Writing for publication is work. It means putting in consistent time and effort. Placing books for publication – acting as a literary agent – is work too. It means winnowing out, from among all the offerings sent to you, what seems to be publishable, what will grab an editor’s (and obviously a reader’s) attention, what has the potential to have enough sales so that the cost of production and editorial work is covered and the publishing company makes a profit. What, you thought that the publishers are looking for great literature as their way to self-fulfillment? Guess again.
Can you go it alone? Yes you can, and a number of authors do just that. You can write the book, edit it carefully, and try to find a publisher on your own. One way is to send out many inquiries and manuscripts and hope that the publisher will see your gem among the dross. This is called submitting a work “over the transom.” It is placed in the “slush pile,” to be read (or not) by an editorial assistant, who will either discard it or send it on for further review. In fact, a number of publishers do not accept any unsolicited manuscripts and want any submissions to come only from a literary agent.
There is another pitfall to the go-it-alone method. Many prospective authors do not realize that there are a number of markets for which one can write. Publishers, and literary agent too, tend to specialize in certain of these markets, and they reject anything that falls outside of these. For example, a publisher who specializes in science fiction is highly unlikely to consider a bodice- ripper that fits into the romance book category. Some publishers have a number of different departments, each of which handles a different genre. Thus children’s fiction, children’s non-fiction, and children’s picture books might all belong in different departments of the same publisher and a submission to the wrong department doesn’t mean that they will route it onward to the correct one. Therefore, if you are writing for the education market, seek only literary agencies who specialize in that market.
You can e-publish your book. Thus, you do all the editorial work (or hire someone to do it), design your own cover, and upload it to Amazon (for the Kindle), or Google, or some other site. These sites will post your work and exact a certain commission from your sales. However, the big questions for e-authors is simply how does your book get singled out, how can you publicize it, how do you price it to sell – in fact, how do you get it noticed?
What are the advantages of using a literary agent? First, this avoids the over-the-transom process and insures that your submission will be read and considered. Of course, it must fall within that agent’s area of practice. For example, one literary agency writes, “We receive and reject submissions of children’s fiction, children’s picture books, non-fiction in all kinds of non-education-related areas, romances, etc. However, a simple reading in our web site would tell the prospective author that we specialize in materials for the education market, largely for staff development, teaching skills and textbooks. Even though an author may feel that there is an educational component to her book (and often there is), the book belongs primarily to a different market, one in which we have no expertise.” What a literary agent offers is a variety of editorial contacts and expert knowledge of which publishers specialize in different fields. Then, the agent has knowledge of publishing contracts, royalty structures, author rights, marketing issues and other contractual matters. The agent negotiates the contract on the author’s behalf and then submits it to the author for approval.
How can you interest a literary agent in your work? The first step is to select an agency based on its areas of specialization. There are several sources of information about agencies. One can find them in most public libraries. The industry standard reference is Literary Market Place. This annual set of books lists all literary agencies, and gives their contact information. The listing also describes in which areas the agency specializes. Another reference source is Writers’ Market. There are also businesses which, for a fee, offer advice and contacts to authors seeking representation. For example, AgentResearch.com has the expertise and contacts and has been in business for a substantial period of time.