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Submitting On Your Own, Then Getting an Agent

I recently got a question on my “Getting an Offer and THEN an Agent” post. I started typing out the answer but it was too long and I thought I’d make it into a post of its own, just because there’s a point at the end that I wish more writers would be aware of. Here’s the question, from MM:

If I get an offer by myself, would it be considered inappropriate, after acquiring an agent, for that agent to pitch the project to other publishers in search of a better offer? Is there a ticking clock on the initial publisher’s offer?

Also, what of the situation in which an author has queried publishers directly, received all rejections, and then acquires an agent? I’ve heard agents warn against direct querying of publishers, saying that in the case of all rejections, now the agent’s hands are rather tied and it’s much more difficult to find a publisher.

Great question, MM, and one that agents often have to struggle with. A lot of the time, we get clients who have submitted on their own or who have had previous agents who’ve done submissions, and we really have to consider where the manuscript has been before. We also get writers who have an offer on the table when they come to us and they want us to negotiate better terms for them. Both situations have happened to me.

I’ll answer the first part first, and I don’t know if this is what you want to hear. If you want to find a better offer, you will have to decline the present offer. The offering publisher expects you to get back to them within a reasonable time frame, sure, but they’re also not going to be very pleased with you if you go around with your new agent and pitch everywhere else because you hate their offer… while their offer is still on the table. Imagine coming back to them and saying, “Yeah, I guess we’ll accept your crappy offer, even though we wanted that shiny publisher over there.” You won’t be saying that directly but they’ll know because a) a suspicious amount of time has passed and b) people in this small community of publishers talk.

That’s going to be a horrible working relationship with a publisher you’ve offended, if they don’t pull the offer themselves. You will have burned a bridge and nobody wants that. So if you hate the offer, your new agent will try to negotiate the best possible situation. If it’s still not enough — if your agent has said that you’re considering taking this elsewhere and the publisher still won’t fight to keep you — you will pull the project and decline the offer. It’s a risk because you may not have interest from other publishers or, if you get another offer, it may be equal to or worse than your first. But if you’re really unhappy, nobody needs that business relationship.

In this situation, I usually advise people to get the best possible terms from the offering publisher and then have their agent fight for no option clause, so they can go elsewhere with their next project. It’s not an ideal situation because nobody wants to be unhappy, but… read to the end of the post for my big advice before even getting into this mess.

Second, our hands are rather tied if you’ve been rejected all over Creation. It’s true. That’s why we really do warn people… if their eventual goal is to get an agent, then get the agent first, before you go shopping the manuscript. At a lot of places, you only have one shot per project. I guess how doomed you are depends on if you know which editors read it. If you got a form rejection from that house, it means an intern read it. But they could’ve shown it to their bosses first. If you get a personal rejection from an editor, that means your agent knows who read it and might be able to pitch to another editor there or at a different imprint. Either way, you do risk the editor saying, “Oh, my colleague has already passed on this” or, “Oh, my intern showed me this and we’ve already passed.” We really do remember what we read and a repeat submission sticks out. That’s the worst that can happen but it still doesn’t look very good for you or your new agent.

Same with burning your initial offer. This is a small industry and reputation is key. So here is the main thing I want everyone to take away from this post. If you don’t want to be published by that house–or represented by that agent, or working with that editor, etc.–then why did you query them in the first place?!?!?!? Agents get this all the time. I’ve heard colleagues and friends talking about offering representation only to have the writer start waffling. They want more time, they want to check in with other agents. Then they frantically appeal to all their Dream Agents because their last choice agent has offered representation and, since it’s not who they hoped would offer, they are queasy about working with that person.

When you pitch your project or query an agent, the person on the other end of that pitch assumes you really want to work with them. Don’t query them if you wouldn’t be happy to work together. Don’t let your eagerness for someone to publish or represent you cloud your good judgment.

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