I. Publishing a Novel: The Value of an Agent


The first time I submitted a novel manuscript to an agent, I received a phone call a few weeks later, and heard the thrilling words, “I would like to represent you.” Wow, I thought, I’m on my way! Except that I wasn’t. Although that manuscript received positive attention from several New York publishers, it didn’t publish. It still hasn’t published.

I’ve had three novels represented by an agent. Of them, Absolution is the only one published and without an agent’s help. My new novel A Stone for Bread was also published without an agent.

I still, however, encourage young writers and those just starting out to query agents. Why? Because a reputable literary agent offers the most promising route to a novel’s publication, particularly for first-time authors.

Even if an agent doesn’t place your work with a publishing house, the experience is valuable. You’ll know that an agent, in accepting you as a client, considered your work professional and publishable. Wise writers also understand from those rejections that their work may be almost-but-not-quite-ready for publication. And unlike manuscripts you submit on your own to a publisher, a manuscript submitted by an agent usually receives feedback, reasons why the publisher is turning it down.

When my novel Absolution was rejected by New York publishers, and I subsequently found myself without an agent, I took the novel apart, cut at least 80 pages and greatly revised it. I then sought out candid critical feedback on the changes and made further revisions. The first publisher I submitted it to after these revisions published it.

Moral of the story? Well, possibly there are several morals. Rejection hurts and discourages us. But a committed, professional writer needs to see rejection as a challenge to go back to the manuscript, revise and polish it and make it better.

We all know the stories of successful novels that were initially rejected, To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, which was turned down quite a few times. But what we seldom hear about is the New York agent who worked with Harper Lee over two years as she revised and shaped what began as a “loose-knit assembly of well-observed character studies”* into the finished and Pulitzer-winning novel we now know.

*Jeff Shannon, http://www.rogerebert.com/demanders/hey-boo-the-private-life-of-to-kill-a-mockingbird