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?

P.S. To read more on this topic:
Earning Our Keep
Ask the Agent: An Offer In Hand
Ask the Agent: Query Publisher or Agent?

Also, agent Nathan Bransford gave a terrific run down on what agents do, here and my client Jody Hedlund gave the perspective of a contracted, newly agented author here.

© 2010 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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  4. Ishta Mercurio on November 3, 2010 at 9:49 PM

    >This is great advice for those who are negotiating the tricky waters of needing to find an agent quickly while a contract is on the table.

    If I should be so lucky as to get an offer of a contract with a publisher, I would still absolutely look for an agent – I think it's important to have someone to not only negotiate the contract, but help me plan my long-term career. And just because I might sell one book on my own, doesn't mean I want to approach all my future book contracts that way. Researching publishers and editors is exhausting, and I don't want to have to focus as much energy on it as I have had to so far for the rest of my career as a writer. Agents do so much more than just negotiate the contract.

  5. Erin MacPherson on November 2, 2010 at 8:56 AM

    >If I got an offer and didn't have an agent, I would DEFINITELY find one. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 but now that I've gone through the publishing process, I've realized how valuable it is to have an agent and realized that I simply wouldn't have been able to negotiate everything on my own.

  6. buy generic viagra on November 2, 2010 at 12:14 AM

    >Hey nice information..very interesting stuff.your suggestion very helpful to me..I would definitely try to get an agent.

  7. Rachelle on November 1, 2010 at 10:08 PM

    >Anon 8:08 pm: Interesting perspective. Hiring an IP lawyer (intellectual property, for those who don't know) is certainly an option. A couple of caveats though. IP lawyers typically work in the areas of patents, copyrights, or trademarks and while they are in the business of protecting "intellectual property," most of them are not focused on book publishing and like I mentioned earlier, may not be familiar with the peculiarities of the industry. In addition, it may be difficult to get an IP lawyer to take on your publishing contract because it's such a tiny job compared to what they normally do. But of course it's not impossible.

    What I find fascinating about your comment is your assumption that literary agents don't know publishing contracts. Perhaps, as in any industry, there are some who aren't up to par in their knowledge. But overall, agents understand that their primary job is that contract, so the primary area of training and study is in contracts. I assure you, we know our publishing contracts.

    You wrote: "Chances are, unless you luck out with a premo agent, the agent you get to sell your debut novel doesn't have 50 clients and a dozen mega bestsellers on his list."

    A contract is a contract, so I'm not sure how "mega bestsellers" play into your argument. You are correct that the more practice we have with contracts, the better we get. I've been an agent less that three years and have done 45 contracts; I think this is fairly significant experience.

    Newer agents without a lot of experience under their belts typically consult with their more experienced colleagues, mentors or business partners on contracts, at least for their first couple of years. So with most agencies, authors are getting highly skilled representation on their publishing contracts.

  8. Anonymous on November 1, 2010 at 9:08 PM

    >I'd hire an IP attorney – as a newer writer, the chances that the agent would get you a better advance are slim anyway and you don;t need them to open a door for you that you already walked through.

    Chances are, if you get an experienced IP attorney, he/she knows as much about contracts or more than all but the best of agents. Chances are, unless you luck out with a premo agent, the agent you get to sell your debut novel doesn't have 50 clients and a dozen mega bestsellers on his list.

    Instead, he needs 15% of your $5000 advance to buy groceries and keep the lights on. Chances that said agent knows contracts as well as a IP lawyer? You make the call.

    I'll be spending my $4700 of my 5k advance after I pay my IP attorney 2 hours of pay. You give your agent 2.5x that and let me know how much fun you are having.

    Ultimately, agents take 15% (or more for various other rights) forever. My attorney gets paid when I ask him to do something. If I already have a contract, a huge part of what a agent can do that the lawyer cannot is a moot point.

    That means when you get French rights sold or a movie option or whathaveyou, your agent gets 15% or more of that. Your lawyer gets nothing.

    15% adds up. Why give it to someone who didn't help you get the contract?

  9. Kathleen Rouser on November 1, 2010 at 6:57 PM

    >The more I learn, the more it seems having an agent
    makes the most sense.

    Thank you for sharing such good information, Rachelle.

  10. Katie Ganshert on November 1, 2010 at 5:43 PM

    >Just to clarify, that would have been my response before Friday too.

  11. Katie Ganshert on November 1, 2010 at 5:41 PM

    >Let me just say, after a certain little phone conversation I had on Friday….my advice to those who think they can do this alone would be a resounding: You NEED an agent! They are invaluable.

  12. Heather Sunseri on November 1, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    >I would absolutely try to obtain an agent in those circumstances. This is great information, Rachelle.

  13. K.L. Brady on November 1, 2010 at 4:02 PM

    >That exact situation happened to me. An editor emailed me expressing interest in my book and stated her intention to make an offer before I had representation. As a matter of fact, before the editor's interest, I had queried a gazillion times and got turned down. Okay maybe not a gazillion, but close.

    Anyway, the long and short of it, I called to ask her if she'd have a problem with me getting an agent. She not only DID NOT have a problem, she referred an agent to me encouraged me to query. And waited patiently to be contacted. If someone really wants you on their list, they'll want you to go about business is the best way. I highly recommend getting an agents because mine suggested contract changes I'd NEVER have thought to make. Even with all the research I'd done. You really need one. At least for the first one.

  14. Rachelle on November 1, 2010 at 3:52 PM

    >KJHwrite: In that case, you may not want an agent, and even if you did, you may have a hard time getting one.

    Specialty houses, niche publishers and other small presses often work with unagented authors because they're unable to financially compensate an author enough to make it worth an agent's time; and in addition, with low advance and royalties, the author probably doesn't want to part with 15% of it.

    By and large, the publishers that still accept (or even prefer) unagented authors are those that agents may not want to work with anyway, due to low pay and no negotiating room.

  15. KJHwrite on November 1, 2010 at 3:39 PM

    >All considerations about sub-rights aside, what if the offer is from a small or otherwise constrained publisher where you might expect very little wiggle room to negotiate, even with an agent? Say, a university press or other specialty house?

  16. Gretchen on November 1, 2010 at 3:34 PM

    >I think too much of my project to keep it in my own inexperienced hands. I've worked hard to give it life, yet I trust that someone else can believe in it as much as I do and can walk beside me through the unknown.

  17. Tawna Fenske on November 1, 2010 at 3:27 PM

    >I was in this exact situation several years ago, with an offer from Harlequin/Silhouette and no agent. I decided to go it alone, since agents aren't required to deal with that publisher. I still regret that decision. I had already spent my advance check and written two follow-up books that never made it to contract when Harlequin/Silhouette canceled the Bombshell line that was scheduled to publish my debut novel.

    Looking back, I know an agent would have protected me in a lot of ways. He/she could have negotiated an earlier release date or a multi-book contract. He/she could have used the canceled deal to leverage a new one elsewhere.

    Though I'm happy to have a wonderful agent and a three-book deal now, it wasn't an easy road getting to this place, and I know that having an agent on the first round would have saved me several years of heartache in the interim.


  18. Rachelle on November 1, 2010 at 3:24 PM

    >Beth: These days, most agents prefer not to take calls from people with whom they're not already acquainted, so it's risky to try phoning.

    As far as lowering the agent's commission, some agents will do this if there is already an offer on the table, and others don't. There are compelling reasons to back up either of these positions.

  19. Anonymous on November 1, 2010 at 2:59 PM

    >Heavens, yes. Golden opportunity all over the place.

  20. Beth on November 1, 2010 at 2:14 PM

    >Jim Denny in his book 'Quit Your Day Job' suggested that if you have a solid offer from a publisher, that you approach an agent with a phone call rather than waiting to go through the mail, and that you offer a lower percentage since part of the work of getting the publisher is done.

    This feels a little indelicate, on first glance. What are your thoughts on this?

  21. Jody Hedlund on November 1, 2010 at 1:33 PM

    >Thank you for the shout-out on my post today, Rachelle! Wow, I can't believe almost a year has passed since then! So much has happened in that time, hasn't it?! Keep up the great work! 🙂

  22. Susan Bourgeois on November 1, 2010 at 1:32 PM

    >Thank you; that makes perfect sense. I was referring to non-fiction. If a topic is popular and broad, there will always be room for books to compete.

    You offered two good explantations. An agent may choose to represent specific areas within a certain genre. An agent may take on several different works within that specific area knowing each book has the ability to appeal to different groups within the massive target audience.

  23. Sharon A. Lavy on November 1, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    >Having an agent would be my first choice.

    Thanks for the message, Rachelle.

  24. Timothy Fish on November 1, 2010 at 1:26 PM

    I would settle for one out of the 0.1%. I think most people realize that you shouldn’t call the personal injury lawyer who advertises on television if you’re looking for someone to negotiate a book contract. The thing is that if a publisher were to call me up today with an offer, I’m not sure that I would be prepared to make a decision about which agent I would want to work with. Without the offer on the table, interest from an agent at least tells me that they have good tastes in books, but if I’ve already got the offer then they may be looking for a quick 15%. That business relationship could last for years, but with an attorney, he gets his money and he’s done unless I ask him to do more. If nothing else, it allows me to sort through the agents at my leisure. Unlike an attorney, an agent doesn’t have to go to college and pass the bar. I would at least like to have time to filter out the high school drop-outs before I agree to pay them 15% for the next few years.

  25. Rick Barry on November 1, 2010 at 12:51 PM

    >Rachelle, how do you know what I'm wondering precisely when I'm wondering it? Despite two published novels, I don't have an agent, but an editor at ACFW asked to see my full suspense manuscript. I'm waiting to hear back from her and have wondered about a couple details you succinctly answered before I could ask. Thanks again!

  26. Karen Carr on November 1, 2010 at 12:28 PM

    >I have an editor at a big publishing house who is interested in my manuscript, but I don't have an offer (yet!) She read the full and asked for revisions, and I'm waiting to hear back from her.

    I've tried to get an agent and have had no luck even getting past the query stage. What if I get an offer and still can't get an agent?

  27. T. Anne on November 1, 2010 at 11:57 AM

    >I would still pursue an agent. In fact if in that case I would pursue one more aggressively. I don't like the thought of trying to navigate my way through the publishing forrest alone. I definitely need a guide.

  28. Rachelle on November 1, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    >Laura Maylene: The scenarios you've given are exactly right – and just what I said in the post. A direct connection with a publisher, a referral, or a meeting at a conference are typically the ways writers get offers directly from publishers.

    Susan Bourgeois: This is something that can't be addressed generally because these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis by individual agents. However, a bit of common sense can be applied. If the agent reps several books that are similar, and there is room in the marketplace for that many books because it's a popular topic, then there's no problem. Some agents specialize in certain genres so of course they may have several similar books on their lists; the question will always be whether or not the books will tend to unnecessarily compete with each other, that is, have a good chance of stealing sales from one another.

    In the case of genre fiction, this is rarely the case, as a book buyer doesn't have to choose one or the other, they're more likely to choose both or all.

  29. Rachelle on November 1, 2010 at 11:16 AM

    >Anon 6:54 am: I hope you don't really think agents are sitting around thinking you're "not good enough for them." Agents have to make business decisions, and it's not personal. Perhaps you're not hitting the agents who feel like they're a fit for your type of work long-term.

    Another possibility could be that the offers you have are small and are with publishers that the agents don't normally work with. That, combined with a project the agent doesn't find intriguing, would make it easy for an agent to see fairly quickly that they're not interested.

    Once we sign with a client, we're available to them, not only for contract negotiations but countless things that come up over the 12 to 24 months it takes for even one book to come out. If you have, for example, an offer for a $3000 advance, the agent would make $450. This may not be enough to justify the time that will be spent on that client over the next year or more.

    So there are many things to take into consideration, and none of them are about whether you're "good enough" for anyone.

  30. Rachelle on November 1, 2010 at 11:05 AM

    >Timothy: Just keep in mind that 99.9% of attorneys do not know the publishing industry. The publisher contract is far less about "legalese" and understanding legal terms, and more about knowing how things work in publishing, knowing what's standard and reasonable, knowing what's typically negotiable and what's not.

    Just to name a few quick examples: a non-publishing attorney wouldn't know which subsidiary rights to allow the publisher to have and which to reserve for the author, and under what circumstances to insert a clause for reversion of rights after a certain amount of time. The attorney wouldn't know what a good author-buyback discount schedule looks like versus one that's unfair. They may not know industry-wide standards for royalty rates, and when to negotiate a better one versus when to accept it and save your negotiating power for something else. They may not think to add language requiring the publisher to consult with you on titles and covers; they may not know the best way to protect your rights long-term by specifying a reasonable base number of units the publisher must be selling per year in order to keep it in print (versus having the rights revert back to you so that you can sell it yourself).

    This is one of the reasons agents exist. Knowledge of the publishing industry is far more important than knowledge of the law in general when it comes to publishing contracts.

  31. kathy taylor on November 1, 2010 at 10:29 AM

    >Elucidating. Thank you.

  32. Tim A Martin on November 1, 2010 at 10:15 AM

    >Yes, I'd definitely still get an agent. I wouldn't ever try to buy or sell a house without a real estate agent. There are too many intricacies with a real estate contract that I'm not familiar with that could cost me thousands.

    Similarly there are also too many intricacies with a book contract negotiation that I would want help with. Even then, we aren't even talking about sub-rights. I would most definitely want a literary agent to help me through potentially one of the most important stages of my writing career.

  33. Susan Bourgeois on November 1, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    >I'm confused by something I've read in this post. This is something I have run across many times.

    We are continually told to seek out agents that represent the specific genre of our work.

    We are also told that agents don't like to compete with a book they currently represent by adding another book of the same nature.

    I have also noticed that there are several agents who choose to represent four books of the same specific genre which are competing during the same time period.

    An example of this genre would be in the area of weight loss.

    This is an area of confusion that I have not seen addressed.

  34. D. Friend on November 1, 2010 at 9:25 AM

    >We have to watch that our greed does not overshadow our needs. I don't have an agent but it doesn't mean I don't believe I need one.

    Sure I query editors all the time, but if an offer were to emerge from that query my next step would be to find an agent.

    Agents exist for a reason! Keep that in mind. We need them and they need us.

  35. Laura Maylene on November 1, 2010 at 9:18 AM

    >I'm curious how often, and in what circumstances, authors receive offers directly from publishers. I imagine the conference scenario is very rare indeed. Is this more common for nonfiction?

    The cases I'm familiar with involved either writers who were somehow connected with the publisher/editor in the first place, or who submitted to houses that accept non-agented submissions (which, as we know, are becoming more and more rare). Just curious how this typically goes down.

  36. Anonymous on November 1, 2010 at 7:54 AM

    >I actually received four separate publishing offers and apparently none of the agents I had partials or fulls out were interested in te manuscript or responded in a timely fashion.

    I know they're useful, but with four offers in my pocket, I'm not going to wait around for an agent to decide I'm good enough for them, when apparently there are several publishers who have decided that I am.

  37. Sue Harrison on November 1, 2010 at 7:44 AM

    >Yes. I would hire an agent. Definitely.

    A good agent is all about a writer's career. Negotiating is an important part of that package, but only a part. I also want and need the advice, the wisdom and the "inside" knowledge.

  38. Sandy Ardoin on November 1, 2010 at 7:12 AM

    >I definitely would want an agent to handle the details on the current book–a person more familiar with the legalese. But I would be looking ahead, wanting someone willing to seek out and represent future offers, too.

  39. Wendy Paine Miller on November 1, 2010 at 6:40 AM

    >Yes, I'd still pursue finding an agent.

    Good information here.

    Whenever I read the words "to be sure" I think of Jody's novel. 😀

    ~ Wendy

  40. Julie Anne Lindsey on November 1, 2010 at 6:18 AM

    >Excellent advice. I know how excited I would be if I received an offer from a publishing house. *sighs dreamily* and how tempting it is to jump up and down over it, but all legal contracts need to be reviewed by a professional. I agree completely that finding an agent, who can negotiate for you is the best next step. We need someone on our side in such an ever-changing business! I honestly don't know how you keep up.

  41. Lance Albury on November 1, 2010 at 5:52 AM

    >The only case I wouldn't hire an agent would be if I was self-publishing non-fiction. In the real publishing world, I'd definitely hire an agent, no matter how attractive the offer.

  42. Em-Musing on November 1, 2010 at 5:45 AM

    >Oh, heck yeah I'd get an agent. To me it'd be like surgery – just 'cause I think I could learn it, doesn't mean I could do it. And even if I could do it, I'd probably kill myself in the process.

  43. Talei on November 1, 2010 at 5:20 AM

    >Yes. I would definitely still try to get an agent. They have the experience in working with publishers; they have the expertise. I would also consider whether the publisher has a preference to negotiate with an agent or not and if other writers had followed that path of dealing directly, what their experiences had been etc.

    Great tips, thanks for sharing. 😉

  44. Timothy Fish on November 1, 2010 at 5:11 AM

    >For me personally, no, I wouldn't see much point in getting an agent at that point. The only advantage of doing so seems to be that the agent has more experience reading publishing contracts. For $150 per hour or so, I could hire someone with a law degree who could help me in that area and would be more of an expert opinion. On top of that, if I wait until the book has proven itself, I would have more options because the agents who only accept published authors would begin to be interested as well.

  45. B. Miller on November 1, 2010 at 3:10 AM

    >Good info. I know I wouldn't be able to negotiate a contract like that; I'd need someone to translate it for me.

  46. Anonymous on November 1, 2010 at 1:10 AM

    >I'd rather hire an agent and/or contract attorney on a one-time basis for a flat fee than give them a percentage of future sales. Then if the book sells well, you can decide if you need an agent at that point. Besides, I think it's a smart idea to learn as much of the biz as possible. Look what happened to Elvis Presley and the Beatles when they left everything up to their "managers."