Should I Sub to Editors First?

10376 Views

I got this question a few weeks back:

Just curious–does it help a manuscript get pulled out of email purgatory if we let you know if it has received interest from a publisher? A manuscript that I sent after meeting you last year at a conference, has gotten some interest from a publisher. In general, does it help that a publisher is interested, or does it hurt, knowing that the author has already submitted it to potential publishers on her own?

Good question. 

There is no “one size fits all” answer to this . . .  but generally, I prefer to see projects before any bridges have been burned.

  • You are more likely to be rejected if you send the project yourself simply because the editors see author-submitted projects as not having been vetted and they read them with less care
  • If you send it out and get rejections, I can’t resend to those publishers
  • If you send it out and get an offer, that offer is likely from a smaller publisher that allows unsolicited submissions, and now that you have the offer it’s hard for me to say, “We’ll give you an answer in six months, after I look for a bigger publisher

For those reasons, I’d rather target well-matched editors from bigger houses before you submit to anyone.

However, if you have submitted to publishers, then you need to mention this in the query, whether you have an offer or not.

If you have an offer from a small house, I am probably less likely to want to get involved. Small houses don’t have much money so they often don’t offer advances. I’d hate to get involved and take 15% of the author’s earnings when I’m probably not going to be able to get more money out of the publisher for him.

If you have an offer from a mid-to-big-sized house, I will want to jump in and negotiate the contract. I offer this deal to potential clients: If I can’t get you more than a 15% increase in the advance, I won’t take anything. So far I’ve been able to get more than a 15% increase in pay. I think an agent should be able to get you a 50% increase over the boilerplate offer. So if you get an offer for 800 dollars, you should look for an agent and she should be able to bring that 800 up to 1,200. If your offer is for 3,000, your agent should be able to get 4,500.  If the publisher originally offered you 6,000 your agent should be able to get them to come up to 9,000.

Those are small numbers. Your boilerplate contract is going to be small, probably. What happens when the numbers get bigger? If a publisher offers you 50,000 for a book, I can’t say for sure that an agent will be able to get you 75,000. I haven’t ever seen a publisher offer that much to an un-agented writer. So I don’t know how much an agent could get publishers to come up in that instance.

In any case, I firmly believe that if you have a boilerplate offer from a mid-sized-or-larger publisher, you are doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t hire an agent to negotiate your contract for you.

But are you wise to get that one offer and then get the agent? Or would you have been better off getting the agent first? I think you have the best chance of getting the best offer if you have an agent before you meet editors and send them your stuff.

Here’s what I think is the smartest order for a writer to use:

  • Join crit groups/go to conferences
  • Write a great book
  • Go to conferences to meet agents
  • query agents
  • sign with an agent
  • Put together a great verbal pitch with a fantastic hook
  • Let your agent send your proposal to several editors
  • Go to conferences to meet editors
  • ask the editors you meet if you can have your agent submit a proposal

It’s not all that uncommon for a writer who has an agent to make the initial contact at a conference with the editor who buys her book.

I’ve heard people complain about that, saying, “Why should the agent get 15% when she’s not the one who made the contact and sold the book?” That’s wrong thinking. The agent and the author are a team. The agent is working on her end to send to editors. The author is working on her end to meet editors. When one editor offers, the agent now is able to go back to the several editors who have the proposal and she is in a good position to get the best deal for her author.

It’s not true that the agent did nothing to make the sale. Merely the fact that the author has an agent should give her more confidence when she speaks to editors. It will also, most likely, make editors take an author more seriously. It’s just human nature: We think that if others value you, there is something valuable about you. So when an author tells an editor at a conference that she has an agent, the editor will pay closer attention to the pitch.

So . . . generally speaking, I think you’re better off getting the agent before you sub to the publishers.

20 comments

  • Thanks for the info. I recently wondered about submitting to editors who wanted to see the manuscript and at what point in the query process the writer needed to mention the editor’s interest to an agent. I had the fleeting thought that I should ask you about that on your blog, and you’ve already covered it. :pompom: Thanks!

  • Kristen Joy Wilks

    Oops…I’m going to our yearly writers conference in May and have signed up to pitch to editors from both Bethany House and Harvest House. Looks like I better get cracking and submit to agents before I get ahead of myself. I’ve been revising, over and over, I didn’t want to query agents until it was perfect. But at the rate this is going, May will be upon me before I know it. Thanks for the info, Sally. This is helpful. We tend to just pitch to anyone who breaths, and hope for the best.

    • Well, Kristen, different agents have different views on this issue. Many agents who have been around a lot longer than I have, like authors to meet with editors and whip up interest. And if you are meeting with editors from Bethany and Harvest House, you’re probably safe. If either of them make offers to you, please write to me right away and hire me to negotiate your contract. ha ha

      But seriously, if either of those houses offered you a contract, any agent would be happy to sign you, probably. So it’s cool for you to meet with them. If you weren’t a writer who knows how to pitch I’d tell you not to do it. Because you’d be burning those bridges. But you’re a good writer and you’re able to put together a good proposal, so swing away. They are there to meet you and to find their next great writer.

      And all you have to do if an editor offers you a contract is tell them that you are speaking with several agents and you’ll get back to them shortly. It’s no lie. You are speaking to several agents on several blogs. And they will all be happy to handle the contract for you if you get an offer.

      • Kristen Joy Wilks

        OH phew! I was so excited to see these editors on the faculty this year and signed right up to pitch. Glad to know how to handle this if they actually bit. Thanks so much, Sally. Now I feel like my plan consists of something other than “Please say yes! Please, please, please!”

  • Thank you for including your list specifying the order to which we should proceed. That helps me immensely, and I plan to print and post it in my office.

  • Christie Hudon

    I have been so blessed by Word Weavers International. Our supportive critiques sessions and retreats have been the best thing to spur on my writing journey. I took too long to realize this should have been first on my list. Thanks for the sage advice Sally.

    • Christie Hudon

      *critique* Dang it! I hate making a grammar mistake in front of an agent. :doh:

      • :lol: Just read any of my posts. Scads of typos and misspellings and missing words. I hate it, too. But I’d never post anything if I had to be perfect.

        So, thanks for the comment. Your typo is forgiven. And, honestly, I didn’t even see it when I read the comment the first time. I’m very efficient at reading what’s meant and not what’s actually there.

  • :oops: ha ha and just there…I wrote “I very efficient…” So funny. Fortunately, I have an “edit” button.
    :bigwink:

  • What a wonderfully thorough answer to my question, Sally! I’m so happy you used it in your blog post.

    May I add one item to your very wise list, particularly as it pertains to picture book authors? I would add “Submit to contests: MeeGenius, Highlights, SCBWI, for example.”

    It’s a great way to get a foot in the door of the extremely selective picture book world, and this year I’m looking forward to MeeGenius publishing my first picture book–all because I was a finalist in their contest!

    • Oh contests are wonderful. Yes, yes, yes. Really great ways to get your work in front of editors and agents and also to get feedback.

      :yes:

      • Yes, the feedback–even if you don’t win– can be so helpful! Writing a novel can take such a long time, so the feedback I’ve had from contests has really helped me with motivation and learning if I’m on the right track.

        Look for contests that don’t require the entire book to be written first, and then you can test out first chapters or even first pages, and learn if there is interest in your topic before you’ve devoted years to the one project.

  • Thanks Sally, I knew it was not advised but now I know the reasons why. Tweeted this post- hope you don’t mind-

  • Wish I had had that advice three months ago! Great advice Sally – looking forward to seeing you at WOW retreat in July.

    • Well, don’t sweat it, Bev. In the end…getting published is really hard. Knock on all the door you have available and go through any that open.

      I’m giving my best advice for an ideal career path, but there are so many different paths for people. And you can try to duplicate someone else’s path and not get the same results. So just keep plugging along.

      About the only way you can really tank your chances is to stop writing. Just keep writing and things will work out one way or another.

      I’m really looking forward to the retreat. It’ll be my birthday treat to myself. I’m planning on having a great time meeting with writers and learning from the others on staff.