Book pitching: do you need an agent if you’re already friends with publishers?

Photo: ActuaLitté

The whole point of pitching a book proposal is to get a publishing contract. Why not work directly with a publisher?

Here’s how to decide:

With the help of an agent, you’re more likely to find a publisher, get the best possible offer, and have a successful negotiation.

If you don’t have an agent or prefer not to involve one, but you’re friends with a publisher you like, you can also get a good deal that way.

Working directly with publishers

If you want to work directly with acquisitions editors at publishers, be aware of the following:

  • This works best if you already know a publisher or publishers. That might be because they published your last book, made an offer on your last book, or you’re friends with them through another author. Publishers generally don’t respond to unsolicited proposals (there’s a reason it’s called the “slush pile”); some actually have a policy to that effect.
  • You still need an excellent book proposal. Publishers aren’t likely to sign with you on the basis of a couple of paragraphs of description. Your proposal still needs a detailed table of contents, sample chapter, and marketing plan.
  • You need to set a deadline. If you just send a proposal, even if you know the acquiring editor, they may just sit on it without responding. You need to know when to move on and give up on them. Generally a deadline of three to four weeks is appropriate; if they haven’t responded by then, they probably won’t. If you do get a response of “we’re thinking about it, can we have more time?”, by all means, consider an extension, but set a deadline on that, too.
  • You won’t get the best possible offer. The way to get the best offer is to make publishers compete. And the best way to manage competition among publishers is with an agent. Even if the publisher likes the proposal, they’ll make you the lowest offer they think you’ll accept. You can negotiate this, of course, but most authors aren’t expert at negotiating with publishers. (On the other hand, you’ll avoid the agent’s 15% share of your advance and royalties; you’ll get the full 100% of all the funds from the publisher.)
  • You may find it hard to parse the deal terms. Some things are probably not negotiable, such as the basic royalty rate (percent of the list price paid on each copy, which is typically 15% for hardbacks and 7% for paperbacks). Some things are definitely negotiable, such as the amount of the advance and when the installments are paid (on signing, on delivery of the manuscript, on publication, and a year later). But there are other elements to the offer, such as audio rights and payments, ebook rights and payments, foreign rights, payment on list price or net, marketing help, title/subtitle approval, cover design approval, publication date, manuscript due date, and so on. Even experienced authors can get tripped up. Agents know not just what the terms are, but what is going on in the industry right now and what is changing.
  • You’ll need a lawyer to review the contract. Contract review is a service most agents provide; you’ll need to make other arrangements. And publishing contracts are complex. A publishing lawyer will tell you what terms are standard and what might be negotiable or problematic.
  • Managing multiple publishers is tricky. There’s no rule against send the same proposal to multiple publishers; in fact, it’s a good idea. But that process works best if it’s carefully coordinated, with all the publishers reviewing the proposal at the same time with the same deadline. If you get an offer, sometimes publishers will tell you “you must accept this within a few days” — and then you have to prod the other publishers to get their final offers. And because of the deal terms I mentioned earlier, you may find it challenging to fairly compare offers from publishers. The more complex the process — and the more publishers you’re pitching — the better off you are with an agent to manage the process instead of trying to do it yourself.
  • You may find yourself needing an advocate. Publishers can do things that drive you crazy. These include delays in the final contract, arguments about content, negotiating deadlines, failure to pay royalties on time, and fights about covers, title, and marketing. By yourself, you have little leverage in these negotiations. An agent can help, because the publisher doesn’t want to get a bad reputation with the agent and miss out on the next deal.

So why not use an agent?

Based on all these factors, you’re often better off with an agent. Agents have far more publishing contacts than you and are experts at pitching and managing the process.

But agents have downsides, too, including that 15% commission.

You may have trouble finding an agent you like, or one that will accept you. Good agents generally are more open to authors if they come recommended by another client. Or you may fail to line up an agent because the agent has read and rejected your proposal.

Can you involve an agent after contacting publishers?

You can, but that has its own challenges.

An agent is less likely to want to represent a book that’s already been rejected by some publishers.

They won’t accept a pitching process that excludes your favorite publisher, either. Once you bring an agent in, the whole process has to belong to them. Why would they take a job where they’re not cut in on the most likely publishing deal?

If you’re halfway through working with a publisher, the agent will be happy to swoop in and take that 15% commission in exchange for helping bring the process to completion. You’ve just made their job much easier.

If you try to start a competitive bidding situation in the midst of a negotiation with a publisher, that’s likely to go poorly — and an agent probably won’t be fond of being part of that strategy.

Final recommendations

If you can use an agent, you’re better off.

But if you can’t, and you’re sure you can get a good deal from your favorite publisher, that’s alternate path to publication.

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