Do I Need a Literary Agent to Get in with Big Publishers?

“Do I need a literary agent to get in with big publishers?” This question came up in the comments on my publishing experience post.

do i need a literary agent, big publishers
When you have an agent on your side, they’re the key to getting into those big publishers who are closed to submissions.

Christine asked about “closed” house editors (those at big publishers who do not accept unsolicited or unagented submissions) who go to conferences and request materials or open up submissions to conference attendees only.

Editors Are Also On The Hunt For Talented Writers

Editors at big publishers do not rely solely on agents to bring them fantastic material. They are always on the hunt. Just like agents, they love the possibilities of the search, the thrill of discovering something brand new and phenomenal. I know plenty of editors who read blogs and websites, scout literary magazines and otherwise keep their antennae up. This includes going to a writer’s conference and picking up potentially talented writers. When agents and editors are at conferences, our role is very much the same: hone in on the cream of the crop and get their submissions. There’s even a similarity to how editors and agents treat submissions from conference attendees. Sometimes we reject outright, sometimes we reject the particular project but leave the door open to receive future work, and sometimes we take that writer on and develop them. This direct line to editors makes it seem like the answer to “Do I need a literary agent?” is “No,” as long as you have access to writing conferences.

The Difference Between An Editor And An Agent

The key difference, though, is that agents are, inherently, more free to gamble. We have more time and resources (and incentive…a lot of agents work on commission, while editors at big publishers get a salary…both go above and beyond the call of duty all the time, but agents do have an extra hunger) to develop raw talent into something saleable. Editors have bandwidth for this as well but they have all sorts of other things to do, projects already on their list to edit and lots of internal office duties that most writers don’t even lend a thought to. So they will sometimes pass on something that needs work (or pass it along to an agent friend), whereas an agent might dig in and really shape it into a great book.

Do I Need A Literary Agent?

Here’s what I said to Christine in the comments:

Yes, editors who attend conferences will sometimes tell attendees to send them submissions (usually a query or ten pages, sometimes for a limited time window like 3 months). Sometimes editors will also requests manuscripts based on a meeting or consultation with a writer. So yes, there are ways to get into closed houses by meeting editors at conferences.

However, as an agent (and as an agent, obviously, I would argue the merits of agents), it is my job to help writers get their manuscripts to an “editor ready” level. Sometimes these conference connections result in a direct offer from an editor. More often than not, though, they don’t. I’d much rather have a writer come to me and say “I met with So and So at a conference and want to get my manuscript in shape before s/he sees it,” than, “I met So and So at a conference and they passed on this already.” An unagented writer has less idea of what “editor ready” means, is all.

So “Do I need a literary agent?” Probably, unless your manuscript is already perfect and editor-ready — which, let’s be honest, it’s probably not.

The Value of Agents

For a lot of unagented writers, meeting editors from big publishers at a conference seems like the Golden Ticket, like you can skip right over the “Do I need a literary agent?” question. If you do have this opportunity, though, I strongly urge you to query some agents as well. If you keep getting form rejections or no response, or if any of your requests come back with the same general feedback…do go back to the manuscript and give it some more elbow grease. (Dealing with rejection? Read the linked post.)

Agents have one goal: selling a book to an editor. So if agents keep rejecting your book, it’s a really good sign that an editor will probably reject it as well. Your chance with an editor (as with an agent) is sometimes a one-time opportunity, so you really do want to make sure your work is in fantastic shape. (Make sure you’re prepared with our tips on manuscript submission.) An agent, obviously, would be a great asset in determining whether or not you’re going to compete with everything else that editor has in his or her inbox. At least think about trying for an agent, even if you do have an invitation to submit from a conference or another opportunity.

As a freelance book editor, I love helping my clients get their manuscripts ready to submit to agents and editors.

21 Replies to “Do I Need a Literary Agent to Get in with Big Publishers?”

  1. This is very helpful, and I’ve found myself in a similar position. After attending a conference, an editor requested my full MS. This was an unexpected but thrilling result of attending the conference, and I’ve since sent my work to her.

    Originally, I had planned on subbing to agents, and I am unsure how to proceed now. If the editor gets back to me and likes my work, great, but in the case that she doesn’t, it sounds like this could end up stigmatizing my work with agents. What would be the best way to handle this situation? Should I still submit to agents while the editor has the full? Should I wait until I hear something back from the editor and then if an agent’s offer is made, disclose the editor’s feedback?

  2. Thanks for this post. I think it is easy for writers to jump aboard the panic boat. Receiving a few “we are not taking unsolicitated manuscripts” makes us believe that all soliciations are closed to unpubbed authors–which is simply not true.

    In fact, I’ve found that even “closed” policies generally mean closed to manuscripts. Not necessarily to queries.

    It’s all a matter of researching the industry–and particular agents and editors–to know who wants what.


  3. Yes, and it’s so useful to hear things like this from agents and editors themselves. I often find published writers aren’t the best people to give advice on getting published, because they can only really talk expertly about their own unique experiences. for example this post, which flies in the face of a lot of what you say here, Mary:


    Let’s hear from the horse mouth, not from the stable boy.

    Sorry, I don’t mean you look like a horse. Um…

  4. I, too, sleep facedown in papers. Glad to hear about Sushi.

    This post feels like the same message we writers need to hear again and again (and again…). Polish the MS before you do anything with it.

  5. Bluestocking — No stigma. Everyone wants to send their work everywhere as soon as they can, whether it’s ready or not, and we all know that urge. Do exactly what you suggested in your comment, yes. An offer from an editor, if it comes, will make you even more attractive to agents and at that point, you really should have an agent on board to help you navigate the contract (I’ve posted about this several times, try and search).

    Thomas — Yes, if you read a post from a guy who hates agents, you will get an opinion that’s pretty biased against agents. I can’t say I agree with him, but hey, I’m one of the sacred cows. 🙂 A writer has control over how they want to pursue their career. They can try it any way they want. They can try self-publishing, they can try submitting directly to editors, they can try hiring a lawyer instead of an agent to negotiate book contracts. At the end of the day, it’s really no skin off my nose. If I encounter a writer who is hostile to the idea of agents and doesn’t value what we do, I’d rather wish him or her well and go on with my business than try to argue or get offended. Less stress for both parties, I think!

  6. Great post! I’d like to ask a question that is a variation on Bluestocking’s situation. I also met an editor at a conference through a scheduled critique. She gave me very positive feedback on my manuscript, however, she saw it in another category. She made several specific suggestions for rewriting it for the other category. I followed her advice, rewrote the whole thing, and then submitted it to her. What I am wondering is, what obligations do I have to this editor, since I followed her specific advice and suggestions? How long should I wait to hear back from her before submitting it elsewhere? I was planning to leave the manuscript with her exclusively for as long as it takes. However, my writing critique partners are encouraging me to send it out elsewhere since I may never hear back and have no way to ever follow up. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this. Thank you!

  7. It’s just a shame that new writers are stumbling across posts like that of DWS, and following such advice because it’s from a published author.

  8. Yay for Sushi!! And why do cats always want to lay on top of whatever you are focusing on at the moment (book, laptop, loose MS pages). They’re lucky they’re cute.

    Thanks for the post. Interesting that you recommended someone w/ a request from an editor query a few agents as well to see what responses/interest they receive. That’s kinda like putting yourself on the front line to test bs. I guess they call it the slush for a reason lol.

  9. Alexa — Why no way to follow up? You sent her the manuscript, didn’t you? Why can’t you send her a nudge? It sounds like you’ve given her reasonable time. You were right to wait at least a bit since you did use her feedback, but now I’d say it’s time to go more widely with it.

  10. Thanks for this post, I agree that it is something we writers need to hear over and over again. I have a completed ms that was turned down by one agent and one editor and i’ve never sent it out again. In my favor, I have done some MORE revising, especially on the first chapter( 10 pages), so I’m happier with it now. But still procrastinating sending it out again, this time only to agents. I thought I had conquered my fear of rejection, but…!

    Is Sushi a Siamese? My Siamese/Himalayan mix loves to sleep on my laptop…mostly when it is open and I am using it!

  11. Glad to hear about Sushi! I get paranoid for days if my dog even throws up grass.

  12. Mary – thank you SO much for your comment in response to my question. Just to answer your question – I can’t follow up because the editor gave conference attendees her snail mail address only, with a “code word” to use on the envelope to get it through their mail room, and also gave a definite time period within which to send submissions. She did not give out her email address. The time period has now expired, so I think anything I sent now would go straight into the mail room’s trash! Thanks again for your advice, greatly appreciated!

  13. Helen Robertson says:

    Go Sushi!! One of my cats is presently trying to sleep on the keyboard. And attacking my fingers and hands when I try to encourage him to *ahem* maybe move a little bit in this direction…

    Maybe I should put some papers out.

  14. I’m so glad for you and Sushi!

    Thank you for this. I just barely think I’m figuring out writing and there’s this whole other world of selling my writing that I can’t seem to untangle. Posts like these are so helpful!

  15. So glad to hear Sushi is back on a roll. Ba, dum, bump. Okay corny joke, couldn’t resist. Great to hear things are looking up though.
    Thanks for the great post!

  16. Thank you for sharing the wonderful news about Sushi!

    Often writers hear the advice to query widely and often, but I’m more the type to query a few and wait to hear back. Like you said, it’s often a one-time opportunity to query agents/editors. Why use up all those one-time opportunites by sending out 20 or so queries at once?

    After I hear back on some of the queries, I do more revisions if needed and then query a few more. It’s a slow process, but I’ve had positive feedback and have been able to move my writing forward because of it.

    My dilemma is this:

    Some recent agent feedback has given me an “Ah Ha” moment, and I have a few ideas that would strengthen the manuscript (they’d also change quite a bit of the story). I’m anxious to dive into revisions, but I still have a couple of fulls out. The agent didn’t ask me to resubmit after the revisions so I suppose there’s no hurry . . . other than my own excitement at improving the MS. =)

    Should I put aside the revision ideas and work on a different MS until I hear back on the fulls or should I go ahead and revise?

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