A Road Less Traveled: What’s the Next Step?

So, now that you have: a completed novel, a killer query letter and a short but riveting synopsis, who do you send these things to first: a publisher or an agent?

If you’re like me, you ask people who have more experience in these kinds of things. And that’s what I did: I contacted several published mystery writers on what they’d do if they could do it all over again.

If you think there’s a consensus out there, you might be surprised.

So, now that you have: a completed novel, a killer query letter and a short but riveting synopsis, who do you send these things to first: a publisher or an agent?

If you’re like me, you ask people who have more experience in these kinds of things. And that’s what I did: I contacted several published mystery writers on what they’d do if they could do it all over again.

If you think there’s a consensus out there, you might be surprised. Here are their replies (slightly edited for space and in no particular order):


JA Konrath:

Go with an agent first.

An agent can submit to publishers who won’t consider you otherwise. You should always aim high, and in publishing that means the publishers with deep pockets and killer distribution. Plus, would you have the stones to ask for more money if a publisher accepted you? An agent does.

JA Konrath is the author of the Jack Daniels series. His blog is a terrific resource for writers of any experience level.


Michael A. Black:

What’s that old quote? If I had my life to live over, I’d climb more mountains, watch more sunsets, go barefoot later in the spring and earlier in the fall . . .

Great advice for anybody, especially writers. It’s a lonely profession. I spent fifteen years getting rejections on stuff I submitted. Along the way I realized I knew nothing about the business and had been submitting things like a rank amateur (which I was). I started attending mystery conferences, seeking out published authors, and learning the ropes.

Submitting to an agent is a daunting task. I had an agent once. He was a great guy and really taught me a lot. He was very supportive, but in the end, he couldn’t move my work, so we parted ways.

Another author, David Walker, gave me some great advice about agents. It’s their job to have the right connections in the book industry to know where to send your manuscript. If they don’t have these contacts, they can’t sell your manuscript, even if they really like it. Sometimes they can have the contacts and still not sell it.

Finding the right connection is what it’s all about. I sold my first book because I had a lot of help. My friend, author Wendi Lee, introduced me to an acquisitions editor for Tekno Books, which does the contracts and novel purchasing for Five Star, which was a division of Thompson Gale. The editor liked my book and recommended its purchase. The rest is history.

So, in effect, I did what an agent does…. Many really fine smaller publishing houses will look at your stuff without an agent, if you know who to contact, and they often do an outstanding job.

I’d say, if you can get an agent to get you a sweet deal, go for it. However, I’ve known some really good writers whose work has languished on an agent’s desk after he tried a few of his contacts. Can an agent help you in the contract part of things? Absolutely. Does he take 15% of your advance? You bet.

So essentially, it becomes the matter of not just finding an agent, but finding the right agent.

Michael A. Black is the author of A Killing Frost (Dorchester Press), A Final Judgment (Ron Shade goes for the title); Melody of Vengeance (Doc Atlas’ first novel-length adventure); Freeze Me, Tender (a thriller with a shot of humor), and The Heist (a thriller with a lot of shots).


Julie Hyzy:

If I were submitting a manuscript today, I would use a two-pronged approach. I’d query agents, but I’d definitely send the manuscript to a publisher right away. The thing is, you can only query one publisher at a time, whereas you can query as many agents as you like.

Agents are always looking for that new bestseller. And if you happen to have written the next DA VINCI CODE, the agents will line up to represent you. If, on the other hand, if you’re unpublished, but you’ve written a good, solid story (be it mainstream or genre-fiction), it is the rare agent who will express interest.

This is where a quality small publisher comes in. I was fortunate to work with Five Star, a company that produces beautiful hardcovers and has great library connections. My first three books were with Five Star and I can’t say enough about my experience working with them. It’s been wonderful.

Since then, the fact that I’m published by Five Star has helped me make inroads elsewhere in the publishing world, and I’m fortunate to have a contract for three books with Berkley Prime Crime. And all this without an agent.

Would I want an agent to represent me? Absolutely. But I’m taking my time now. I’m no longer sending out fifty queries at once. I’d like to work with someone who is the right fit for me and for my career.

Julie Hyzy is the author of STATE OF THE ONION, (Berkley Prime Crime, January, 2008) (White House Chef Ollie Paras feeds the First Family … and saves the world in her spare time).


Libby Fischer Hellmann:

The publishing industry is in chaos these days. And it’s apt to stay that way for a while. People aren’t reading — or buying — the way they used to… Business models that worked a year ago are obsolete… So are traditional ways of promoting and advertising. While publishers struggle with how to exploit the internet, POD, and other new technologies, we are supposed to shoulder more of the marketing burden. Given that, what to do?

I still think that a publisher with proven and widespread distribution is the optimal way to go. Unless you sign a six-figure advance, you’ll be doing most of the marketing, but the reality is that a publisher who has relationships with large distributors is going to make it a lot easier for people to find your book. And since agents like to deal with the big publishers (higher advance potential), I’d go with a trustworthy agent first.

Of course, "trustworthy" is the key. And most new authors don’t have a clue as to what makes an agent trustworthy. And, unfortunately, there’s no way to be able to figure that out, except by third party references. You want to find an agent who "gets you"… who has the energy to seek out the type of publisher who will be receptive to you… who (And I can’t stress this enough) has the discipline and follow-through to keep at it… and who can come up with a Plan B, if Plan A doesn’t get you there.

In other words, your agent is your business lifeline. Make sure you sign with someone who has the track record to back up their enthusiasm.

If that doesn’t work, it is still entirely possible to sell a book yourself… not to the big NY publishers.. but to smaller, boutique publishers. That will require some business acumen on your part, though. You’ll have to research which publishers might be receptive, what kind of distribution those publishers have, and what kind of treatment they’ve afforded authors in the past.

Remember, above all, this is a Business. You are in business to sell a product that will appeal to a certain audience. You want to make sure your allies and business partners (agents, publishers, publicists) are business people first and foremost. If they can’t give you references, numbers, lists of distributors, and other information that isn’t proprietary, be forewarned.

Libby Fischer Hellmann is a founding member of The Outfit, a mystery and thriller writers’ collective blog. And on a personal note, I’ve spent many afternoons watching Libby sell her books at Chicago book fairs – there’s no one better. Her fifth novel, EASY INNOCENCE, will be published by Bleak House Books in April.


Sam Reaves:

I would always recommend finding an agent to represent you. There are rare instances of authors going directly "over the transom" to publishers, but it is their extreme rarity that makes them noteworthy. The vast majority of manuscripts that get published reach publishers through agents. Most publishers will not even look at unagented manuscripts.

How do you get an agent? In the old days you looked at the agent directory section of the Writers’ Market; now everybody has a website and you just Google "literary agents". You spend some time examining websites, making a short list of agents that handle the type of book you write, agents who represent writers similar to you, agents who are personally recommended to you, whatever criterion you have, and then you follow whatever instructions they list regarding queries. The query should be a model of economy and concision — agents do not have time to read extended synopses, recommendations, lists of credentials, etc. Give them a jacket-blurb sized description of your book and ask if they’d like to take a look at it. Send out your queries and then get to work on the next book.

Sam Reaves is the author of seven crime novels, including last year’s Homicide 69 and the forthcoming Mean Town Blues, due out from Pegasus in September, 2008. He has also published three novels under the pen name Dominic Martell. And check out Sam Reaves’s blog Conjectures and Refutations.


Luisa Buehler:

Your question poses an interesting dilemma — how accurate is hindsight?

Knowing what I know now and assuming I don’t believe that doing the same thing, the same way over and over and expecting different results isn’t the definition of crazy, I would discount those 106 rejection letters I received over a 5 year period and continue to search for an agent.

I did not understand the nuances of researching agents and their projects before submitting. I’m sure several shook their heads at my query and wondered why I’d sent it to them.

Knowing the value of meeting people at conferences I would not hang back and admire from afar but rather introduce myself, have a conversation, make a connection with someone who knew more about the process than I did. I would pitch to every agent at every con if only for the practice of perfecting the "2 minute drill" and the series’ platform. (picked up the platform tip from David Morrell at Love Is Murder)

And if I write another series or stand alone? Would I hold out for an agent? Even after another 106 rejections? I’d like to think it wouldn’t take that long. The answer is Yes.

Luisa Buehler is the author of the Grace Marsden Mystery Series.


Michael Allen Dymmoch:

The best way to get published is to write a great book. Then get feed back from someone familiar with the genre. Then rewrite it. Get someone who’s compulsive about spelling and grammar to vet it. Don’t even think about submitting it to an agent or publisher until it’s perfect.

Then, it seems to me, that for novels there’s only a short answer to your question: Try to get an agent. Publishers used to have people who read through unsolicited submissions (the slush pile), but today most of the larger publishers, won’t accept unagented submissions. (Small presses are an exception, but they sometimes have problems with distribution.) Finding the right agent for your work is like finding a compatible spouse, but worth the effort.

One way to meet agents (and sometimes publishers) and to network with other writers who may be able to recommend agents and publishers is to hang out at conventions.

The other alternative is to enter contests. You have to be careful, because lots of contests are a come-on to hook you up with a vanity press ("You’ve just won our contest, and for X hundreds of dollars, we’ll send you beautifully bound copies of your…") But there are legitimate fiction (St Martin’s Press) and screenwriting (Scriptapalooza Screenplay Competition) contests. Check on the group or company that’s sponsoring the contest, and find out how many previous winners got published and how much they actually got paid. Keep in mind, this is a long shot. If it sounds too good to be true…

Really, there are no shortcuts, and most of us who’ve "made it" have been working and networking for years.

Michael Allen Dymmoch is the author of M.I.A. and Death in West Wheeling.


Raymond Benson:

If you want to make money, then a good agent needs to submit your book to the major publishers. The majors usually don’t accept submissions directly from authors unless an editor actually knows the author. I would advise any beginning author to first try and find an agent who will represent him/her. It’s a long, frustrating process… but then everything in the publishing business is long and frustrating!

Raymond Benson is the author of 16 published books (soon to be 18) including six original James Bond novels. His original rock ‘n’ roll thriller A HARD DAY’S DEATH will be published in April 2008 by Leisure Books, and his novelization of the internationally-popular videogame, METAL GEAR SOLID, will be published in May 2008 by Del Rey.


Robert Walker:

I always submitted to editors and agents at same time when going about getting notice. However, that was for a novel. If you are dealing with graphic novels, comics and artwork, I would not limit myself to agents alone since graphic novels are a hot item NOW. I would make it clear on the manilla envelope — Graphic Novel Enclosed… maybe create a company name like Instinct INK (which I used for years) on the return address or scrawl across the thing the words that make it clear that this is no ordinary manuscript but a graphic novel. Seems to me people are anxious for such since so many film options are being bought from them. Same with a send to an agent. It could cause a problem only if an agent picked it up, wanted to rep it, and then you’d have to say, well, Don, I done sent the thing to Avon, Leisure, and Zippo already.

It would be more "ethical" to play their game, but I am a believer in "shotgun" marketing or "barn-storming" it. However, if you’re going to go with one or the other, go with agents for good reason. Agents do have inroads already to get into the "castle."

Robert Walker is the author of many books – including City for Ransom and his latest, City of the Absent.


Next time: REJECTION!

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.