You Have an Offer From a Publisher…
But You Don’t Have an Agent
There are numerous situations in which you may find yourself unagented but having an offer from a publisher. A nice situation, to be sure! It may happen because you met an editor face-to-face at a conference, or through a referral. In any case, at this point the question will always come up: Do I need an agent?
I’ve addressed this on the blog before, and other blogs have also addressed the advantages of having an agent beyond simply selling your book to a publisher. Today I have a few new points to add.
When an editor makes an offer, they may suggest you get an agent; some will say that they can’t go any further until you’re agented. These days, most publishers prefer to work through an agent, both for the protection of the author, and to make their lives easier. They don’t want to be negotiating a complicated publishing contract with their author who typically has no idea what most of the contract clauses actually mean. They want to keep the author/editor relationship focused on the book—not on business matters.
In addition, there are so many questions that come up for the first-time author throughout the publishing process. Your editor would rather not have to deal with those questions; they don’t have time to walk you through every step of publishing, so they want you to have an agent partner for that.
So if you’re in this situation—with a formal offer from a publisher—you may need to get an agent rather quickly. Here are a few tips:
1. When talking with the editor who made the offer, do not accept the offer. Instead, tell them you’d like some time, and ask them if it’s okay to delay your response pending your getting an agent. Ask if you can have a couple of weeks.
If you indicate that you’ve accepted the offer, then once you do get an agent, the agent will not be able to negotiate the offer. They won’t be able to get you a better advance or more favorable terms—they’ll be hamstrung as far as whatever was in the offer. You’ve already said yes, and that’s that. They’ll still be able to work with the publisher on the contract, but only on terms that were not specified in the original offer.
2. In trying to get an agent quickly, use all the contacts you have, including friends who are agented, to try and get a referral. Send query letters but in the subject line, you can put something like, “Fiction query – have offer from Penguin.”
3. Keep in mind that some agents might jump on it simply because there’s already an offer, but most will still make their decision the same way they always do—based on whether it looks like you and your project will be a good fit for them; if your project would tend to compete with another they already represent; and if they have room on their list for one more client.
4. Don’t keep the editor waiting too long. Check back in with them, sending a quick email after a week, and let them know your progress. You should be able to gauge from their response when you can’t wait anymore and must make a decision.
Important: If you do not have an actual OFFER from a publisher, don’t misrepresent yourself with agents. Be very careful when saying things like, “So-and-So at Harper is interested.” If you met them at a conference and they requested you send chapters, you need to say exactly that. Don’t use the vague term “interested” because an agent has no way of knowing what that really means.
Q4U: If you received a publisher offer while unrepresented, would you still try to get an agent?
© 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent