I’ve been asked and I’ve seen many message board posts on whether or not agents pitch projects before even offering representation, and the answer is yes, sort of. As an agent I can only do my very best if I know exactly what the market wants and needs, and sometimes that means calling an editor or two to feel them out first. Does that mean I know for sure whether a project can sell or will sell? No, it only means that I know the potential for the project at one or two houses.
This is not something I do with every project, but only something I do if I have concerns about marketability. For example, if I have a cozy mystery submission that I like but question whether or not the hook has been done (meaning someone has already published this brilliant “cooking with grass” cozy mystery series), I am very likely to call one of my editor contacts to see whether or not they’ve already tried this or have this concept on their list. Why would I do this? Since there are so few publishers selling cozies right now it gives the author and me both a better chance if we know what we’re up against right away. It also gives me the edge as an agent over an unagented author. Part of why an agent can be so important is that she has the ability to feel things out before you waste your time to write the book. While this is difficult for unpublished or unagented authors, it’s definitely a plus for agented authors. More times than I can count I’ve called editors to feel them out about the market in general or a particular project before I even get the author to start writing. This way we can decide better whether or not we want to spend time on it.
Keep in mind that calling an editor to feel her out about a project does not mean I’m “pitching” the project. The editor is usually very aware that this is a conversation about a potential project and never do I give out the exact title or author name. And never, ever, ever would I actually send anything to an editor without having talked to the author first. So if an editor says no, does this automatically mean I say no as well? No. In some cases I have talked to the author and explained that the hook isn’t viable, but asked if there are other ideas or ways to spin the proposal to make it more marketable. In fact I have more than one client who became a client this very way.
More important, though, does this hurt your chances of selling the book? Not at all. It only gives me an idea of how I feel about repping it. Another agent might have other contacts that are more enthusiastic about the idea or she might be braver than I. In other words, it might not matter to her that Cozy House already has that book because she’s happy to send it to Almost Cozy House and Mysteries R Us House instead. Or she might know something about Cozy House that I don’t. Maybe they want two series on “Eating Grass.”
Being an agent means having a number of resources at my fingertips and yes, some of those resources are editors.