they have been vetted already. More and more agents in the Children’s Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook are saying they don’t take unsolicited manuscripts. And, more and more children’s publishers are saying they only accept submissions through an agent. We are told if they ask for no unsolicited manuscripts then send a query letter. If they like the letter they will ask to see the manuscript, but the entries seem to suggest an agent first is the way to go with children’s fiction.

During the SCBWI live chat with US agent Erin Murphy, who runs her own agency, she explained agents want authors who have more than one book to sell and who have manuscripts that are finished. She said that authors tend to find agents with their third or fourth manuscripts. It is very unlikely an author will sell their first book, as some sort of apprenticeship is required.

So should we submit to publishers or agents? I’m none the wiser. I think it depends what you are writing. In my humble opinion, I think we should hedge our bets and submit to both.

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