How to Sell Your Novel Without a Literary Agent

By Aug 19 , 20090 Comments

evan-marshallIn spite of what you hear about publishers accepting submissions only from agents, and about what an agent can do for a writer, there are still many instances in which you don’t necessarily need an agent.

This is good news at a time when it seems fewer agents than ever are open to new talent.

Small or Specialized Publishers
The smaller publishers-and today there are more than ever, most of them outside New York City-are usually perfectly happy to accept submissions directly from writers. In fact, I have found that many of them are intimidated by literary agents, and prefer to work directly with writers.

You can find the names and addresses of smaller publishers, from regional presses to university presses, in Literary Market Place (LMP). This expensive volume can be found in almost any library’s reference department. It includes a listing of publishers by subject matter. If you believe that your novel has a niche audience that makes it right for one of these publishers, or has a regional appeal that makes it a good bet for a local publisher (an example would be a story based on a local historical incident), try submitting directly. Unless you have a good reason to do otherwise (for example, instructions from the publisher), begin with a query letter and follow up as appropriate.

Major Publishers Willing to Work Direct

There are still some major publishers that state openly that they are willing to receive material directly from writers. This does not mean they are happy to receive unsolicited manuscripts. It means they are willing to receive query letters from writers, and will ask to see manuscripts that sound promising. When you submit your manuscript in response to an editor’s invitation to do so, it becomes solicited.

In directories like Writer’s Market, you can learn whether a publisher is open to unagented submissions. You can also visit the website of a publisher you have in mind; often you will find submission guidelines. Submission policies differ greatly; a company’s preferences always supersede traditional practice.

One notable example of a publisher that not only is open to unagented material but even encourages it (by periodically holding writing contests and competitions) is Harlequin, the world’s largest romance publisher, whose divisions include Harlequin itself as well as Silhouette, Spice, Mira, HQN, Kimani Press, Steeple Hill, Red Dress Ink, Luna, and Worldwide Library. Within these lines are imprints that publish contemporary romance in all its variations, historical romance, romantic suspense, mainstream women’s fiction, “chick lit,” fantasy, inspirational fiction, African American fiction, and even erotica. The company does not accept unsolicited manuscripts, but requires a query letter containing specific components, as well as a brief synopsis of your novel. Visit their website at http://www.eHarlequin.com and read their author guidelines.

Helpful Hint: Most publishers of genre fiction (romance, mystery, horror, men’s adventure, etc.) are open to queries directly from writers.

Special Circumstances
There are other ways to get editors to consider your work without having an agent, even if the editors work for publishers whose official policy is not to accept unagented material.

You may know someone, or know someone who knows someone, whose books are published by one of the major publishing houses. If so, as that someone for a referral. If that’s not possible, as for permission to use this person’s name and send a query letter with SASE (a self-addressed, stamped envelope), mentioning that name right up front. Chances are good the editor will agree to look at your manuscript, if only out of politeness.

If you attend a writers conference or convention and meet an editor who publishes the kind of book you’ve written, ask him or her for permission to send your manuscript. If the editor agrees, mail your manuscript the minute you get home, being sure to mention where you met the editor and that he or she agreed to read your book. Put this information at the very beginning of your cover letter, so that an assistant screening submissions will be sure to see it and place it on the “Look” pile!

Helpful Hint:
When you send material in response to an agent or editor’s invitation mark the outside of the envelope REQUESTED MATERIAL. That way your package won’t work itself into the dreaded slush pile-the stack of unsolicited manuscripts, which receive little or no attention.

Perhaps you happen to know an editor who publishes what you write. If so, simply ask if you can submit your manuscript. Few people put on the spot in this way have the guts to say no. You’ll get a reading, and if your novel is as good as I hope it is, your friend, relative, or acquaintance will be happy he or she said yes.

Oh, What the Heck!

Don’t tell, but despite their “official policies,” many major publishers that claim to be closed to unagented material do open query letters, and do ask to see manuscripts. If you’re certain a particular editor at a particular publishing company would be perfect for your novel, what have you got to lose by sending a query and SASE? The worst that can happen is that you will receive no response.

On the other hand, a few weeks ago I got a call from a woman whose first approach to an editor at one of New York City’s largest publishers was by means of a query letter, without any special recommendation or connection. She and this publisher have just signed a healthy, two-book contract. If you don’t have an agent but are eager to get your writing career going, try one or more of the above techniques. I see them work for a large number of writers.

About the Author:
Evan Marshall, president of The Evan Marshall Agency, is a former book editor and packager. Recently, he and coauthor Martha Jewett released The Marshall Plan® Novel Writing Software, based on his bestselling The Marshall Plan (R) writers’ guides. Evan is also the author a number of popular mystery novels including “Death is Disposable” and “Evil Justice.” Visit http://www.writeanovelfast.com and download Evan’s free 77-page Fiction Makeover Guide with tips and ideas on writing a great novel.