Once you’ve finished your manuscript and are ready to take the next step in the publication process, you’re faced with an important question. Do you send your query letter to an agent or a publisher?
The answer is not straightforward, with many factors depending on you, your book, and your goals. Your approach will be different for each option.
Finding an editor
As soon as you’ve completed your manuscript, enlist the help of a “beta reader” to help weed out plot issues such as weak characters or confusing plot devices. You’ll definitely want to remove these problems from your manuscript before you even think about pitching to an agent or publisher.
Once you’ve run your manuscript by a beta reader and revised accordingly, find a copy editor to assist you with any grammar and language issues. Again, you’ll want your manuscript as error-free as possible before sending off your query letter.
Okay, now you’re ready to decide whether to query an agent or a publisher.
If you’re looking to be published by a major publishing house—say, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, or Macmillan, for example—you’ll need to have an agent. Most publishing houses of this magnitude won’t even consider manuscripts submitted by authors directly.
Consult a publisher’s submission guidelines to find out whether an agent is required. Often, if one is, the site will also provide tips on how to land one.
Before pitching to an agent to represent you in working with a major publisher, however, make sure your book is appropriate for such a publisher. These houses are interested in manuscripts that appeal to the general public and have the potential to sell tens of thousands of copies. If your book is too niche, you’re probably better off seeking a smaller publisher.
Small independent publishers
If the topic of your manuscript is quite niche, you’re probably better off going with a small independent publisher. You can find publishers that specialize in your field with just a bit of research. If you’re producing scholarly works, for example, scout out the appropriate university presses.
In these niche cases, you may even know the publishing landscape better than an agent, so you’re probably better off representing yourself.
In terms of general fiction, a number of factors come into play, including the type and size of the publishing house. We generally advise that you look for an agent, but if you can’t find one, just start querying houses that accept submissions directly from writers. There are many.
Be careful when submitting to publishers directly, though: Some have strict “no multiple submissions” policies, so avoid these if you’re in a rush to get your book out there.
Considerations for working with an agent
Remember, you’re choosing to query an agent or a publisher, not both simultaneously. Some writers query both at the same time, which significantly complicates the agent’s job. That may also make the agent less likely to agree to represent you—no matter how convincing your query letter is!
If you’ve written a niche manuscript and would like an agent simply for peace of mind, so you have a professional to take care of business in case anything goes wrong, it may not be worth it to sign away a percentage of your earnings to them. In this case, you can hire a lawyer for a flat fee or hourly rate to help with things such as negotiating contracts.
Finally, be wary of agents who have a history of working with hybrid publishers or houses that have little recognition in the industry: These agents may have a financial incentive to land a less-than-optimal deal for you. Check out potential agents on Publishers Marketplace to determine their legitimacy before querying.
Once you’ve made the complicated decision of whether to query an agent or a publisher, it’s time to actually write your query letter. This is a more involved process than you may think, and it’s an extremely important step in your writing career. Sometimes, it’s best to have an experienced professional compose a first-rate query letter for you.