Monday, September 27, 2010

Do some agents give up if a manuscript doesn't sell in the first round of submissions?

"Do most agents stay with a book until it finds a home, no matter how low the advances might be? I honestly don't care about the advance. I just want to get published. But I've heard some agents bow out if the book doesn't sell to someone in the first round of submissions. Is this true?

--question asked by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on behalf of The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Barbara is host of “Writers on Writing,” a weekly radio show airing on KUCI-FM (88.9) in California

This is another good question, and one which demands a thorough response.

To begin with, one cannot offer a blanket answer on behalf of every agent in the industry: some agents will indeed give up after a few submissions, while others will work tirelessly for months or even years. It is very much agent specific, and manuscript specific.

It is also genre specific: certain genres allow for a higher number of submissions. For example, if your work is narrative non-fiction, there may be 30 or 40 (or more) potential editor submissions, while if your work is commercial fiction, that number may shrink to the vicinity of 20. There tend to be more imprints setup to acquire non-fiction than fiction (particularly commercial fiction). But if your work is prescriptive non-fiction (such as popular psychology), there may be fewer potential imprints than for narrative non-fiction, and thus fewer potential submissions. If your work will be a trade paperback original, that, too, can limit the number of potential submissions, as fewer imprints publish trade paperback originals as do hardcovers and paperbacks. If your work is destined to be a mass market original, that will limit potential submissions even further. If your work is academic, that, too, will limit the playing field.

Thus a well-intentioned and hard-working agent may simply be unable to submit beyond a certain number of editors and may exhaust a submission quickly, depending on the genre. There are only a finite number of publishers, and if they all reject your work, then the agent cannot create options where there are none. So lack of success is not always the agent’s fault: if the agent has exhausted all submissions methodically, he has still done his job well (assuming, of course, he has chosen the most appropriate editors within each publisher).

That said, the converse may be true: an agent might give up after only submitting your work to 5 or 10 editors, when he could have submitted to 40. Such an agent’s motivation may be financial: it may be that he chooses his “A List,” the 5 or 10 publishers he thinks might pay the biggest advance, and when they all pass, he assumes that the B or C Lists won’t pay as much, and thus gives up. Or it may be that the agent is just easily discouraged, and that when 10 trusted colleagues tell him a book won’t sell, he believes them and sees no point in trying further. Or it could be that the first 10 rejections all tell him of a directly competing project of which he was unaware, and as a result he decides submitting further would be a waste of time. It may be that the agent is not as knowledgeable of the industry as he should be, and only knows 10 publishers, or only has contacts in those houses. Or it may be that the agent becomes unhappy with the author during the first round of submissions (if, for example, the author is pestering him) and uses the first round of rejections as an excuse to end the relationship. Or the agent may simply be lazy.

No matter what the reason or motivation, there is no excuse for an agent to give up and not exhaust a submission, submitting to every last possible player. If an agent commits to a manuscript, then he should see it through, should stay with it whether it’s been rejected by 5 editors or by 45. He should stay with it whether it takes a week or a year, whether it sells for an advance of one million dollars or one thousand.

The majority of legitimate agents will indeed exhaust a submission. Sometimes a termination of a submission is initiated by an author: an agent may work in good faith for months while the author, impatient, may fire the agent. As a rule of thumb, most proposals on submission (if submitted thoroughly by a legitimate agent) will sell within a matter of 4 months. But there are always exceptions. I’ve sold one book in a submission that lasted two hours, and I’ve sold another after a submission that lasted 14 years.

Unfortunately, once you sign with an agent, you cannot control his methodology. What you can control is who you decide to sign with. As I’ve said many times, you must spend months researching potential agents before deciding who to approach and sign with. If you choose a legitimate agent who represents great authors and who has a track record of recent sales to major houses, then you will have little to worry about. If you choose an agent who you know little about, or whose record is not as reliable, then you may have more cause for concern; in that case, make sure (as I’ve discussed before) that you have an out clause in your agency agreement, so that you can fire him if you are unsatisfied.

But even if you fire a bad agent, once he has already submitted your manuscript, it will be tarnished in the eyes of most new agents, who will likely not want to take it on. So while it’s good that you’ll at least be able to get free of the old agent, the damage (for that manuscript) is already done. You will likely have to give your new agent a new work and/or wait a few years until the editors who’ve rejected your first work have left the industry. So, again, choose carefully. Spending more time upfront on research will save you from worrying throughout the process.


  1. I have had 11 books published with 3 more in various stages of production. Is there ever a time when an agent is attracted to an author based upon their body of work, or is representation always a matter of whether the agent likes the author's query regarding a specific future work? I've retained various rights to my former books (mass paperback, hard cover, foreign, etc) but I've found that landing an agent is more difficult than landing a publisher.

  2. Your answer to the question is fascinating. I, for one, am curious about how the publishing world works in general. The observation comes to mind that, if traditional publishing avenues are exhausted, why aren't agents involving themselves in the E-Book end? Could a "next stage" be coming where an agent becomes a E-book publisher for books they can't find a home in print? There has to be tons of authors that would welcome an experienced agent handling the "self-published e-book". Authors that would be glad to split the higher royalties in E-Publishing, to have an agent do the promoting of their work through the internet. Is this something you or your colleagues have thought about?

  3. I took your advice to heart and moved a portion of the novel forward to open with an attention-grabbing scene. It worked. I got rave reviews at a writers' conference I attended this past weekend.

    But...a publisher who read the first 20 pages said I should continue with the story (or page 39 in the manuscript) and casually drop in the
    information about what got the main character to this place at places further on, or essentially rewrite the book rather than going back just a few months in the MC's motivation. Any thoughts?

  4. Good info. Is the editor turnaround really so high that it only takes a few years for those who rejected your work to leave the industry?
    Congrats to you and Mr. Hackman on the upcoming "Jubal's Bounty," by the way.

  5. I don't want to sound pushy. But do you ever think you'll start taking unsolicited queries again from authors who've read your books, followed your advice, become published, and happen think you are the best agent on the planet?

  6. The First Five Pages addresses formatting and font recommendations but doesn't mention the value of using a serif over a sans serif font? I have read the use of a serif font such as Courier is easier for agents to read? Is one font type preferable over another?
    Thank you.

  7. I have a question regarding non-US agents. I've written a suspense/thriller novel, which earned honorable mention in a fairly prestigious UK competition. The novel is set in Wales, and I received a manuscript request from a London based agent.

    I'm in the US (well, Texas which is close), and plan on submitting queries to US agents. Is it normal, or even proper, to have different agents for US or International publication?

    Rick DeMille

  8. Carolyn and I pretty much have the same comments and questions.

  9. Agreed. It gets even more limited of you are repping a science fiction or urban fantasy manuscript, for example, where there may be only eight editors in the country actually acquiring.

  10. What a wonderful blog! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge of the publishing world.

    I have a somewhat related question. When does an agent officially sign a contract with an author? Does he or she have to sign a contract with the author first before submitting a manuscript to various editors?

    Thanks so much again!

  11. Can a writers acquire an agent after paying a subsidy publisher to publish them? Thanks for your time- self published author Ken K. Chartrand author of "Days of the Unicorn King"

  12. I have a question that I am having difficulty finding the answer to and wonder if you might help me.

    In my novel I have a Prologue that is of the aged main character in present day and ends with the same aged main character in present day in the Epilogue. The rest of the story, beginning with Ch. 1, is in regards to his past. All but one chapter in the middle of the story. I wanted to come back to the present midway (he is aged again) for only one chapter.

    My question is, if your prologue and epilogue are of a different timeline of ones life, can you insert a chapter with that same timeline in the middle of the book or would it be better if I turned the Prologue and Epilogue into chapters?

    Thank you,

  13. Question: Does an author need a different agent if he is publishing in totally different genres? For example, non-fiction educational books on the one hand and YA fiction on the other. Or could/does a single agent normally handle this kind of thing?


    David Rockwood

  14. I have a question that I was hoping you may address. I am working on a young adult fantasy adventure. Originally I had planned it out as a three part story and broke it into three seperate books. I have completed work on the first and am about half way through the second but now that it is time to query I am worried. The first book is not the best of the three and I know agents prefer books that can stand alone. It can, just not as well as it stands with the other two. My question is whether I should send the first book with the information that there are two others to follow or if it would be better to write the entire story and try to query it as one longer book? What would you recomend? thank you so much!

  15. How can I be sollicitated by agencies, how can I let them come to me?

    (As far as I figur it's making my blog world famous, where my book and manuscript being made(2) are shown for free in order to not have to be waited for their humanitarian results. And using a volunteering manager/expert for my blog's content management.)


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