Jack King A New King of Thrillers

ditch the agent

Here's what I learned when seeking publication for my first novel.

CHRONOLOGY: First query letters sent out to agents: February 28. First query to the publisher: April 9; Same day the Publisher requests the manuscript. Early July -- Publisher makes an offer. April next year -- The novel hits the bookstands. A year passes -- the novel gets three translation deals.

I queried 423 agents, and 6 edtors.

I wrote a book and decided to publish it. I didn't know how to go about it, so I purchased a stack of those books on "Getting Published". Gaw, they sounded so inspiring! Yet, two months later I was ready to trash them -- nothing in them related to what I was up against.

I found myself in a vicious circle: I was told not to pitch editors directly ("agented submissions only"), yet unable to find a literary agent (most query letters sent to literary agencies were unanswered). My frustration grew, and was compounded by the "advice" pushed by publications on "getting published", which are penned by literary agents, or (sometimes) editors, and inevitably perpetuate the myth that the only way to publish a book is: to write the darn best book, polish it (so far so good), and "find an agent who will find a publisher." While the "advice" sounded great in theory, the reality was that most writers cannot showcase their work because of the Catch-22: Editors want "agented" submissions, but agents either do not replly, or are not accepting submissions.

I quickly realized that to become a published author I had to adopt the George Costanza approach, to "do the exact opposite" to the customary route. I did just that. I ditched the industry books and their main premise of having to find an agent. I contacted a New York editor instead, and I became a published author.

Why are these "advice" books so widely available and why are they so popular? These books are available because they serve the interests of those who pen them. They are popular because no alternatives exist, and because of the upbeat style in which they are written. They offer hope, everything is possible -- just write your novel, get an agent and the world will bend over backwards for you...

At the risk of sounding like the only downer in the industry, let me be painfully honest: trying to publish a book is the most depressing aspect of being a writer. The types of replies one receives (or lack there of) only makes this process more stressful. A writer who finished her story and thinks that the worst is over, should take a good long holiday. She will need all the strength she can gather because she is up for a nasty ride: trying to find an agent.

How does it work?

Pitching a fiction book idea without a book being written will not work unless the writer is a celebrity, or someone with a good deal of clout. Of course we all heard about miraculous exceptions (such as selling a novel based only on a synopsis, or a couple of sample chapters, etc), but for the sake of this article I am assuming that a writer reading this belongs to the struggling majority.

To be considered by an agent or a publisher a writer has to write and complete her novel first. She should aim for 85,000 - 110,000 words. Some publishers accept shorter books (50,000 - 70,000 words). One should have a clear idea of what kind of a book one intends to write and tailor it to appropriate publishers. Major publishing houses require "full-length novels".

Next step:

Prepare a synopsis -- many agents like 1-2 paragraphs, some ask for a full page, few want to see 3-6 pages.

Write a query letter.

As a general rule, a query letter should be brief, and should include a short description of the novel, writer's bio (if relevant), story length and genre (see more about the anatomy of a query letter ). The letter should be addressed to a specific person rather than a "submissions department".

Here is my personal list of literary agents and publishers.

When one agent declines to see the manuscript, a writer should try another person from the same house, or wait several weeks and query again (I've had some success this way).

Some agents ask for a partial (for example the first 50, or the first 3-5 chapters), others will request a full manuscript for consideration (most editors want to see a complete manuscript). Believe it or not, some want a hard copy. I kid you not. In 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, some still want a hard copy MS and a SASE! It's up to you, whether you want to work with somebody like that. Have a synopsis ready in case they asked for it (it is easier to write a synopsis when not pressed to produce it). Do not be alarmed if an agent does not read the requested manuscript. Agents often employ outside readers who screen manuscripts on their behalf. Many agents don't even open their mail -- someone else, often shared by several agents, works as an office manager, sends out rejections, answers the phone, etc. Treat a synopsis as a concise novel. What works best for me fits on one page -- major developments, characters, etc., but you should check agent-specific requirements (one-, or three-page synopsis).

Some agents will request exclusive rights to evaluate a manuscript and will not consider it if a writer submits to other agencies simultaneously. If this happens, make sure that the agent gets back in a timely manner.

Some respond to query letters within minutes, or a day, or two. Some agents take a week, few will take two weeks, fewer still will reply after a month or two. Most will never reply.

Submitted manuscripts may be rejected the same day they are received, but it may take a year before a writer hears back. It happened to me, when an agent replied after the novel was already pubished...

Some agents will request a manuscript but a writer will never hear from them again. Twelve months will pass and these agents will not reply to follow ups either. Why? Who knows?

Be prepared for rejections, they are a part of every writer's life. The sooner one realizes it and the sooner one grows thick skin, the easier it will be to cope with rejections.

There are two types of rejections:

Rejections sent in response to query letters.

Rejections sent in response to submitted manuscripts.

The first type of "rejection" should have a whole different designation, for instance -- a "decline" to read the masterpiece.

Few rejections, or declines, go beyond the standard four words: "Not for us, thanks."

Agents respond to requirements set forth by publishers; they look for what they think they can sell and therefore a writer's chances are limited. Querying editors directly broadens the opportunity because editors are the ultimate buyers, and they are able to make up / change / bend the rules on the spot.

For a good laugh pick up the "Rotten Rejections: The Letters That Publishers Wish They'd Never Sent" by Andre Bernard and see what some of the most popular writers in the World received in their mailbox.

Finally, consider this, the premise of my book DITCH THE AGENT : a writer does not need an agent to get published. Most published writers are unagented. Querying a publisher directly may result in getting The Call. Some publishers encourage unagented submissions, even imprints within the big 5 Houses. I emailed one such publisher. He replied within an hour, requesting the manuscript. Several weeks later he called and made an offer. After four weeks of negotiations we agreed on the contract. Rejections from agents kept coming for several months thereafter. I have since sold 3 novels (under different pennames) directly to editors at imprints in the Big 5. An editor may buy directlly from the author, or she may suggest an agent (House rules) when she's ready to make an offer.

One should not be intimidated by the prospect of not "having" an agent. Negotiating a book contract is not very difficult. Once a writer gets a contract she can (and should) hire a lawyer specializing in literary rights to help her understand it and point out advantages / disadvantages. These guys and gals don't come cheap, but are cheaper than agents, and more importantly, their services offer the peace of mind.

The lawyer I hired also owns one of the largest/most respected literary agencies in the country. When asked: "Should I hire an agent?", the lawyer replied "Jack, you don't need an agent, you have a lawyer."

An editor (former top exec at Hearst) I met at the Book Expo, when asked if she would be more willing to look at my manuscript if submitted by an agent, had this to say: "In my extensive experience I really do not trust them, had a few bad experiences with them, they seem to promise you the world, charge you a small fortune, and never seem to deliver just what they outline to you."

Should you give up looking for literary agents? Simply consider that not having one is not the end. Most published writers are unagented.

Please keep in mind that the above observations are based on my own experiences. You may find the process quite different, hopefully less painful.

how to publish a book


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