Do you need an agent to get a publishing contract?

If you hope to get your book in front of the acquisition editors at the “Big Five” trade publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Hachette Livre, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, and Simon & Schuster) or the largest educational publishers, then the answer to that question is most often “yes.”

The reason? These publishers get so many queries from would-be authors that they tend to use literary agents as a filtering mechanism, and do not accept “unagented” queries. Their reasoning is that if an agent they know and trust has done the initial vetting of a non-fiction book proposal or a query letter for fiction, then it may be worth at least looking at.

Sometimes imprints of even the largest publishers will declare brief windows of time as “open submissions.” For example, the Avon Books imprint of HarperCollins had an open submissions period this past summer for unagented writers to submit queries for romance novels. These open submission periods are great opportunities for those who have a query and a full manuscript ready to go, but you have to be on the alert for them.

However, many smaller publishers are willing to accept proposals and queries directly from authors who don’t have agents. While it does take a little research to determine which ones might be right for your book, it can be worth the effort if you’d like to investigate the possibility of obtaining a “traditional” publishing contract before you consider the self-publishing path (which is often also a sensible choice).

For example, one of my clients, Catheryrne Draper, had drafted her manuscript and put together a book proposal (essentially, a business plan for the book). Having worked in educational publishing at one point in her career, Cathy knew her book wouldn’t quite fit the mold of what the largest math education publishers tended to want, but she also knew there were smaller publishers where her book might fit. Because she didn’t want to go through the sometimes-long process of finding an agent, we created a short, targeted list of these publishers and sent out query letters. One publisher expressed initial interest but drifted away, but another publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, liked her idea and asked her to turn one long book into four shorter ones; they were published in 2017 and 2018.

Does every approach to a publisher — whether with an agent’s help or without — result in the offer of a contract? Nope – that’s not how the publishing world works. But for some of my clients, it’s worth giving this approach a shot before they pursue other avenues to publication. As always, if you have book development, book editing, or book publishing questions, Blue Pencil Consulting is happy to help!

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