Everybody agrees that, in trade publishing, you need an agent. Agents do not tend to be involved in academic publishing, largely because there is not enough money in the business to make it worth their while. They are also rare in the textbook market because publishers often commission authors directly rather than waiting for submissions to come in. But in trade publishing, agents are essential. Publishers like agents because they act as gatekeepers. Many publishing houses no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts at all and those that do give them very little attention. However, when a trusted agent submits a proposal, an editor knows that it has already been approved by a fellow professional in the business and is probably worth a look. That doesn't mean the editor will publish it - they probably won't - but they will look at it.
Agents are paid by results. They get around 15% of an author's royalties. This makes them completely dependent on the success of their authors. An editor has a salary to support them if it all goes wrong. On the other hand, an agent can get very rich whereas salaries in the publishing industry are notoriously stingy.
As I wanted my book to be published as a trade title, it was clear that I needed an agent. I began the search with a copy of the writer's bible The Writers and Artists Yearbook. This includes a listing of literary agents that is also available on-line. I picked out three and sent them a one -page synopsis by post. The replies were polite but not all that keen. However, one of them enclosed a guide to producing a book proposal that made a number of very helpful suggestions. I got to work.
Then I had a sudden thought. I googled for 'literary agent' together with the names of several authors whom I thought were writing stuff similar to me. In this way I found several agents with websites that included detailed guidance on submissions. Some even said that they didn't mind an initial approach by email (although others said they didn't like this idea at all). This seemed a good idea and I composed a short emailing trying to sell the essence of my book. I sent it to a US agent who had represented some history of science authors. Due to other commitments, I didn't check my email until late next day and found not just a reply from the agent, but a chaser asking why he hadn't heard back from me. He wanted my proposal as quickly as possible! I polished it up as best I could and emailed it back. His reply took a week and when it came it was the last thing I was expecting...
Next, how I actually found an agent.
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