• Mark Iles

Agents versus Publishers, Which to Target?

Many authors are unsure whether to send their work directly to a publisher, or to an agent and let them do the work for them. It's hoped that this blog helps those caught in this dilemma to weigh up the odds and make an informed decision.

Long gone are the days of the Slush Pile, where writers could send their manuscripts directly to publishing houses in the hope they’d be picked up. These days, while a few publishers still take unsolicited submissions, most will only accept work from agents. What this basically means is that agents have had to take on the slush pile themselves, and publishers know that when they get a typescript from an agent it’s usually worth a look.


Agents keep themselves up-to-date on what their publishers are looking for and target their clients’ submissions accordingly. They tend to stick to their client list and breaking in to these can be hard going. That said, it’s worth keeping an eye out for features that list which agent is looking for what. Agents often promise to reply to submissions within a given time and, although some never do, they’re usually pretty good.

Once you’ve got the agents contact details do pay strict attention to their submission guidelines. They’ll usually advise sending a query letter (email) first, so they can tell you that either their list is full, or know to look out for your work. Don’t be surprised if they reject you because you haven’t stuck to their guidelines (for instance, don’t send an agent who specialises in romance a science fiction novel, unless that too is listed). They’ll often ask for the first chapter or two, a synopsis, bio, and your contact details - but this varies. Be assured that if they like what they see they’ll ask for more.


While it’s quite common for an author to submit their work to several agents at once,

say three to five, the work should only be submitted to one publisher at a time. If you send it to more and say two publishers accept it at once then you risk invoking the ire of the one who’s offer you didn’t accept. It’s then unlikely they’ll consider anything else from you, plus of course you risk sullying your name in the marketplace.

If you think about this it’s quite understandable. Time is money to the publisher and they will have spent a good deal of it by going through your work. They might also have input from others in the company, so it’s no wonder they become slightly miffed if they make you an offer and you say another publisher’s taken it.

Talking of money, beware of advance payments. While nice to have an advance is exactly that, an advance payment for books expected to sell. There have been cases where publishers have clawed back that advance because the expected sales haven’t been met. The likes of Stephen King and Kevin J. Anderson, of course, needn’t worry but the new author needs to watch out.


An editor is someone who edits a book, for publication or otherwise (for instance perhaps a university thesis or company documentation). There are also line editors and copy editors. A line editor will focus on the story itself, how you tell it, plus style and so forth – often picking out content that could be tightened. The copy editor’s job is to look at grammar, punctuation, consistency, and capitalisation.

Many moons ago publishers had in-house editors, but this is now rarely the case. They usually hire them by the job and once an editor’s assigned to you it will be until the work reaches publishable standard, and the publishing houses criteria.


Self-publishers often employ editors before publishing their work themselves, using the many on-line facilities available. With Amazon now having Print-On-Demand (POD) gone is the need to print off hundreds, if not thousands, of books at a time. Amazon will simply print off a book for each order and deliver it accordingly. Conversely, traditional publishers face the editor and proofreader costs, printing, transport, insurance, publicity – and often have to buy back books from outlets that haven't been sold.

Writers will often hire an editor before they send their work off to their agent, thus ensuring it’s in the best state it can be. Others will argue that if their work is taken, the publisher’s editor will do that job for them. One way for newbie authors to avoid an editor’s cost is to join a worthy on-line writing group, and have Beta Readers go through your completed work before sending it off. But note that this is unlikely to be of the standard of a paid editor.

Vanity Publishing

This is where the author pay’s a company to publish their work for them, rather than via a professional publishing house or self-publishing. You’ll often see advertisements in magazines and online such as ‘authors sought’, and these can be a bit of a money trap.

Even after you’ve shelved out the often considerable sum to have someone publish your work for you, there’s the question of publicity for it. If it’s not being publicised regularly, who’s going to buy it? And if you don’t do this yourself then it no doubt means an ongoing expense to pay others to do it instead.


On a final note, publishing houses now expect their authors to self-promote. They’ll look for Facebook and Twitter followings, and whether you have a blog on your own website. If you don’t have any of these (and I know many authors who don’t) it can be a black mark against you. FB and Twitter etc are, of course, free and it doesn’t take long to make the relevant posts. I spend on average around thirty minutes to an hour several days a week at it.

Websites are quite easy to build now but will cost you between £10 to £20 a month (on average). If you struggle to build one yourself you can of course fork out for someone else to do it for you, but unless you want to keep paying them to update your site it’s worth learning to do it yourself.

If you are a member of a writing group they're often quite happy to comment on your site and even (if you’re lucky) help with any issues.

Written by: Mark Iles

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