The One Question Agents Can’t Answer

Agents get questions through email and in our blog comments every day. Most of us respond as we’re able, either on our blogs or via email. But there is one kind of question that an agent (who isn’t your agent) can’t answer for you.

That question is:

What should I do?

I get this in a few variations: Should I pursue self-publishing or traditional? Should I fire my agent and find a new one?

These are questions that nobody can answer for you based on a few sentences of information in an email. It’s also the kind of thing that I can’t be advising you on if I don’t know you.

I welcome questions here… I love questions and I want you to send me more! But take a good look at your question. Is it something about the industry, something that others will benefit from? Or is it more of a request for someone to make a decision for you?

The point of all these blogs—the ridiculous amount of publishing discourse spewing out over the Internet everyday—is to give you the context, the background, the general information you need…in order to make good decisions.

As an author pursuing publishing, you have some complex decisions ahead of you, and the only way to make them is to educate yourself. At the moment of decision, you’re on your own. And honestly, you don’t need an outsider to tell you what to do.

Gather information. Pick a direction. Take a leap.

There are no guarantees.

Q4U: What questions do you have that you’d like me to answer on the blog?

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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!


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  2. Jane on May 18, 2011 at 11:13 PM

    >Hi Rachelle! Thanks for the opportunity to pose some questions. Mine might be a bit off-topic, but perhaps you can save them for a future blog post:

    1. How helpful or important are memberships to organizations such as ACFW or its non-fiction counterpart? Would you be willing to recommend some good ones?

    2. Would you feel comfortable recommending some specific writing conferences outside of ACFW? What is your opinion on blogging conferences? Do you have any recommendations?

    3. What are your thoughts on writing correspondence schools? Aside from my personal growth as a writer, does seeing this on a resume weigh heavily with an agent?

    Thanks for your consideration! Your blog is invaluable to all us hopefuls!

  3. PW.Creighton on May 16, 2011 at 11:45 AM

    >Great advice as always. One question I've never really seen in regards to author platforms is; 'What platforms do you feel carry the most weight?' (Facebook vs Twitter vs Blog vs Website..etc.) and 'How much weight do you feel agents place on these platforms now?'

    Just curious.

  4. Rebecca Bradley on May 14, 2011 at 7:11 AM

    >Several of my questions have been asked in these comments. As an aspiring author I look forward to following and watching out for the answers.

  5. Kelly Miller on May 12, 2011 at 7:15 AM

    >Here's a question for you about query letters to agents. Through the Florida Writer's Association, I was able to read for a publisher. They liked what they heard, read the first 30 pages, and requested a full manuscript. Should I change my query letter to mention this fact? Will this information create more interest in my work?

  6. Peter DeHaan on May 12, 2011 at 6:32 AM

    >Rachelle, I have ideas for some memoir style books, more ideas for non-fiction, and a concept for a fiction series.

    It seems that the conventional wisdom is that I need to pick one of these three areas and work on it exclusively, forgetting the other two.

    Do you agree with that? Do you have any input from someone what wants to pursue different types of writing?

  7. Stephonavich on May 12, 2011 at 1:50 AM

    >The picture for this post is fantastic!

  8. Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) on May 11, 2011 at 9:37 PM

    >No specific question, but rather a "thank you for being so gracious" when I asked to pick your brain!

  9. Stacy on May 11, 2011 at 9:34 PM

    >Hi Rachelle!

    My questions are the same as many authors. I'd really like to know about the importance of an author's platform. If an author submits to you that is completely unpublished but has a great book and a decent online platform, is that enough?

    I'd also like to know what makes a book stand out to you. I'm sure there are a lot of great books that you pass on; what can an author do in the first five pages to keep your attention and have a shot at representation?


  10. Marcia Richards on May 11, 2011 at 9:34 PM

    >Hi Rachelle, I'm writing a novel and have found a lot of great information answering most any question. But I am also writing a short story and find very little info on publishing. Are short stories only published as a collection in book form or are published in magazines? I'm nearly finished with it and am not sure where to go for publishing info.Thanks.

  11. Marcy Kennedy on May 11, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    >I recently returned from the Mt. Hermon Christian Writers' Conference where my co-author and I were told by the agents, editors, and authors who read the sample chapters of our novel that our writing was excellent but our book wasn't suitable for the CBA. We were advised to re-write it for the ABA.

    We've also been told that the ABA doesn't care if you write for the CBA, but that the CBA has a problem with authors also writing for the ABA. Should an author who plans to write for both the CBA and ABA write under a pseudonym for one of the markets? What advice do you have for authors who want to write for both markets?

  12. Jeremy Myers on May 11, 2011 at 6:39 PM

    >How important is a preexisting author platform?

    Is an author platform absolutely required by publishers?

    What is the "minimum" author platform that is usually required?

    Is an online-only author platform good enough?

  13. Anonymous on May 11, 2011 at 6:16 PM

    >I have had a hard time with the opening chapter of books. I've studied and finally am beginning to make some progress. I feel like I lose my voice in the opening chapter because I'm trying to follow so many rules. I feel like my voice gets clearer the further I go into the manuscript. Is this possible? Has anyone else experienced this?

  14. Amber Argyle, author on May 11, 2011 at 5:12 PM

    >My questions pertains to negotiating rights for the second book. With my first book, the publisher kept foreign rights b/c they have an agency that sells them for them. So if I wanted my book with that agency, I had to sign them away.

    With my second book, I'm wondering whether to keep those rights, as I'm tired of splitting the pay check 50/50. But I risk not having that agency pursuing foreign rights if I don't–which means no pay check.

    Also, can you negotiate a higher royalty if the 1st book has done well?

  15. Heather Webb on May 11, 2011 at 5:04 PM

    >Hi Rachelle,
    I'd also like to see the answer to Jaime's question. When signing a multi-book deal, what's the alotted time for an author to produce each book?

    Also, what really gets you jazzed when reading a query, sample pages, or simply taking on a new client? How do you decide they're the client for you?

  16. Sarah Thomas on May 11, 2011 at 2:28 PM

    >Honestly, you've done an awesome job of answering my questions–both on your blog and via e-mail. Of course you've answered LOTS of questions I didn't know I had! Thanks for being so open to writers asking questions–your blog is invaluable!

    Oh, and Jaime's question is one that I'd like to hear the answer to . . .

  17. David A. Todd on May 11, 2011 at 1:31 PM

    >Rachelle: My question comes from a comment I made a week or so ago, to which you gave me a private response and which I believe you were thinking of answering anyway, but I'll state it again for the record: How much editing can we really expect from whatever pub house we end up contracted with? Do they do rigorous edits or not? One writer with thirty years of experience said, "When I began to write books…I would receive an edited version by a specific date….Back then, most publishers…had general editor, assistant editors, proofreaders, rights and permissions editors, and someone who checked quotations. …About 20 years
    ago I saw a drastic change: Publishers eliminated many of those positions…. Today the responsibility is on writers. The most I get from a CBA or ABA
    publisher is what I call a broad-brush editor, who makes a general edit. …I receive one final time to catch typos and punctuation errors-and there are always a few. …In short, WE, the writers, are now responsible. That's the way it is."

  18. Jenny Sulpizio on May 11, 2011 at 1:10 PM

    >Ooh! I have one (hand raised). I am a self-published author who is diligently working on pursuing the traditional routes of publication with future WIP's. Here's my question though-what is the proper protocol for attempting to get previously self-published works re-published with a regular old publishing house? How do you pursue a literary agent and eventually, a publisher when technically, your work HAS been published? Is there a way of doing this without causing friction?

    Am I rambling? 🙂


  19. Beth on May 11, 2011 at 1:06 PM

    >Lol. I don't think I know enough to have good questions for you. Just keep on doing what you're doing.

    (Well, the only question might be: how can I make this writing book/publication process easy? I think I know the answer to that one already.)

  20. mary bailey on May 11, 2011 at 11:29 AM

    >Aside from obvious "faith talk", what differences do you see, or want to see, between Christian fiction and secular fiction?

  21. gwyn weyant on May 11, 2011 at 10:04 AM

    >What is your opinion on novellas? Do they sell and are they worth marketing?

  22. David Rupert on May 11, 2011 at 10:03 AM

    >no, really. What should I do?

  23. Susan Falck on May 11, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    >What are you looking for when you plow through the slush pile?

    What is it, for you, that makes a difference from a good writer to an exceptional writer?

  24. Melissa on May 11, 2011 at 9:31 AM

    >The facebook question quiz application was too short for me to ask! 🙂

    My question is, when looking at agents' client lists that accept my genre, I'll either see an abundance of authors writing similar things or just a smattering. My question is, those agents that have an abundance of authors like me will they find that they are pitting their authors against each other to get in a slot with their contacts? Like publishing houses might reject a project because they contracted something similar, might an agent reject an author because that author would be directly competing with a current client?

  25. Loree Huebner on May 11, 2011 at 9:23 AM

    >Jody Hedlund had a post about Showing vs Telling on her blog today.

    I know you've posted on this before. I would like to see a fresh post on that from an agent's point of view.

    I just want to make sure that I've found that happy voice between "too wordy" and "sterile."

  26. Shelly Goodman Wright on May 11, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    >Do you think publishing articles in a local paper is a good way to build your platform, even if you write fiction stories?

  27. Dean K Miller on May 11, 2011 at 8:44 AM

    >A great post as it harkens to many of the issues that plague our society…that being the acceptance of accountability. If I ask an agent, and follow that advice, than "it's not really my fault" and I lay blame somewhere else, instead of bucking up and keeping my power to choose in my possession. We cringe at the thought of being wrong, or making a mistake. But so what? Knowing what doesn't work is half the battle to discovering what does work.

    As for a question, I've got so many to ask, how about I send the list to you and let you pick one?


  28. Jaime Wright on May 11, 2011 at 8:32 AM

    >I am interested to know what the average amount of time between books is for a published author? In otherwards, aside from already having a few under their belt hopefully when they start, what is the typical expectation for a writer/author to pound out a book for publication?

  29. Icy Sedgwick on May 11, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    >My main question is should a UK writer try UK agents before querying those in the US?

  30. Anonymous on May 11, 2011 at 8:24 AM

    >I have written as a hobby now for a few years. It's something I really enjoy, but I'm not sure I'm good enough to turn it into a career, even a part-time one. I've been following this blog and a couple others, and I know how much time and effort it will take to complete a manuscript and go through the query process. What advice do you have for someone who is considering moving from hobby to career?

  31. Jessica Nelson on May 11, 2011 at 7:33 AM

    >I would like to know if a publisher gives a standard percentage on e-books, if it's okay to ask in the contract for that rate to be higher. I've seen other publishers offer a higher royalty rate than this one, so that's why I'm wondering if it's okay? (I don't have a contract either, lol, just curious).

    And sorry if I've used the terms in the wrong way. Hopefully I make sense…

  32. Anonymous on May 11, 2011 at 7:33 AM


    I'm curious about the weight of certain publication credits in a query letter. As we all know, it is very difficult to get published in a top literary journal such as Agni or VQR. Some people advise starting smaller, especially with online journals.

    My question is do those journals carry any weight, or do they telegraph that you have actually tried to get your short fiction published, but could only do so in a lesser-tiered journal?

    I guess what I'm asking is how to you view lesser lit mag credentials? Better to include or not?


  33. Naomi Rawlings on May 11, 2011 at 6:12 AM

    >CBA publishers say they're looking for fresh, original stories. Yet in reality, they don't seem to be looking for anything too original or too fresh, because they're afraid it won't sell. They want stories similar to what they already have and mainly US settings that run from 1775 to present.

    How do you balance between finding a fresh story without risking a setting that a publisher refuses to take? (Twelfth century Germany, the French Revolution, and fifth century Scotland, etc)

  34. Anne Gallagher on May 11, 2011 at 5:59 AM

    >This is a follow-up to yesterday's post about multi-book deals.

    Re: Series books –
    Do you have to have book proposals (I've heard first 3 chapters, and synopsis) on all the other books in a series before the publisher will offer a multi book contract?

    Or do they take it on faith that you will write them?

    And who sets the timeline for those other books to be written, or can you negotiate that in the contract?

    Thank you. Love your blog.

  35. Aimee L. Salter on May 11, 2011 at 2:20 AM

    >Any advice for writers writing a trilogy or series?

    I am nervous about pinning myself down in the first book on things I might wish I could change in the second or third (assuming they're published).

    How have your authors handled this kind if situation? Do they write all three books before publication of the first?

  36. Alaina on May 11, 2011 at 2:18 AM

    >Oooo, ooo, ooo, I have a question. 🙂

    My manyscript is cross fiction, and I find similar items sometimes listed as epic fantasy, others sci fi, or paranormal. There is also light romance.

    I see that there is a section called speculative fiction… Is it better when sending a query to call it a speculative fiction? Or should I list each genre individually? 🙂

  37. Robert Trevino on May 11, 2011 at 12:51 AM

    >If a writer wants to have illustrations with his book but can't draw themselves how do unpublished authors handle this? Are we able to use an artist we choose or are we required to use the publishers choice. Heck, would we even be able to have that option? I am not talking fully illustrated but more like a few illustrations here and there. How would one handle this issue when submitting queries?

  38. Josin L. McQuein on May 10, 2011 at 11:48 PM

    >I'd like to know what happens if you rep a client, but don't think a new book they show you is something you can sell. Do you still try, or do you leave it to the writer to figure out?

    And I'd like to know that, in the event that you sell a book, do you generally offer a new work by the same author to the same editor, or does is go back on the submission rounds as fair game for all?

  39. Lisa on May 10, 2011 at 11:22 PM

    >I actually do have a question, Rachelle. What are the advantages and disadvantages of going with “digital imprints?” I noticed that Harlequin has one – Carina Press. And there’s Avon’s Flame? Flare? Well, something like that. I read somewhere that Amazon will have a digital imprint just for romance novels. Another large publishing house – one of the “Big Six” — is rolling one out at the end of summer. Do authors need an agent to submit to these? Do they offer editing servings to polish up accepted novels prior to publishing? Egad … what are these exactly?