Traditional Publishing — What happens after I get an agent?

At publication time, I do not yet have an agent. This info is what I've learned by talking to agented writers, listening to agents, and studying the industry.

It’s very tempting to believe you’ve made it when you get an agent. Unfortunately, that’s not true. An agent isn’t the same as a sale. It’s just the first step on the way to a sale.

Going out on submission

In many ways, what happens after you get an agent is very much like the process you just went through:

  1. You and your agent will get your manuscript ready for submission to publishers. It is not unusual at all for an agent with an editorial background to ask for edits or even a rewrite before going on submission. If there are rewrites to be done, don’t be dismayed if a few months pass before your book goes out on submission.
  2. Your agent will make a list of editors she knows who might be interested.
  3. Your agent (possibly with your help) will put together a query package.
  4. Your agent will query the first round of editors — her A list. If she expects it to be extremely competitive, she’ll put it up for auction, rather than going the traditional query route. Auctions are very exciting, but rare.
  5. Once the manuscript is out on submission, you are again playing the waiting game. And just like the waiting game you played when you were waiting for agents to read your partial and full, you’ll now be waiting for editors to read your manuscript. It can take months. Your agent will continue to submit until she makes the sales or until she runs out of editors to submit to.

Getting an offer

If an offer is made, your agent will send you the contract. A book contract can run 200-300 pages, but you need to review it carefully.

Book contracts are NEVER writer-friendly. Never. Not once. They are publisher-friendly. It is your responsibility (through your agent) to negotiate the most problematic clauses into something you can live with.

Although theoretically everything is negotiable, in reality that isn’t true. There will be terrible clauses that you hate, and you won’t be able to change them. You have to decide if it’s worth it to sign the contract. If not, walk away.

Your agent reads these contracts day in and day out. She knows what is likely to be negotiable and what isn’t. Still, don’t accept her recommendations blindly. Most agents aren’t lawyers, and they have a stake in getting the deal that works best for THEM, not just you.

This is YOUR contract. YOU are responsible for understanding the terms. Literary contracts have long-lasting, serious ramifications. Do not sign one without understanding every single clause.

Educate yourself on the most problematic clauses — the ones it truly may be worth walking away over. This article calls out some of those.

Many writers recommend hiring an IP lawyer to review contracts. (Not just “a lawyer.” Specifically, an IP lawyer.) This is expensive, but if you have the funds, it’s a decent investment. You can find a few IP lawyers here.

What if no offer is made?

If no offer is made, discuss your options with your agent. She might encourage you to approach small publishers on your own or to self publish. She might suggest you keep the manuscript in your back pocket to try to sell as a second or third book. (You are working on the next book, right?)

Agents don’t generally approach small, indie publishers, because indie publishers often can’t pay enough to justify the hours of work.

Indie publishing

In an earlier post I discouraged you not to submit to indie publishers. Even though you might end up submitting to them after all, you’re still way ahead of where you were:

  • Your agent may have sold to a larger publisher and net you more money.
  • Your agent has likely put together a significantly stronger query package than you did on your own.
  • Your agent may know editors at some smaller publishing houses. The personal connection will give you a leg up.

What about self publishing?

Some agencies are now also offering services to help their clients self publish material they have been unsuccessful traditionally publishing — or don’t want to traditionally publish.

Some authors consider services like these to be a conflict of interest — and they potentially can be — but as long as they don’t offer (or require) those services until after they’ve exhausted their attempts to traditionally publish, I believe the services are simply a way for agents to remain competitive in the rapidly-changing publishing landscape.

I hope the agent I eventually sign with will help me evaluate all the possible avenues open to me.

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