Publishing Without an Agent

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 14 2021

Not every author wants to work with an agent. Or at least, that’s what we hear in comments on Instagram and YouTube. I’m not even going to get started on Twitter.

As an agent, I have thoughts, and insights into why I believe you save far more than you spend by publishing with an agent.

A Time Before Agents

When I started my career 20+ years ago it was a lot easier to connect with Big 5 editors without an agent. Part of my job as an editorial assistant was to comb through the slush pile (this was a true slush pile) for potential.

And I found it. Sometimes I found a romance that wasn’t agented and had what I needed. Other times I bypassed agents to search for an author who could write a nonfiction idea I had. And this was before the Internet was what it is today, so that took some serious networking.

When this happened I would call the author directly and make an offer. I would also, every single time, suggest the author get an agent before talking further. I even had a list of five agents I had worked with and liked in the past.

Why Agents

The refrain we hear from those against agents is why bother if you can submit to publishers directly. The answer. Submitting to publishers is the least important piece of our jobs. It’s the smallest thing an agent does for you.

The true work of an agent happens well after publishers received your manuscript. It’s in the upfront contract negotiations when the agent will work to get you a higher advance, better royalty rates, and better terms for things like subsidiary rights and territory. Don’t know what those things are? An agent does.

Then, when your 20+ page contract comes in, an agent reviews and negotiates each word and detail. In fact, an agent typically has already done that with the publisher what they get in their inbox is their pre-negotiated boilerplate. And then they still negotiate!

Beyond negotating and book deals, an agent is your business partner and partner in crime when it comes to everything from dissecting the book cover, to rewriting cover copy. They help plan your next book and, frankly, plan your entire career. Agents are the go-to when things go arry and your heavy when hard conversations need to be had. Trust me, they will need to be had.

Publishers Like Agents Too

In my experience, at least with Big 5 Publishers, most editors prefer their authors find an agent. Editors, like agents, are in the profession of advocacy. A huge part of their job is fighting for authors and their books. But…they also work for the publisher. Therefore, they can only fight too much.

I once offered a book deal (back in my editorial days) to a nonfiction author who chose not to find or work with an agent. They felt that since they’d had previous book deals through book packagers, they were knowledgable enough to handle things on their own. Except they weren’t.

The contract negotiations between the author and me went well. They got what they presumably wanted. It was when the contracts department got involved that things went south. The author, not understanding a publishing contract, was unhappy and uncomfortable with some of the terms and tried turning to me for support. Except, I couldn’t negotiate against my own company. Not only was it unethical, but it could have gotten me fired. More importantly though, what the author needed was someone they trusted to explain the clauses to them, and that wasn’t going to come from inside the company they were negotiating with.

In the end, the author decided not to sign the contract. I found another author who did, and the book turned out to be quite successful.

The 15% that first author would have paid an agent, would have been well worth the time, energy and aggravation they went through for what amounted to $0.

Beyond that though, an agent’s job is also about education and explanation. Editors rely on agents to help explain the process and act as a bufffer if the author seems dissatisfied with the editor or the publisher.

The Business of Publishing

When I started my business I put together a support team. I got an accountant and a lawyer and talked with experts who could help me set up everything from contracts to a website. Yep, I got a website designer too.

Authors shouldn’t treat their business any less than if they were opening a storefront or a law firm. Getting the support you need and the experts where you aren’t an expert builds a stronger and longer career. Agents are those people.

7 responses to “Publishing Without an Agent”

  1. Avatar Sharon says:

    Thank you, Jessica, for your advice. You paint a compelling picture for why it is essential to have an agent, however when one is a new novelist, it is more difficult to find an agent than it is to find a publisher. I have readers say they love my books. I have had film producers say they love my book and shop my book to film production companies, but agents are not interested. There are thousands of authors who would love an agent but have to go the self publishing route because they can’t find an agent to take them on. Those authors are making money, selling their books, so their product is attractive to consumers but they could be waiting years to see their book produced by a Big 5 publisher. The agents are the rate limiting step in the process along with – at the present time – shipping costs in seeing one’s book in print. It is easier to get a book published now than it is finding an agent who will accept you as a client. Many agents will turn up their nose if an author has self published anything, as if it is a criminal record. If agents want to help authors, rather than act as gatekeepers, they need to also look at self published authors, who know the entire process and have the drive to do everything themselves because they are driven to get their writing out to the world; not turn their nose up at them or say ‘if an author has self-published, we will find out’ as if that is a sin.

    • Avatar Natasha Yim says:

      Sharon, I think you misunderstand. Most agents don’t turn their noses up at authors who have previously self-published if their current work is good. They just don’t rep. a book that’s already BEEN published. (even if it’s self-published). And that’s because publishers don’t want to publish a book that’s already been published and have found an audience elsewhere. They, as are agents, are on the lookout for the next unpublished great story that they can turn into a book. So, if you’ve already self-published a book, that’s great. But if you want to query an agent, query them with something NEW and brilliant.

      • Avatar Adrienne Lewis says:

        I agree with you! I think from the agents I’ve heard, they wouldn’t rep a self-pubbed book but they would look at the fact that you have and obviously CAN finish books as a plus, even if it doesn’t have wild sales!

    • Avatar Susan Watson says:

      I agree. As a published author that used a hybrid publishing house I do so wish I could have found an agent. I am still in pursuit of an agent to take my novel to the next level if there is one. Any advice would be welcome.

  2. Avatar Susan Arden says:

    Stellar advice and insight. However, the case must be made for those authors who can’t find an agent. It is possible to self-publish, find readers, and make some money. Point: finding an agent doesn’t always happen for those who search, write, and submit.

  3. Avatar Kim Beall says:

    I liken publishing a book without an agent to selling or buying real estate without an agent. You think it’s crazy to give someone a cut of your profits to do something you “can do just as well yourself,” but there are so many legal traps you can fall into or ways to lose good money if you’re not an expert. To me it’s well worth the small commission I pay for their expertise!

    I’m starting to liken going “directly to publishers” to “hiring the kid down the street to paint your house.” Sure, small publishers will talk to you if you’re a new author, but they don’t do anything for you that you can’t do yourself through KDP. Often that’s literally all they do, anyway: run your manuscript through Word’s editing function and call it “editing,” slap a stock photo and some text on it and call it a “cover,” and work the KDP interface for you. And they do no real marketing to speak of. They just gaslight you and tell you The Big Five would also expect you to do all the marketing yourself, which is a Flat Out Lie. In exchange, you sign away your rights to the book and give them part of what little you will make in royalties. Not what I call a great deal.

    At least, all of the above is what happened to me when I signed with an outfit that was listed in QueryTracker as a “small publisher.”

    I ended up having to self-publish the rest of my series (so as not to disappoint my fans) because no publisher will look at subsequent books in a series that has already been published, even if it was only published by Ima Publisher LLC. Did I make money self-publishing these books? Sure…if you count being able to pay the phone bill as “making money.” (Still more than my “small publisher” book ever made, though! 😀 ) I’m not a marketing hustler, I’m too much of an introvert for that, and even if I were, I don’t want to make marketing my full-time career, which is what I’d have to do if I wanted to sell books myself.

    I’m willing to do the work and wait as long as I have to to get an agent this time. Even though I’m what you call “getting on in years.” Fool me once, yada yada. No more Small Publishers for me!

  4. Avatar Arty says:

    I participated in #PitMad today and received a like from an editor at a Big 5 imprint (at least this is what hours of googling has led me to understand! I’m still fairly bewildered). If I send my materials to this editor, and they say they like my book, would my next step not be to try and get an agent? (That was, of course, the reason I participated in #PitMad to begin with!) How would I go about doing that? Would I hurriedly query as many agents as I could, saying I had an offer from a publisher?