Finding a Publisher vs. Finding an Agent

There are two ways of finding a publisher for your novel...

  • The first is submitting the manuscript directly to the publishing house of your choice.
  • The second is finding an agent, who will approach the publisher on your behalf.

The question, of course, is which way is best?

Some sources recommend approaching a publisher directly, others say that finding a publisher is almost impossible without a literary agent on board. The consensus seems to come down on the side of agents, and I agree.

Unless you happen to know somebody on the inside in the publishing world, all you will be able to do is pick publishers' names out of a directory when searching for a home for your novel.

A literary agent will have contacts, lots of them, and they will know which of these contacts are the best ones to approach when looking for a publisher for your particular novel.

More than that, the commissioning editor of whichever publishing house the agent plumps for will take the submission far more seriously than an unsolicited submission from an unknown writer.

Although finding an agent isn't much easier (if at all) than finding a publisher directly, agents are good people to have on your side when it comes to the business side of publishing a novel.

Agents know what they are doing, and they will negotiate a far stronger contract with the publisher than you could manage by yourself - quite possibly more than enough to offset the 15-20% of earnings they will charge you.

It is their job to pick over the fine details in these contracts, and they will continue fighting your corner long after the contract-signing stage has passed, ensuring the publisher doesn't forget you.

Publishing houses increasingly refuse to consider unsolicited submissions, anyway.

Why? Because of the "Slush Piles" of unsolicited novel manuscripts that used to overwhelm their offices. From these thousands of submissions, only a tiny percentage would show enough promise to take any further.

A far stronger source of potential new novel writing talent came from those manuscripts submitted by literary agents, manuscripts which had already been through a rigorous selection process. So discouraging unsolicited manuscripts was an obvious step to take.

I am not saying that it is a waste of time going directly to publishing houses, just that the best way of finding a publisher for your novel is to find a literary agent first.

But what if all the agents reject your novel? How many should you approach before you give up? And what should you do then?

A Plan for Finding a Literary Agent

1. Approach the Literary Agents

Be prepared to submit your novel to dozens of literary agents if necessary.

If and when your novel is rejected, don't take it to heart. It is just one person's opinion, and there are countless stories of now-famous novels having been rejected twenty, thirty, forty times.

(George Orwell's Animal Farm springs to mind - rejected because people didn't want animal stories.)

Sometimes when your novel is returned, you will receive a standard rejection slip. Other times, the agent will add a few words explaining why it was rejected. Keep these, but don't be tempted to start revising your manuscript. Not just yet.

2. Approaching the Publishers

Let's look on the black side and assume your novel has been rejected by every agent on your list. What next?

Don't give up. Agents are busy people and might only have had a minute or two (if that) to decide if your novel showed any promise - meaning it is entirely possible they missed 'spotting' you. Or perhaps your novel fell outside the bounds of the kind of fiction they specialize in.

So the next step is to try finding a publisher directly.

If they accept unsolicited manuscripts, fine - approach them with your novel as you did the literary agents.

If they don't, approach them anyway. You could send a preliminary letter describing your novel and asking if they would be willing to take a look at it. Or you could just ignore the rules and submit it to them straight off - what have you got to lose except the price of a stamp?

3. Don't Give Up

Still looking on the black side, let's assume all the publishers on your list have also rejected your novel. Does that mean you're all out of options when it comes to finding a publisher? Kind of, yes...but it isn't time to quit.

There is always the self publishing route to consider.

But a better option might be to revise your novel, to improve it - maybe with a little light tinkering, maybe with a major overhaul. (Then you can try finding a literary agent or publisher all over again.)

You probably won't have read your novel for months now. Read it again, and you'll find plenty of ways to improve it through fresh eyes. And remember all those rejection slips where the agent or publisher commented on your novel? Now is the time to act on those suggestions.

What if you think your novel is beyond salvage? Then start a new one, a stronger one. Writing one unpublishable novel doesn't make you an unpublishable writer. In fact, the experience of writing that novel makes you a better writer. (Meaning next time around, finding a literary agent or publisher will be a breeze!)

Of course, you can also quit novel writing altogether at this stage and take up something gentler. But it isn't an option I would recommend.

And that is how you go about finding a literary agent or publisher.

All that remains is to talk about which literary agencies and publishing houses you should approach, and what you should physically send to them. And that is the subject of the next article, Submitting a Manuscript.