Ask the Agent: Query Publisher or Agent?

Chatty Kelly asked a common question on Friday:

Why would you query an agent over a publisher? What are the pros & cons?

Okay, in the first place, fewer and fewer publishers are accepting unagented submissions. So if you want to get published, it’s becoming less viable to do it without an agent. Agents are the accepted gatekeepers in the industry. One of our jobs is to cull through the thousands of submissions and bring the publishers the ones we think are the best. It’s the way the industry works now. So most writers are better off with an agent.

However, most publishers are still taking submissions from writers they’ve met in person at a conference. That’s still an option. Many writers are still getting their first book deal without an agent. But you might meet five editors in a year, while an agent has contact with dozens. So the conference option is still a longer-shot.

The reason to query agents over publishers is because you want an agent. Now, deciding whether you want an agent or not is a different question. I’ve addressed it before, many other blogs have addressed it, and I’m sure I’ll address it again. You decide if you want an agent based on whether you want all the services an agent provides (more than just selling your book to a publisher) and you’re willing to pay 15% of your earnings for it. The important thing is to try and make an intentional decision as you’re working on launching your writing career. Either, “yes, I think I’d like to try and get an agent from the get-go” or “no, I think I’d like to avoid agents like the plague.” (Maybe not that extreme but you know what I mean.)

If you want an agent, the best strategy is to query only agents, although you’ll make exceptions if you’re at a conference and end up talking to editors. Here’s the rationale: Let’s say you query lots of agents and editors at once. Most of them pass. But one agent likes your writing enough to take you on. They’re going to ask you: Who has seen this project? Who have you queried? If they find out that ten publishers have seen it and passed, they may not want to represent you after all. You’ve hamstrung the agent by taking away their market. That’s why it’s important to try and decide before querying… agent or not? Best to query either agents or editors, not both at one time.

As we’ve discussed here before, your agent might help you make your project more saleable before submitting it to publishers. It’s a bummer if you’ve already sent it out to publishers, gotten rejections, and then you get an agent who may have been able to help you avoid those rejections in the first place.

I know I’ve written about this before and I apologize for the redundancy! One of these days I’m going to create an FAQ’s page so that I can easily point you toward answers to these questions that are repeatedly asked.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. D. Friend on November 1, 2010 at 9:43 AM

    >It's a catch-22. Think about it; if your an unpublished writer you do what you can to make it happen. That includes submissions to agents and editors.

    I guess there is no real right or wrong answer. I've found editors are more likely to provide feedback rather than standard rejection letters. I take great comfort in knowing that my own experience, (editor rejected my ms but invited me to submit future work)could work for me instead of against if and when I sign with an agent.

  2. Ed Eubanks on September 3, 2008 at 9:42 PM

    >Thanks for that perspective, Rachelle, and I think you’ve made a lot of good points.

    Here’s my twist on the question: I write non-fiction, and the books I’m working on are fairly narrow in their market (though there is still a “book-sized” market for them): materials for pastors and pastors-in-training. I have one book that is 75% complete (and a publisher who is interested), another that is at an earlier stage but a collaborator who will advance the writing quickly, and at least three other concepts that are similar.

    Are there agents that represent my category of writing? It seems like every agent who knows the Christian publishing markets is inerested only in fiction or popular non-fiction.

  3. Carol on September 3, 2008 at 9:33 PM

    Interesting blog, and one I’ll let members of the SCBWI community I’m involved in know about.
    Read your comments in the Oct issue of Writer’s Digest and referred to them in a blog I just posted at:

  4. Anne L.B. on September 3, 2008 at 2:15 PM

    >I didn’t think I had anything to contribute to this and am kicking myself for not speaking up sooner.

    A good agent is worth her/his weight in gold, and certainly 15 percent. As an unpublished author, I cannot imagine it possible to be as far along the road to being published without my agent. Incidently, I did contact an editor at a conference, who requested a proposal. Without my agent’s advice, I would have neither gone to the conference, nor have been ready to present a decent pitch and one-page summary. Having obtained an editor’s interest, the proposal that had already bombed with a previous agent was—with my agent’s coaching—groomed into a beautiful presentation the editor liked. The plenty that my agent’s done since then—without yet receiving a penny—has only served to advance my writing career.

    Maybe with several novels under my belt I’ll feel like venturing into the world of publishing on my own. Maybe. But even then, I picture the agent at my side who will always know the business better than I do.

    Rachelle says “If you want an agent, the best strategy is to query only agents, although you’ll make exceptions if you’re at a conference and end up talking to editors.” The “if” doesn’t even seem like a logical question to me. The rational question would simply be “who.”

  5. Lea Ann McCombs on September 3, 2008 at 10:18 AM

    >I’m cringing as I read this advice, wishing I could take back the unsuccessful submissions I made to editors before I had an agent. I agree with Richard’s point, that the whole submission process feels so overwhelming for such a long time, that you want to spend your efforts going directly to the editors. Getting an agent is just as frustrating and difficult as getting a publisher, so we try to “cut to the chase,” not realizing we may also be cutting out our chances with that publisher in the future.

    Querying both at once? Maybe not the best idea after all!

  6. Cheryl Barker on September 3, 2008 at 9:50 AM

    >Appreciate your insight, Rachelle, on why not to query agents and editors at the same time. Thanks for repeating yourself sometimes 🙂

  7. Jessica on September 3, 2008 at 9:25 AM

    >Plus, there’s so many agents and if they reject your work and give you some pointers on how to fix it, then you can revise and submit to editors.
    But if you do editors first and get rejected, even with advice, well . . . that manuscript is dead. It most likely will not be shopped by any agent.
    At least, that’s what I’ve gleaned. I could be wrong.

  8. Kim Kasch on September 3, 2008 at 9:16 AM

    >I work in a law firm and know that this industry is very specialized, as far as contracts go.

    I did a blogpost on this very subject on Tuesday, including a link from an actual editor, who takes the view that writers need an agent – and gives examples why.

  9. Chatty Kelly on September 3, 2008 at 8:38 AM

    >Thank you so much for answering my question!!

    I am learning so much from your blog with every reading. Yesterday I spent a lot of time in your past posts and bookmarked many of them. I’ve attended one writers conference, and while I learned alot about actual writing there, I have learned much, much more about the industry by reading this blog.

    Thank you again.

  10. Courtney Walsh on September 3, 2008 at 8:34 AM

    >I think the whole concept of having someone to represent artistic type people is brilliant. Typically – and definitely in my case – artistic people aren’t the best with numbers. (Ok, that was a sweeping generalization – let me speak from my own experience of artistic people because I know there are lots of smarties out there who may be offended by that stereotype!) Our desks are ‘organized’ chaos and we don’t necessarily think in business terms.

    Having had to look over contracts without the aid of an agent, I learned it’s a WHOLE different ballgame than what I’ve been studying for the past several years. It’s hard when you want to focus on writing and becoming a better writer to try and learn the all ins and outs of the publishing world.

    For me, I love the idea of having someone knowledgable and FOR me handle that side of things. (Obviously some publishing knowledge is important, but I’m talking about legal contracts and the numbers game…) I can see why agents are so critical to a writer’s/actor’s/musician’s career!

    Thanks for the reminder, Rachelle!

  11. sheriboeyink on September 3, 2008 at 6:53 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle.
    I never considered the part where you mentioned “hamstrung the agent.” Makes sense though.
    I agree with Richard’s point–about authors wanting to just get their work seen by editors–it comes back down to patience, patience, patience. We’ve talked about that on this blog before as well.

    Great post, thanks for the info!

  12. Richard Mabry on September 3, 2008 at 6:16 AM

    Great point, and one that deserves to be repeated frequently. I shopped my first novel to a number of editors, delighted at the interest they seemed to be showing. Unfortunately, what I got back was lots of “almost there” responses. If an agent had seen the potential and worked with me to polish the novel, a much better finished product could have been submitted.
    The thing that is often missed by authors who are anxious to get their work seen by editors is that the first pass is generally the only time an editor will consider a book. An agent will work with a client for repeated revisions, an editor will do so only rarely.