Should I get an agent or a publisher?

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First published in Writing Magazine June 2005

I have, at long last, finished my first novel and feel, after much checking and editing, that it is finally ready to be sent out. I have been looking forward to this moment for years, but now find myself at a loss. I have read lots of articles giving advice on this but it always seems to be conflicting. Do I try and get an agent or send it direct to a publisher? And if I go the agent route, how – out of all the hundreds in the Writers Handbook – do I know which ones to try first?

Clare Stephenson
Newcastle

If ever I go on Mastermind, this will be my specialist subject. I have so much to say I hardly know where to start but I think the most important thing to remember is that others’ tales of trying to sell a manuscript is rather like those on taking one’s driving test or having a baby. All very entertaining (or not!) but it won’t be the same for you.

For every novel published, there are as many different versions of how the author made it, as there are jiffy bags thumping depressingly back on the door mat. For some, the very first agent they ever sent it to, went into a swoon and was on the phone begging, shortly after first post. For others, they’d been turned down by forty-seven agents, thirteen publishers and the post-office dog before they finally hit the big time.

I won’t be boring and tell you how many times Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter were sent back before someone saw the light, but let us safely say: getting a book accepted – by anyone – ain’t easy.

So how do you start?

Hindsight is a very fine thing and so these days I would say – get an agent. However, when I was sending out my first novel, I took a year NOT to find one, during which time, most of the agents in London variously hid from me, tried to pretend they’d taken early retirement, or genuinely did as I chained myself to their railings or harangued them at all hours of the day and night.

I ended up selling to my publishers direct. This worked for me but is not necessarily to be recommended. There is no doubt that whatever I might have said at the time, having an agent is a GOOD THING. I have one now and wouldn’t be without her (even if she’s the scary sort who tells me to talk less and write more and doesn’t always want to listen to my fifteen-point career plan for the second time in a week).

Agents deal with all the tedious bits like the money and the contracts; they can sell your books abroad which I, for one, wouldn’t have the first clue about, and, most importantly, they can wax lyrical to prospective publishers about how wonderfully you write, with a greater ring of authority than if you say it yourself, or get your mum to. But I know from experience – finding an agent isn’t always that simple. So I would be prepared to try both. Do your best to land an agent but if that doesn’t work, be ready to approach publishers too.

How do you choose who to go to? With difficulty, I would have to say. Long before I ever sent out my manuscript, I used to scour magazines like this one for interviews with agents and publishers, squirrelling away any cuttings that included words of wisdom and contact names. These all stayed in a file marked “One day…”

If anybody ever tells you who their agent is, remember the name. If a novelist you admire thanks his or her agent in the acknowledgements (they often do) write it down. If an agent comes to give a talk anywhere within a hundred mile radius of where you live, get there. If it’s a really big name, travel further.

For I always think: “I read you/met you/saw you/heard you” is a much more flattering opener in your letter of introduction than “Dear Blah-blah, I picked you with a pin from the Writers Handbook…”

Agents – strange as it may seem at times – are human too and everyone likes to feel they have been specially chosen for a reason, not just formed part of an alphabetical list you’re working through.

Do some detective work to find out who represent the writers that most resemble what you are doing in terms of style or genre, check out the publishers of all your favourite books.

Ask questions of any published novelist you meet, and find out who was kindest to those still being rejected.

Join any societies that you can – the Romantic Novelists Association is excellent for networking and has a brilliant New Writers Scheme (and good parties!). If you’ve had enough short pieces published to be eligible to join at this stage, the Society of Authors is invaluable too.

After that it’s the Writers Handbook or the Writers and Artists Yearbook and a highlighter pen. Check for those that do actually handle the sort of thing you’ve written – many will specifically say No Children’s or Sci Fi, for example, and put a big ring round any who positively “welcome” unsolicited manuscripts or first novels.

Sometimes gut feelings work as well as anything, if a particular name leaps off the page at you – give it a whirl. Follow the instructions they give – e.g. “Send a query letter in the first instance” or “No phone calls” – but remember that rules are made to be broken.

Be brave and bold. Send more than one letter at once so you’ve always got something to hope for when the first rejections come. Keep your fingers crossed and your spirits up. Brace yourself for most to say No but remember all it takes is for one to say Yes…

I wish you luck. Get lots of stamps, take a deep breath and go for it!

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