I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on all things to do with agents, but based on my experience in the publishing industry, here are a few of my thoughts on this ever-popular issue.
- It used to be that, particularly for fiction, it was almost impossible to get your manuscript in front of a major publisher without an agent. Times are changing, though. Many of the major publishers now have opportunities for authors to pitch to them directly. Allen & Unwin has the Friday Pitch. HarperCollins has the Wednesday Pitch. Pan Macmillan has Manuscript Monday. In fact, so many publishers now accept unsolicited, unagented manuscripts that the children’s book e-zine Pass It On recently put together a booklet listing them all. This is available from the PIO website.
- While the open-door policy of many publishers is good news for some authors and illustrators, it’s of no use to those who simply hate the thought of ‘selling themselves’ (and their work) along with the associated contract negotiation and paperwork. If you are one of these creatives — and there are many of you — then an agent could very well be the right choice. In return for a percentage of your publishing income (usually about 15%), they will sell you and your work. They are also likely to have good contacts with many of the publishers and so will be able to bypass the massive slush pile most publishers have to wade through. The problem is getting an agent, as most will only represent a limited number of clients and are very choosy about who they take on. A good place to start is the website of the Australian Literary Agents’ Association, whose members are all obliged to adhere to a professional code of practice.
- Don’t forget about the smaller publishers! If you’re happy to negotiate your own contract and don’t want an agent for any reason other than to get you through the door of a major publisher, then perhaps readjust your thinking and consider also submitting your work to smaller publishers. I’ve written before that I don’t believe size is necessarily important when it comes to publishing companies — it’s all about finding the right ‘fit’. You might be surprised by what the right boutique publisher can offer you if they like your work.
Above all, if you believe in your work, don’t give up! Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by twelve publishers before finding a home with Bloomsbury. And poor Beatrix Potter couldn’t find anyone to believe in The Tale of Peter Rabbit so ended up publishing it herself (way back in 1901 — so self-publishing isn’t quite the new phenomenon we might think!).