Literary Agents 101

It’s been while since I blogged about writing. As many of you know, I retired from my position as a senior editor at Harvest House Publishers and have embarked on a new career as a literary agent. From time to time I’d like to let you in on what I’m discovering from this new vantage point. I’ll just mention two discoveries today.

First, I’m finding that it’s better to not have published at all, than to have self-published and had low sales. Other agents and editors may disagree, but at least if you’re unpublished and have a great book idea with solid writing and are working on a good platform, you’ve got something going for you.

But if you have a great book idea, solid writing, and have self-published to poor sales, that last factor is going to carry a lot of weight with any perspective royalty publisher I pitch the book to. That is literally the first question they ask: “How has the self-published edition sold?”

I may give the answer and then follow up with all the accolades about how great I personally think the book is, but that will mean nothing if the sales were poor. It will take an exceptional book for a publisher to say yes to after having been told of poor sales. This is not an admonition from me to not self-publish. It just means if you’re going to self-publish, you must have a great marketing plan in order to see the book sell. And you’re going to want that even if you have no plans to eventually try to find a royalty publisher for your book.

The second thing I’ve noticed is really something I already knew from my years as an editor—and even before that, my years as a bookseller in a retail store. That is that, sad to say, quality writing often goes unpublished. Or is published and does not sell. I bet every editor I know can tell of great books they pitched to their publishers, only to see them shot down at the committee level. Right now I’m thinking about an author who not only deserves publication, but deserves strong sales. His book is urgently needed. It’s aimed at youth and it’s far different from the standard youth fare CBA publishers take on. The irony is that this author knows how to connect with youth on the written page and I honestly wonder if that’s somehow off putting to some publishers. He doesn’t write in Christianese. Why, he actually uses the word “butt” in his book. Gasp. His books are funny, wise, and extremely relevant. He spoke at a conference I attended and not only did his books sell out, he had to have more books shipped in next-day-air. Yes, he is published, but by a smaller publisher (turned down by larger ones). He deserves to be an A-list author. I hope someday he is.

Not only can editors recount experiences like this, but so can agents. You take on a book proposal as a labor of love, all the while suspecting that no publisher will take it. I’ve honestly thought about some books, This is too good. It’ll never get past the committee. That’s not always true, but it’s true often enough to make me scratch my head.

In the coming weeks I’ll try to let you know some other discoveries I’m making as an agent. Stay tuned.

10 replies
  1. Donald James Parker says:

    Interesting observations. My mantra has been that traditional publishers are not looking for prophets but only profits. That may not be fair but I have not seen evidence to the contrary. Judging a self published book by its sales is even worse than judging it by its cover. Perhaps low sales Is more indicative of the author’s marketing efforts. Perhaps the author was more focused on writing more books than selling the one he or she had already published. Impulse buying is not really an internet phenomenon. Self published books don’t find shelf space in book stores where curious and impulsive people pick them up and decide to spend some cash. The deck is stacked against the little guys – be they self published authors or small publishers.

  2. Donald James Parker says:

    Hey Nick, this is probably one you haven’t learned yet and doesn’t come up often. What about a movie that has been produced but has not been published as a novel. Would that be something of interest to publishers?

    • Nick Harrison says:

      Yes, Donald, but keep in mind that publishers often work a year out. So there is the time factor. They will ask when the film releases, how wide is the distribution, and is the novelization well done?

  3. Lisa Simonds says:

    Hi Nick, as always, thank you for the insights. I hope the shadow of self-publishing to low sales is a little less gloomy if the author is bringing a different book to the table.

  4. Mary Kay Moody says:

    Thanks, Nick. You affirm some of my suspicions. Not joyful news, but truth ~ and that is always helpful.

    Hope you’re enjoying your advance into yet another aspect of the world of books.

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