One of the most frequently asked questions in publishing is “Do I need a literary agent?” Well, that depends on your goals, genre, resources, and which publishing option you choose.
If you are pursuing a traditional publishing deal, an agent is essential. Most traditional publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, meaning that they only accept manuscripts they’ve commissioned or that are represented by a reputable agent. Not only does the agent act as the middle man—and the first line of defense for the hundreds of slush submissions that publishers would otherwise have to sift through—the agent also acts on your behalf in the negotiation process when a publisher is ready to purchase the rights to your book.
Now, if you are either self-publishing or going after an independent publisher, an agent is probably not necessary. If you are self-publishing, there is no advance to negotiate and no submissions process to get through, eliminating the need for a middleman. Independent publishers often accept submissions from authors and contract directly with them. They typically don’t require a third party to represent you in any part of the process—though you should always have a lawyer take a look at all contracts before you sign.
If you’ve decided a literary agent is the way to go, you need to do your homework to learn the best way to approach the agent and how to identify which ones represent your genre. Start by checking out the Guide to Literary Agents blog and Querytracker.net. We also developed a one-sheet that covers the basics of getting an agent and another on how to craft the query letter, which is the first hurdle in the process.
One thing you have to remember about looking for an agent is that it takes time to find one who is the right fit for you. Publishing is as much about personal preferences as it is about quality writing—which makes it essential that you take the time to find an agent who truly “gets” you and who will be a fervent advocate for you and your work.
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Oftentimes authors are quite confused about what exactly each person does in the publishing process. There are so many people involved in developing and promoting a book that it is easy to get overwhelmed by the many functions and responsibilities of each department. To help make it easier, here’s a quick breakdown of the general jobs in publishing and how each one functions.
If pursuing a traditional publishing deal, the author must first secure an agent. The agent serves two roles. One, the agent acts as a gatekeeper for publishers, vetting books for quality and marketability and sorting through the many authors vying for a publishing deal. Two, the agent is the author’s representative in the negotiation process for securing the book deal. The agent’s job is to get the best deal possible for the author and to sell author’s rights in a way that is most beneficial (e.g., the agent may recommend selling subsidiary and film rights separately). In exchange, the agent takes 10 to 15 percent of all payments made to the author in advances and royalties.
The publisher is the person who actually produces the physical book. Inside a publishing house the author will work with a variety of people:
- Editor: The editor helps polish the manuscript and makes sure it is free of typos, grammatical errors, and other mistakes.
- Designer: The designer works on both the cover design and the interior layout for the book (some house separate these functions out).
- Print buyer: The print buyer works with vendors to secure the best deal on printing services. Traditionally published authors may not deal with this person directly (but trust us, they’re there).
- Production associate: This person works as the puppet master, making sure all the pieces of the publishing process flow into place on time and on budget.
- Distribution team: Depending on the publishing route you take, you may work with an in-house distributor or a third party, but in either case the distributor is responsible for getting your book into the internal and bookseller systems and making it available to wholesalers and retailers.
- Marketing team: Each publisher has a marketing team that works with the trade to drum up interest among corporate buyers, indie bookstores, libraries, schools, and some specialty stores. They may also help with securing some reviews and advertising, but again this depends on the publisher.
Some publishing houses have a staff publicist, but for the most part authors will need to hire their own publicist to help secure media coverage, interviews, reviews, and other coverage to help create demand for the book. Some publicists work online and may also schedule and coordinate events, provide media training, and schedule speaking opportunities. While the publisher works with the bookstores and the author connects directly with the reader, the publicist’s job is to work with the media—all three parties aiming to drive book sales.
Authors nowadays must wear many hats, including “writer,” “entrepreneur,” “marketer,” and “ringmaster.” You are largely responsible for serving as the producer of content and as the face of your brand as an author. You are the driving force behind your platform and are ultimately what attracts people to your book. As mentioned above, it’s your job to connect directly with readers, and you should be doing this in as many ways as possible—through social media, speaking, and other platform-building activities.
As you can see, it takes many people to take a book from idea to the bookstore. There are additional functions depending on the publisher, but overall this is the core staff for any book that ends up in a reader’s hands.
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You’ve spent hours beautifying your manuscript, preparing it for submission to your publisher or agent—or getting it ready to wow potential publishers and agents. Then you get a note from your editor that everything you’ve done to make it interesting and attractive is killing the editorial and production process. Oops. You cry yourself to sleep on your inspired manuscript pages.
Manuscript preparation is a strange little detail in the publishing world. It’s the bane of authors, editors, and production artists alike. Today the majority of writers are working on computers, not typewriters. They’re working in sophisticated word processing programs, not simple-format software with few options. And as wonderful as these advances are, they’ve caused a bit of confusion and consternation, particularly for the editors and production artists who work with the manuscript down the line. So if you want your manuscript to be publisher-friendly or if you want your submission to be taken seriously, here are a few tips.
If you are already working with a particular publisher, go to that publisher’s website and check out the specific guidelines for final manuscript submission. This will help keep the process smooth right from the beginning and will make sure that all of the editors and designers you’ll be working with don’t resent you.
If you don’t have a publisher yet, use the following guidelines:
- When choosing a font, use 12-point Times or Times New Roman for all of the text, including excerpts, block quotes, etcetera. You may use another font, or a larger or stylized font for headings, but keep the rest of the text simple. It may be boring, but it’s a standard that most publishers use. It helps them convert the manuscript page length into an estimate for the length of the final book.
- Set your line spacing to double-space for the entire manuscript.
- Don't use extra space of blank lines between paragraphs.
- To mark the beginning of a new paragraph, just indent the first line. You can either use a tab or use the paragraph settings to maintain a first-line indentation. Do not use spaces instead of a tab.
- Use 1 inch margins on all sides of the page.
- Don't use double spaces between sentences. A single space is the industry standard.
- If you have titled chapters (not just Chapter 1, Chapter 2), include a table of contents at the beginning of the manuscript.
- Keep all other styling simple. Do not set the elements of the manuscript (headings, chapter openings, etc.) the way you think they should appear in the final book pages. Your book will be designed by a professional designer, and the design work you spent hours creating in the manuscript will be tossed by the wayside.
- When creating tables, use the table creation tool in the word processing program you're using.
- Insert comments in brackets ([ ]) between paragraphs regarding placement of images, graphs, tables, charts, and any other artwork.
For more detailed manuscript guidelines, you can always refer to the ever-enlightening Chicago Manual of Style.
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1. Flaunt a big platform.
Size matters in our industry because a big platform is one of the few things that can minimize the risk all publishers and distributors assume when they pick up a new title. In the book trade, a platform is defined as any means that can be used to reach readers directly and pull significant sales. An author with a big platform may have a syndicated column in popular publications, a speaking network that reaches tens of thousands of people every year, a database of newsletter subscribers, or a large base of clients or contacts that can guarantee a notable number of sales. Platforms not only ensure a base number of sales, but also give books word of mouth power that keep sales through other channels moving faster and for longer periods of time. When you submit a proposal to an agent, publisher, or distributor, be sure to highlight your current platform and what you plan to do to make it even more powerful. This should be a huge part of your proposal—it is the number one way to attract interest.
2. Get people to watch.
Open your mind, even if you’re an introverted writer. Since media coverage can propel books onto bestseller lists and into mass public consciousness overnight, agents, publishers, and distributors are looking for media savvy authors with big publicity plans. Let me be more specific: radio interviews are fine, but we want authors with good publicists who have big contacts and a clear plan to land solid reviews and print features, as well as big, national television hits. When you create a proposal for an agent, publisher, or distributor, consider offering details. Specify which publicist or PR firm you plan to hire, budget details, and strategy information: What are your primary media targets? Will you tour? What are your strongest media hooks?
3. Show me your “marketing” package.
Come on, don’t be shy. To sell books into our key accounts, publishers and distributors need strong support for every title, so let us see what you’ve got. Three simple ways to prove that your book has a hungry market waiting for it are to (1) cite comp titles—books that are similar to yours—with wild sales and loyal readers, (2) offer a notable marketing budget in support of the publishers and distributors’ efforts, and (3) propose a marketing plan that is diverse. At the end of the day, even the most connected publicist is at the mercy of reviewers, producers, and reporters to get exposure for your book. Build in some guaranteed results: maybe an online marketing campaign that includes Google Ads and banner advertising on sites that reach your target market, animated book trailers (like movie trailers) to be distributed via email and broadcast in alternative outlets such as airplanes or movie theaters, or creative seeding campaigns to generate pre-publication buzz.
You may have noticed that all three turn-ons relate to marketing. That’s no coincidence. Though most unagented proposals focus almost exclusively on content, marketing is the best way for writers to attract agents, publishers, and distributors, and it is often the element that determines whether or not you get a contract. These three tips assume, of course, that your book is marketable. Publishers and distributors operate in a consolidated industry with an oversupply and underdemand for its products, so we are looking for books that will sell big numbers in a mass-market retail environment. To compete, we need books that will get readers’ attention, and often it comes down to the marketability of the content and the author. When you position yourself in your book proposal, keep this in mind and you just might get lucky.