Do You Have to Have an Agent to Sell a Book?

From the mailbag: Sue writes: Is it necessary to have an agent to sell a book? I’m having trouble finding one to take me on, so I was wondering if I could just try to sell my novel by myself? What do you think of self-publishing?

Dear Sue, there aren’t many publishing houses that accept unagented submissions anymore. Certainly, none of the major houses do. That said, there are still some small houses that will let a writer submit without an agent.

In order to find which ones do, get the current Writer’s Market. Here, you’ll find all the listings and contact information not only for current book publishers (large and small presses), but also for consumer magazines, trade journals, and literary agents.

Start by looking in the back under Subject Index: Fiction. Then keep looking through the subheads until you find your novel’s genre. There, you’ll find a list of publishers that handle your type of book. Then turn to the page of each publisher. Right before the Publishers’ names are the symbols that will tell you at a quick glance what kind of submissions they accept. If there’s a box with an “A” in it, that means they require an agent. Cross that one off and move down your list.

As for self-publishing, it’s definitely a viable way to go. Though, beware, one of the major challenges with self-publishing is distribution (getting your book into stores). There are many self-published books that have gone on to be best-sellers and were eventually picked up by big houses who paid lots of money for them. Here are just a few that made it big (to see the fuller list, click here):

  • What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Nelson Bolles. Sold 6 million copies.
  • The Christmas Box by Rick Evans. He wrote the 87 page book in 6 weeks, published it, and then promoted it himself. It did so well he sold out to Simon & Schuster for $4.2 million.
  • In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters. More than 25,000 copies were sold directly to consumers in its first year. Warner bought the rights and sold 10 million more.
  • The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. After he couldn’t sell it to any of the mainstream houses, he decided to publish himself. He sold copies out of his trunk. Warner Books eventually bought it for $800,000. 5.5 million copies have been sold.
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. (and his student E. B. White) was originally self-published. Now selling some 300,000 copies each year, more than 10 million have been sold so far.
  • A Time to Kill by John Grisham. He sold his first work out of the trunk of his car.
  • When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple has been through the press 42 times for 1.5 million in print.
  • Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan sold 370,000 copies before it was sold to HarperCollins for $1.7 million. It was sold to two book clubs and the foreign rights were sold to 14 countries.
  • Feed Me, I’m Yours by Vicky Lansky was rejected by 49 publishers so she self-published and sold 300,000 copies. She sold out to Bantam and they sold 8 million more. Since then, she has written 23 more books.
  • The Lazy Man’s Way to Riches. Joe Karbo never sold out and never courted bookstores. He sold millions of his books via full page ads in newspapers and magazines.
  • Life’s Little Instruction Book was initially self-published by H. Jackson Brown. Then it was purchased by Rutledge Hill Press. It made the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. More than 5 million copies were sold.
  • The Plant a self-published eBook by Stephen King sold online for $1/chapter.
  • Satin Doll. Karen E. Quinones-Miller sold 24,000 copies of her novel in 8 months before selling the rights to Simon & Schuster.
  • The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter has 190,000 copies in print after 15 revised editions since 1979.

While this list is meant to be encouraging, hopefully, you’ll have noticed that there’s one thing all these people have in common –they worked hard at promoting their books, many of them selling copies out of the backs of their cars.

If you’re ready for that kind of commitment, learning curve, and hard work, go for it!

8 thoughts on “Do You Have to Have an Agent to Sell a Book?”

  1. Thanks for this great information! I keep telling myself to hotfoot it to the library to research in the Writer’s Market…your article is a timely reminder!

    Reply
  2. Deb, Sometimes, when you’re starting out, you need to get pretty far into writing the book before you can figure out how to summarize it. That’s okay. But, eventually, agents, publishers, book sellers, and interviewers are going to want the sound bite. So, eventually, you’ll need to write a one to three-sentence pitch so you and they can sell and promote your book.

    An effective summary answers these three key questions:

    1. Who is the main character and what does he/she want?
    2. Who (villain) or what is standing in the way of the main character?
    3. What makes this story unique?

    There’s an art to doing this well. Studying short movie and book reviews in magazines, and picking apart tv guide listings can help get you started.

    Reply
  3. Lynn, that’s a great site. It’s true, unfortunately, there are many people ready to prey on would-be authors who don’t know the ropes yet. A good rule of thumb is that if an agent (or publisher) asks for money to read your manuscript — pass. Legitimate people accept or reject submissions based on whether they think they can sell what you’ve sent them. If everyone rejects what you’ve sent out of hand, I’d look at the writing. If even a few reject it as interesting but not for them, find more agents to send it to.

    That said, the worst thing you can do is scatter-shot your submission. One of the biggest mistakes writers make is not properly researching and targeting agents/publishers according to what writing they represent. There are several books that list agents and specialties. Invest in them. Then, after you’ve compiled your list, call the agents and make sure they’re still in business and are still interested in what they say they are.

    Reply
  4. [quote]”…hopefully, you’ll have noticed that there’s one thing all these people have in common –they worked hard at promoting their books…”[/quote]

    I have this discussion with myself from time to time, okay at least once a week. How are you going to talk to people about this book you think you want to write? I can’t answer that today but I think the answer comes through the process of writing the book regardless of how it is published.

    Reply
  5. If you decide against the self-publishing route, always check “Predators and Editors” website to make sure the publisher (or agent) is legit:

    Reply

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