How to Find a Publisher: The Unagented Submission

I want to follow up my post about getting a book deal with more detail about how to find a publisher by shopping around an unagented submission…and also getting an agent.

Reader MM asks:

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.

unagented submission, find a publisher
Don’t leave publication offers on the table while you wait for something better to come along.

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.

When An Unagented Submission Becomes Agented

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 than the one you received on your unagented submission, 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 to find a publisher with a better 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.

Don’t Burn Bridges

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 you received on your unagented submission, 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 you find a 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 be able to find a publisher now 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.

Shopping a Manuscript That’s Been Rejected

Second, our hands are rather tied if you’ve been rejected all over Creation with your unagented submission. 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 try to find a publisher. 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.

Act With Integrity, Protect Your Reputation

Same with burning the initial offer on your unagented submission. 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 extending an offer of 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 (tips on how to pitch a book). 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.

Did you find this practical advice useful? I am happy to be your manuscript editor and consultant for writing and publishing advice that’s specific to your work.


37 Replies to “How to Find a Publisher: The Unagented Submission”

  1. Thanks, Mary. Good manners and common courtesy are so important whether it’s in publishing or any other profession. We never want to set fire to those career-building bridges. Great reminders!

  2. Great post. It makes me feel justified to all those people who ask me why I’m not subbing to publishers as well as agents.

  3. Mary, thanks for answering a question that has been making the rounds in the writing community.

    “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.”

    I often hear writers say to pitch your C list then your B list and follow it up with your A list. I haven’t done that for this simple reason: if my submission isn’t good enough for my dream agents, then I shouldn’t be submitting at all.

  4. This is a wonderful post! Especially the last part about querying those who you really want to work with and not just sending queries out to everyone in the book. Thank you!


  5. I had wondered what the policy was on submitting to publishers before agents if I wanted agent representation. You laid out all the answers to my questions quite clearly. Thanks much! I hope you had a great weekend.

  6. Cat — Ding ding ding ding ding! I wish more writers would have this great attitude. Unless a writer strives for the absolute best — manuscript, writing, agent — they might be selling themselves and their dreams short.

  7. I think many writers just send out a slew of queries to see what sticks since it seems like hitting as many as possible gives you better odds of landing an agent. But your point is an excellent one. Getting ANY agent shouldn’t be your goal. Getting the RIGHT agent should be what you’re after. Research is a time consuming pain but in the long run, doesn’t waste the time of the writer or agents. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  8. I’ve been querying agents with numerous manuscripts over the years–romance for a long time, until I switched it up to middle-grade this last year–and just because some agent is your ‘A list’ agent, it doesn’t mean that the agent is right for YOUR needs.

    Many agents have differing agent styles. Some of the big name agents might get their writers great deals, but might not give the writer what they really need in terms of career guidence, feedback, support, or your personalities simply clash.

    If you are on the agent hunt, then try to actually meet the agents at conferences because someone might be on your A list, but after you meet them, you might decide that their style isn’t a good fit for you.

    I think it’s a mistake to query a publisher if you are ‘testing’ the waters. Either take the deal or don’t. I think scrambling for an agent at the last minute will cause many legit agents to hesitate to represent you–get a literary lawyer to study the contract and then use the pub credit for your NEXT story when you query agents.

  9. Great questions, great answers. I agree 100% as far as not selling yourselves/dream short. Do the research, don’t get desperate, don’t settle. Awesome stuff, thanks Mary!

  10. Margaret — I agree with you on all points but one. I’ve had several writers come to me with a deal in hand and they are now clients because I loved their work. Sure, some agents will not want to scramble and take a writer with an offer on the table, but if I love their work with an eye for the long term, I’m more than happy to step into the deal. There’s a lot I can do at the negotiation stage (advance, terms, rights, etc.), even if I’m coming to the party late. But the writer and the material has to be a fit for me.

  11. I agree with Cat. I haven’t spent a bazillion hours researching agents — okay, maybe a slight exaggeration but it is one of my favorite activities — to not submit to my top ones first. Great post!

  12. Fantastic post. It’s so funny, because this is happening to me right this very minute. LOL. I won a contest where the first prize was a publishing contract.

    But I don’t have an agent. I’m rather unnerved about the contract to tell you the truth. Just got it in my email inbox today! 🙂

    I have enough resources to get through it, I think, but I was wondering if I’d be able to approach an agent with it. . . What timing on this post for me, huh?

    So VERY helpful. Thanks!!

  13. I have been conscientious about only querying agents who I think will be a perfect fit, but I’ve probably overdone it a bit. In the past three years I’ve only sent out three queries. Maybe I need to lighten up.

  14. I’ve been doing some thinking of going straight to a publisher, but I really want an agent first. Even though I’ve been researching publishers and have some I’d love to work with, I feel it best to try and find an agent first. I also feel it’s necessary to mention that you must research agents and publishers. Don’t just go with the first name you run across. You want to make sure that they represent what you write, like books similar in tone or style to yours, and so forth. So my advice is to research, research, research.

  15. Great post and good food for thought. I decided to query those agents that I’ve met or heard speak at conferences over the past few years [and are a good fit] first. But there are also many editors at conferences too, sometimes even critiquing. Getting started as an author is like most things, it all boils down to building relationships and if that relationship starts with an editor first, hopefully there would be a way to make it all work. My goal is to find an agent first. Guess these things can have a timing all their own. Good to know your insights.

  16. I love your punch line – if you don’t like the publisher enough to work with them, why on earth would you have queried them? It sounds an awful lot like wanting to have your cake and eating it too, in my opinion.

    As for querying agents first before publishers, in Australia we’re in a slightly different situation. There are very few literary agents to begin with, and only a mere handful of them take on children’s authors of any description and even fewer of those are taking on any new clients through unsolicited submissions. By default, I have to query publishers first and hope that the breakthroughs I’m making on my own will one day draw the attention of the ever-elusive agent. In fact, I’ve been advised by an agent over here (who hasn’t taken on a children’s author in more than 2 years but is one of the few that actually does have them on her list) to keep approaching publishers directly because getting an agent in Aus is nigh impossible. The flip side, however, is that she believes that the kidlit arena is the one place where publishers routinely look through the slush pile seriously.

    All in all, I think it still comes back to the same three principles: do my homework before submitting, constantly improve my writing skills through critique groups, workshops, reading books etc and don’t ever submit anything less than my best.

  17. Karen — Care to immortalize the excellent Rules To Live By in the last paragraph of your comment as a tattoo? I’ll make the picture of it my blog header! 😛 It is ESSENTIAL advice, everyone!

  18. I know that one author’s experience does not a rule make, but I’d like to add that I subbed agents and publishers simultaneously, and when I acquired my agent she submitted to several publishers, getting several positives and finally going with a publisher which had rejected me when I subbed on my own. It may have found itself being read by a different editor there or it may have been that the publisher simply attached more weight to it when it was sent by my agent. Anyway. It was completely not an issue for anyone.

  19. Thermocline says:

    “…if their eventual goal is to get an agent, then get the agent first, before you go shopping the manuscript.”

    This is a great reminder not to get so caught up in the rush to get published that you’re not thinking longer term.

  20. “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.”

    That stood true for my first ten query letters, but they all were rejected.

    So, I revised my query letter and researched a new list of agents.

    As a new author, I can continue to write and revise and research agents forever… but the fact of the matter is, if/when an agent ever says “YES!” I will be a bit in shock and hesitant and wonder if I should agree to work with this agent (out of desperation?) or if I should wait and revise and research more (out of fear?) or if this is the right agent for me (out of divine inspiration?).

    If the ten “best” agents on my list rejected my work and as Cat said above, “if my submission isn’t good enough for my dream agents, then I shouldn’t be submitting at all” – – this would make me want to quit – – or flip-side just write forever and never submit to anyone.

    What’s the point in that?

    There is definitely a learning curve involved here.
    Read my opinion about that on my blog:

  21. Thanks for the information. I know I prefer to get an agent first. Even if my current novel isn’t quite right, I think the solution would be to write a better book rather than try to directly submit to publishers. But not everyone can view publishing from this angle.

  22. Thanks for another thoughtful post Mary. I agree that getting an agent first is the way to go. Having someone who believes in you and your work as much as you do and wants to form a long-term partnership is what every writer dreams of, I think.

  23. A great post with much needed information. My ICL instructor told me not to bother with finding an agent before I was published, because agents won’t take on unpublished authors. I’ve since found this was wrong advice. I am starting again this month to query agents rather than publishers for my completed novel.

    However, I disagree with Cat who said “If my submission isn’t good enough for my dream agents, then I shouldn’t be submitting at all.” Just because one has a dream agent, doesn’t mean that that person is a dream client. It’s like saying If my work isn’t good enough for my list of dream publishers then it isn’t good enough to be published at all. Really? what if the dream publishers already have books similar to yours, or if what you’re writing about just doesn’t interest them at the particular moment you submitted? That doesn’t mean that some other publisher won’t be interested.

    Of course, I guess if someone only wanted to be published by certain specific publishers, or represented by certain specific agents, they might consider giving up. But is that realistic? I think I would try every agent and every publisher on the planet before I would give up…unless, of course, I was getting rejections that told me what a lousy writer I was !

    By the way, I’ve mentioned the contest on the ICL Writers’ Retreat boards, and on my blog, http://www.mikki-wordpainter.blogspot.com.

  24. Thanks for the good advice. I can’t imagine waffling on an offer from an editor I submitted to, but I’ve never submitted work to someone I wouldn’t love to work with. The first time I sold a poem to Highlights for Children and read the words “delighted to accept,” they could have had the poem for free. I was that excited to have my poem in their magazine. A novel takes so much more time and effort; you would think that work would make a writer that much more cautious about who they submit to.

  25. Hi Mary,
    Thanks for replying so thoroughly to my questions. It clarifies a lot.
    And thanks also for providing substantial content here on your blog and not just fluff.

  26. Alice Beesley says:

    I submitted queries for one of my manuscripts to editors first and one asked to see part of my manuscript. I’ve now started querying agents to represent this same manuscript. I have one agent who has expressed interest, but not yet offered representation. Should I continue to query other agents or wait for a response from this agent?

  27. Sumner Wilson says:

    Dear Beesley:

    Why, yes. Go ahead on. Oops. This isn’t my blog is it? Sorry.

    Sumner Wilson

  28. Thanks for the advice Mary – my manuscript is ready and I am not preparing for the querying process. It seems right to get an agent first – this was also confirmed at a recent SCWBI workshop where four out of four editors advises all the aspiring writers in the room to get an agent first.

  29. Tania Lieman says:

    Dear Mary
    Like a lot of people I flew blind and learnt the hard way. Thanks for your help in making it all a lotttttttt easier. The other thing I’ve discovered and am grateful for is the generosity that goes with this help and advice. It’s overwhelming.

  30. Thanks for this advice, and thanks to everyone for the very helpful advice in the comments! Querying can be overwhelming, and it’s great to get direct advice.

  31. KSMitch17 says:

    What a great post. This is something I’ve debated on as I’ve readied my manuscript for submission. It’s great to have insider perspective. Thanks Mary!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com