Which Comes First – Agent or Editor?

A lot of people think it’s a chicken-or-egg question: Do I pitch to agents or editors first? But it’s really not that hard. The truth is, if you want to sell your book to a commercial royalty-paying publisher, you’re going to need either an agent, or some kind of personal contact with editors. Since it’s difficult to have that personal contact, an agent is usually necessary.

You can get personal contact with editors by going to conferences. They may like your pitch and request a partial, in which case you should send it. This is definitely a good way to get started.

However, at those same conferences, you’ll want to meet with agents too, because it will be to your advantage to have an agent before you start submitting your work to publishers. Here’s why:

1. An agent has contact with many different publishers, not just the two or three you’ll be able to meet with at a conference. They’ll be able to shop your project wide; and they’ll be able to hand-pick the specific editors most likely to want your book.

2. Once you’re close to getting an agent, that agent will want to know which editors have already seen your book. If you’ve already sent it to a whole bunch of editors, and they’ve passed, the agent may not want your book after all. The more rejections you have from publishers, the more difficult it will be to interest an agent (unless you’ve been sending it to all the wrong editors).

3. If you’re working with an agent, the agent may be able to help you get the manuscript and proposal into better shape before sending it out. So with your improved submission, along with the fact that it’s coming from an agent, you have a better chance at an editor giving it a good, serious look and possibly liking it.

I’m not saying all writers must have agentsβ€”it’s a personal decision. Make that decision for yourself before you go to any conferences or start sending out any queries. If you’ve decided you do want an agent, then concentrate your efforts on meeting and querying agents rather than editors.

What if you have editors already interested in your work, but you want to get an agent before sending your partial? Many writers find themselves in this position. You can go ahead and query agents, and be sure to say in your letter, “At the XYZ conference, editors from A, B, and C publishers requested my partial, but I haven’t sent it to them yet because I’d rather work with an agent.”

What if you already have an offer from a publisher? Should you still get an agent? Again, if you decide you’d prefer to go through this publishing journey partnered with an agent, then yes. Query the agents of your choice, letting them know you have a firm offer from ABC publisher. This won’t guarantee an agent will be interested, but it might help. And in this case, you want to put off signing a contract until you have an agent look at it.

Some might ask, “Why get an agent if you’ve already sold your book to a publisher?” Well, good agents do far more than simply sell the book, as I think you can tell from this blog and all the other agent blogs. A good agent is a valuable business partner throughout your writing career. But let me put the question back on you:

Q4U: What are some things you expect from an agent besides selling your book to a publisher?

P.S. I’ve written on the chicken-egg question previously, here, here, and here.
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, 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. Paula Harrington on May 11, 2009 at 6:28 PM

    >So glad that I found your site. Thanks for the information. Very helpful. πŸ™‚

  2. Rachelle on May 11, 2009 at 5:56 PM

    >Anon, don’t give up! Keep working on your future books. Keep working on getting an agent. I’d say the time to give up on one agent is when another agent offers representation! A lot of this business is timing, and patience.

  3. Anonymous on May 11, 2009 at 5:36 PM

    >Never thought of it that way…I always feel like I’m being ignored. Thanks for explaining it from your side–you rock!! Anon

    ps/Q: How long before we give up on an agent who has our full? One agent has had my ms. 6 mos.–they seem interested, but still want more time–I did mention I had my full out w/ other agents. At this rate, I’m almost finished w/ Book #2!

  4. Rachelle on May 11, 2009 at 4:49 PM

    >Anon 3:34, I am totally guilty of taking a long time with both queries and partials. I consistently prioritize current clients over possible future clients. There is always far more to do in a day than time available to do it; there are always far more people waiting to hear from me than I can respond to in a day. Bottom line, there are always people unhappy with me. It’s a part of the job I dislike, the constant pressure of people waiting for answers. I’m always working on ways to improve my response times.

    That said, you can judge an agent in whatever ways you like, including their blogs or meeting them in person at conferences. Response times would be one of those ways. You have to make your decisions in whatever way works for you. If you’re uncomfortable with long response times, it’s perfectly legitimate to make your decision accordingly.

  5. Anonymous on May 11, 2009 at 4:34 PM

    >Q: For us seeking agents, how are we to judge an agent by their response time? If they get back to us ASAP or not, does that indicate how they’ll be to work with later?

    After all, that’s all we have to go by so far…and I’m not impressed by agents who take two or more months to read a short partial, much less a full. If they do become our agent, will we have to beg them to read our mss. then? Yikes!

    ps/I posted this on another blog but really want YOUR advice!

  6. Kirk K on May 11, 2009 at 2:20 PM

    >Another relative newbie here. While I would like to blurt out, “I prefer anyone who wants to see my story!”, I understand the reality. I would repeat what others have said here – I would want an agent who would be a partner and stand beside me not only as I learn the ropes, but to help build a career. Ideally, I would love to work with just one over my career.

  7. Alexis Grant on May 11, 2009 at 1:23 PM

    >As a newbie author (soon-to-be author!), I’ll expect my agent to walk me through the publishing process. I expect patience! And honesty.

  8. Terri on May 11, 2009 at 12:49 PM

    >I’ve had two agents so I have no delusions of granduer where they are concerned.
    I have contact with a few editors at major houses(one who is my former agent) who like my voice/style. I have contact with bestselling authors who would be happy to send my work to editors at major houses if needed (although I’d never ask), but even with this I would still seek out an agent for representation should an offer come in. Why? Because, although I’ve learned a bit about the publishing biz through RWA I don’t know enough about what to look for or even put in a contract.
    I’m currently between agents right now although I have a couple reading because of an editor request, but what I really want in an agent is someone who will not only “get” my work (though what’s not to get?) but will be aggressive enough to push it through to an acquiring editor. I want an agent who will look at what we can do for each other’s career as opposed to what I can do for him/her. I want an agent who will stay with me even if that first book doesn’t sell and have the confidence to know I will deliver another solid novel in time. I don’t need to be coddled, but I don’t like to be left in the dark or lied to.(uh..do I sound bitter? hah)
    Anyway, I know my agent is out there and I’ll find him/her when the time comes. Third time is the charm, right?

  9. RefreshMom on May 11, 2009 at 12:38 PM

    >Timely questions for me as I’ve just been discussing expectations with my new agent.

    From my past publishing experience, I learned that having an agent was more necessary on the other side of the contract when things can get sticky in ways you never expected.

    My answer to Q4 is that I want someone who will have my back. Someone who will be (kindly) honest with me, while making sure the publisher is keeping their end of the agreement. Having someone to trust with the business components of it all (even though I know/understand it) is the main thing to me.

    I’ve found I also really value the ‘partner’ aspect of having an agent. I don’t want to simply craft a proposal and hand it over to my agent to send off to his contacts. I value being listened to. Working with someone who knows that I have more to offer the process than words on a page might not be critical, but it sure is some delicious icing on the cake.

    The agent/author relationship is one of those situations where the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts when each person brings their best and together create something great.

  10. Dawn on May 11, 2009 at 12:19 PM

    >This is probably more of a “wish” list than expectations.

    1. Investment in my career – and guidance when needed.

    2. Encouragement

    3. Honesty. If something isn’t working,I can take the truth.

    4. Deliverance – from worrying about negotiations and contracts.

    7. Laughter. I want an agent I can enjoy hanging out with over cup of coffee or glass of wine. I can laugh at myself. I’d like an agent who can laugh with me.

    8. Forgiveness – I’m going to make blunders.

  11. lynnrush on May 11, 2009 at 12:14 PM

    >Great post. I’m thinking Agent before Editor. I’d love to have a career with an agent. Many, many books. I’d love an agent who will give me tough but objective feedback on my projects. That’s really important.

    Thanks for this. Have a great day!

  12. Kay Day on May 11, 2009 at 12:03 PM

    >I want an agent who will be my best friend, call me every day and send me cupcakes.

    Or maybe just someone who is nearly as passionate about my work as I am. Someone who wants to see it do well and will help make that happen.

    And I want encouragement and honesty. Even when the honesty isn’t encouraging.

    And someone who will be looking out for my best interest. Contracts and business talk are scary. I want someone who can navigate that stuff with ease.

  13. Jeanette Levellie on May 11, 2009 at 11:21 AM

    >I would be so grateful for an agent who:
    Is a beleiver, and will pray for me;
    will walk with me through the maze of publishing, so I don’t do something really ditzy and stupid (oops– too late!);
    will come to my chocolate party when I get a contract!!!

  14. MisterChris on May 11, 2009 at 11:11 AM

    >Rachelle, think you mostly covered it.

    Honesty. I need an agent who will improve my skills by pointing out the flaws and areas for improvement in the work. Not tell me my stuff is great. (Though that’s nice when it’s true πŸ™‚

    A believer. Since I’m a strong believer, my work will reflect that. I want an agent that cares about the same things, so on the top of that list is God.

    As others have said, an encourager and friend, someone who knows how to improve me and challenge me, not just to be a better WRITER, but a better Christian and husband and father.

  15. Anna on May 11, 2009 at 10:11 AM

    >A partner; having published one novel sans agent, it’s like negotiating an unknown path with one hand behind your back and one eye blindfolded to boot.

    Doable, but not altogether without risk. Envisioning grand collaborations (writer, agent, editor) of the past is more my hopeful thinking.

  16. HWPetty on May 11, 2009 at 9:46 AM

    >If you do garner interest from a big house acquisitions editor while at a conference, would you suggest letting the agents know who have your full manuscript?

    Would you suggest waiting to send them your manuscript until after you have an agent?

    Or would you suggest I send my manuscript and only let those agents know if an offer comes in?

    Sorry if this isn’t the place for questions, I’m just not sure what to do at this point.

  17. Camille Cannon Eide on May 11, 2009 at 9:07 AM

    >Q4U: What are some things you expect from an agent besides selling your book to a publisher?I heard from someone wise and lovely and 8 only weeks younger than me that selling the book is only half the job. I’m just as interested in what a good agent provides in the second half of the deal: understanding and negotiating a contract that meets my needs at that point in my career, assisting with royalty statements, walking me through communication with the publisher like a professional. And other fancy sounding stuff.

    Having an agent who takes sunset strolls with you and drools all over your writing would be lovely, but not necessary in my book. That’s what dogs are for.

  18. Teri D. Smith on May 11, 2009 at 8:48 AM

    >Beyond selling the book, I’d like an agent with enthusiasm and integrity. Both of those are good reasons to stick around for a while on blogs like this one–apart from the things we learn.

    I’d like the agent to guide me through the muddy waters of contract terms unfamiliar to me and one who would look at the big picture (the career) as well as the small details (little things I could do to improve whether as a writer or promoter of my work).

    But this is all really from ideas that you’ve been telling us through the months. More reasons to lurk on your blog!

  19. Krista Phillips on May 11, 2009 at 8:47 AM

    >Besides the obvious ‘sell a book’, I expect, or hope, for an agent who is a partner in my career, not just for my one book or series. I assume an agent is good for bouncing ideas off of, right? Like being able to say, “I have this idea for my next book. It’s about {insert idea}. What do you think? Is it sellable?”

    I’d think an agent should be my greatest cheerleader, besides my mother of course. We ALL need encouragement and that cheering section.

    And, while this may not be important to some, my agent needs to be a brother/sister in Christ. It goes back to the marriage analogy and the whole concept of being equally yoked. If I am going to partner with an agent, I need someone who I know is praying for me as much as I pray for them. I think a relationship, even agent/author, that is grounded in Jesus has a MUCH better chance of success than that is not.

  20. Sharon A. Lavy on May 11, 2009 at 8:45 AM

    >What Mindy said. Ditto.

    I am looking forward to this year’s conferences in order to meet more editors, agents just for friendship. I am learning even if we are not a fit for a working relationship freelance editors, publishers, and agents make awesome friends.

  21. Mindy Obenhaus on May 11, 2009 at 8:30 AM

    >Great question, Rachelle. One all writers should ask themselves before they start looking for/sign with an agent. I’ve seen authors sign without researching an agent, then regret their decision.

    1) A partner in my career.
    2) Someone who gets me-my heart and my oft goofy personality.
    3) Someone who believes in me.
    4) Someone who challenges me.
    5) Someone who can laugh, take a joke, and knows how to enjoy life.

  22. John UpChurch on May 11, 2009 at 8:10 AM

    >I’m writing Christian fiction that seeks to do what Christ did (reach those in and outside of the church)β€”the style being, grit to the gospel (might earn me a sticker from Lifeway). My prayer is to work with an agent who 1) prays and reads God’s Word, 2) has a desire for fiction to be a witnessing and faith-building tool (while telling an awesome story), and 3) loves sarcasm. (Okay, the last might not exactly fit, but it is important). Really, my hope is to find an agent who wants to dig into what I’m writing and work with me on it.

  23. Eric on May 11, 2009 at 7:59 AM

    >Thank you for this post. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past year, its that there is so much more to learn. I don’t think I’d want to wade through the publishing waters without the help of a good agent. It’s kind of like working on my car. Sure, I could probably figure out most things. But would I want to go through the headache and pain of making so many mistakes along the way? Or would I rather have someone help me out, someone who has the skills necessary to fix it more efficiently? Given the choice, I’d pick the latter.

  24. Susan Helene Gottfried on May 11, 2009 at 7:58 AM

    >What else would I love in an agent? Someone who sees the big picture of my vision the way I do. I like to (metaphorically) throw pasta at the wall and see what sticks; I need someone who’s not afraid of that sort of mess and who can help me cook it properly.

    That doesn’t mean a hand-holder. Not at all. But it does mean someone who is receptive to where I’m trying to go and who sees things when I’m too close for clear vision.

  25. Andrea on May 11, 2009 at 7:52 AM

    >1. Honesty

    2. Encouragement

    3. Trust

    4. To stand by me on the Red Carpet at the opening of the movie based on my manuscript. πŸ˜‰

  26. Marybeth on May 11, 2009 at 7:45 AM

    >I think I would be afraid to be “taken” for all I’m worth. I wouldn’t know what to look for in a publishing contract. I think an agent does WAY more than just sell your book.

  27. Chatty Kelly on May 11, 2009 at 7:10 AM

    >I'd like an agent who is a teacher, encourager and realist. I want her to help me navigate this new & exciting path, root for me and cheer me on, but give me real feed back on where I'm lacking and spur me to grow.

    Having them be a friend would be a bonus. πŸ™‚

  28. Pam Halter on May 11, 2009 at 6:28 AM

    >I’d like an agent who will brainstorm a bit when needed, champion my work and be a friend. And I promise not to bug them to death! πŸ™‚

  29. Sharon A. Lavy on May 11, 2009 at 6:26 AM

    >Hmmm. I don’t mention the editors who have asked to see my work,in my quarry, but only if an agent requests a partial.

    Maybe that is what you meant?

  30. Wendy on May 11, 2009 at 6:05 AM

    >I know it’s sort of random, but I’d love to laugh with my agent. I hope it is an enjoyable working relationship. Learning more about the publishing industry, gaining insight on all that goes into getting a book published and helping me understand contract language would all be aspects I’d hope to grasp with the help of my agent.
    ~ Wendy

  31. Katie on May 11, 2009 at 5:30 AM

    >I want my agent to partner with me through this crazy journey. Somebody who is totally rooting for me, who believes in me, who gives me guidance, and is very honest. Somebody who will celebrate with me when I get my first book published!

  32. Ellen on May 11, 2009 at 3:55 AM

    >I would hope an agent wouldn’t just be about the selling. I would like an agent to be a person I trust in a world with which I’m not as familiar, someone who offers some guidance and insight with my best interests foremost. Kind of like a lawyer, but without all the lawyer-jokes πŸ™‚

  33. Beatriz Kim on May 11, 2009 at 2:27 AM

    >I already have an freelance editor interested in my writing, even though I haven’t actually started writing the book! She just found my memoir stories on the internet.

    However, I can’t see myself trying to get published without an agent. I don’t know anything about the publishing business.

    Thank you for this valuable information!

  34. Anne L.B. on May 11, 2009 at 1:20 AM

    >Make that “talking stage” (it’s late!)

  35. Anne L.B. on May 11, 2009 at 1:19 AM

    >Although I obtained the interest of an editor while I was still in the talking state about representation with my agent, I would not have submitted an adequate proposal if I hadn’t had an agent when I actually did submit my proposal. When that editor’s publisher didn’t follow through and publish my work, having an agent kept me alive on the rough road to publication.

    I’m sure there are exceptions, but I cannot even imagine going this alone, without an agent to advise and guide me. I truly thank God for her–and pray for her, since her job looks even more difficult than mine.