*This post also appears as a guest post today on Brenda Drake’s blog. We like to cover our bases pre-Pitch Madness!
Publishing has evolved into a pretty fascinating thing over the past decade—new publishers opening, old publishers folding or merging, the rise of self-publishing… the options seem pretty endless. And the best thing about having so many options is that truly, what’s the best option for one book might not be the best for another, and encompassing different methods in order to optimize your sales is now a very real—and, in my opinion, very freaking awesome—way to build a writing career.
But, notice I said “what’s the best option for one book might not be the best for the other.” As in, each book might have its own best path. What this means is, your contemporary NA might do best self-pubbed, while having an agent sub to big houses might be the best move for your YA psychological thriller, and subbing to a small press might be optimal for your YA fantasy.
What this doesn’t mean is that you should take that contemporary NA, self-pub it, and then query your self-pubbed book to agents for representation. And what this really, really doesn’t mean is that you should query that YA to agents while subbing it to small presses.
Unfortunately, there’s been a really huge rise of simultaneously querying agents and submitting to small publishers, and while I understand the reasons and intentions behind it (and we’ll get to the most understandable ones later), what’s getting lost is that it’s genuinely hurting many authors, agents, and editors.
What’s the big deal? you might think. Because of course you want to get published. Of course you want to see your book become a book. You want to give your book every shot you can. But as with all things, there’s a right way and a wrong way, and after speaking to both agents and editors on the subject, it’s become clear that the wrong way needs to stop.
Because here’s the big deal. It’s an agent’s job to submit your manuscript. It’s an agent’s job to send your manuscript to everywhere (s)he deems a worthy fit, and try to get you the best deal (s)he can. Agents want to do their job, for you and for themselves; 15% of a six-figure deal is a whole lot more than 15% of a three-figure one. The crux of the author-agent partnership is a certain amount of faith that your agent knows what’s best for your work. So what kind of message does it send when you take that element out of the relationship? When you effectively say, “I’ve done the work of finding the best place for my manuscript”?
Now, I’ve made no secret of my feelings on small publishers, but in case it’s not clear by the fact that I’m publishing with one, let me make it clear—I love them. I love the amount of input I get, I love being so in the loop, I love how easy it is to communicate with them, and I love the personal attention. I have no regrets about going with a small publisher, and had no hesitation about doing so. That said, was going with a small publisher my agent’s first choice? Of course not—from a business perspective, as wonderful as they are, it will never be the highest-earning option. It’s an agent’s job to think big, to assume big, to aim for big, and to do so widely. That isn’t to say they shouldn’t sub to small presses too (though some do not, and if it’s something you think you want, that’s definitely something to discuss on The Call), but think about how you’d feel if an agent offered on your manuscript and strictly subbed small. What would you think that said about your agent’s confidence in your manuscript?
So why does this matter? Why should you care what I think? Because this isn’t strictly coming from me; it’s coming from agents, to me and Brenda—agents who no longer want to participate in contests, because they’re tired of having their submission options pulled out from under them. They’re tired of small publishers offering on submissions within a week of requesting and having five authors nudge them all at the same time, creating an impossible situation. And why should you care that they’re tired? Because it makes them say “no” when they might otherwise not have. Because sometimes, it’s just bad timing, and the crunch of only having a week, and the fact that an offer is already on the table, and the fact that they don’t feel it’s their place to tell you to pass on it on the chance they might be interested. And if an agent was what you really wanted in the long term—an agent who was going to widely sub your book—you just lost it for an offer you didn’t really want in the first place.
To quote one agent, “We want to help break authors out—to try to help them get to places they can’t get to by themselves. We want to put them in front of NY. Some books are good for digital and fit there. But the ones that would work well in NY are heartbreaking to pass on.”
And that’s exactly it—that’s what agents are for. So why take that away from them and from yourself?
You know who else it sucks for when you do this? The editors at those small presses. The ones who get really excited about your manuscripts, who get invested, only to get put on hold so you can find an agent. Yeah, they’re not any happier about this. Every editor I spoke to was absolutely on board with their authors using agents to negotiate contracts, just so there’s no confusion about that, but not with their offers being leveraged to secure agents who are then stuck in the position of negotiating a deal that’s already been accepted. As per one small pub editor, “An agent’s job is to get you the best possible deal, and when they are presented with one that is already accepted, their only option is to push back hard, and that will most likely put the editor in an awkward place.
Keep in mind that when a small press makes an offer they are already on your side, and they have likely spent some significant portion of time pitching your MS and being your advocate on the inside. If you are in the midst of talking with agents and have multiple queries out [and] need to use the offer to ask others for a final decision that is one thing. When you receive an offer is not the time to start looking for an agent. And vice versa, if you have an agent don’t sub on your own to publishers with an open call. Let them do that for you.”
In addition to hurting your relationship with your potential editor, doing this might actually be hurting the book itself. Books are scheduled for particular seasons, and there’s a specific amount of editorial time that’s been allotted to your book before it goes to press. The time you spend looking for an agent after getting an offer cuts into that editorial time, or time you could be spending on revisions. And no, you cannot demand an editorial letter before you sign a contract; if you don’t ultimately end up signing with that press after all, such as if you do land an agent and (s)he wants to sub more widely, that’s a ton of time and work spent on you that should’ve been spent on acquisitions and editing existing signed clients.
Now, that said, what happens if you do get an offer from a small press and want to find an agent?
“In pretty much every situation, honesty is always the best policy,” says another editor. “As a publisher, we want our clients to have every comfort in signing with us and usually recommend that if they don’t have an agent, they have a lawyer look at the contract. Depending on the publishing house, a pub offer is usually good anywhere from 30 days to a year, so it is absolutely appropriate to let the house know you’d like to use that time to find an agent to handle negotiations. Again, the biggest thing is just to keep communication open and be honest about your goals and plans.”
And finally, one more biggie from an editor:
“‘DON’T query small presses unless you are INTERESTED in publishing with one.’ It sounds so simple, but it happens all the time.”
Let me explain something about both agents and editors that seems to get lost in the shuffle a lot. It doesn’t matter how much power you’re tired of them having, and it doesn’t matter how curious you are about the strength of your work: Agents and editors are not test subjects. When you use one as “offer bait,” you ruin things for everyone. It means you’ve wasted time they could’ve spent reading subs from people who genuinely want this, or editing client manuscripts they’ve already signed. Seriously, next time you think of using an agent or editor or even a contest as a test subject, think of that writer friend of yours who’d kill for the offer you just used as a “test.” Think of the fact that your actions might be talking agents out of doing contests. Think of the fact that your actions might be the ones to make a publisher decide to stop taking unagented submissions. And stop.
I’m sure not everyone will agree with what I’m saying here, and that’s fine; I’ve had enough frustrating conversations with writers to know that plenty of people out there will do whatever they wanna do. But I’ve also spoken to many I know would never knowingly hurt other writers, and to those, I hope this will help you think twice about the path you’re forging for this manuscript.
To be clear, I genuinely understand the different innocent scenarios in which this happens.
I understand that sometimes you get an offer, genuinely want it, but are scared of negotiating the contract yourself. To that I say, be honest in your query that you are looking for an agent to negotiate this contract. This isn’t a situation where you’re leveraging or nudging to lure an offer. An agent can agree to handle it or not, and you can discuss on the call whether this is a one-time thing or the beginning of a partnership. Some agents are perfectly happy to do this. Alternatively, you can use a lawyer for the contract and just query with the next one; they’re not subbing this ms anyway, so wouldn’t you rather ensure they’re the perfect fit for the next one?
I understand that sometimes, contests have judges that are both agents and editors. To that I say, if you’re in one of these contests, pick one path and stick with it. If you want an agent, and you get requests from both, send to agents only. If an agent offers, you can always state that you had interest from that pub and let the agent choose whether to sub there. If you want a small pub offer, send to editors only, and then see previous paragraph if you receive one and want an agent to negotiate it.
I understand that it’s a really, really freaking tough business. But it’s tough all around, and the best we can do is try to work together so everyone gets a fair shot and awesome manuscripts become books. Seems like a pretty solid goal to me, no?