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At my workshops writers often ask, ďDo I need an agent?Ē


If you feel your book has wide commercial appeal (a large audience), most large publishers will only consider book proposals and manuscripts that are submitted via an agent. If your book has a smaller audience, then you may need to approach smaller publishing houses on your own.


Let me share my experience with my agent, Denise Marcil. I tried for 10 years to sell my first book, THE HOME DESIGN HANDBOOK, on my own. I sent the book to 30 publishers and was rejected by all 30. I didnít know two things: (1) I needed a book proposal, and (2) I needed an agent if I hoped to attract the interest of a large publisher.


I met Denise Marcil at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference in 1990. She liked my manuscript for THE HOME DESIGN HANDBOOK and felt she could sell it, but I would need to do two things: (1) write a book proposal, and (2) add photographs and illustrations. I didnít know the first thing about doing a book proposal, so she recommended Michael Larsenís book, How to Write a Book Proposal.


For a summary of how to write a nonfiction book proposal, please go to, click on "Publishing Tips," and then, The Nonfiction Book Proposal."


I didnít understand that publishers are more interested in your book proposal (the business proposition for your book) than they are in the book itselfóas odd as that sounds! Publishers feel they can publish a lot of books well, but they need you to tell them why they should publish your book. Among other things, you need to provide detailed information on the audience for your book, the existing competition, and everything you will do to promote the book once itís published.


Since you donít get a second chance to make a first impression, itís critical that your book proposal is the best it can be. For more than a decade, Iíve written many book proposals and have greatly enjoyed providing book proposal evaluations for clients. Itís always fun and satisfying to help writers get published! For more information on my evaluation service, please see . I find that most clients are excellent writers; they simply donít know the best way to position a proposed book most effectivelyóand everything that needs to be included in a proposal.


Letís assume youíve created a dynamite book proposal and youíre ready to query agents. Make sure your book proposal is 4-7 days from being completed before you mail your query letters. If an agent requests to see your proposal, you will need to send it right away. While itís okay to send multiple query letters, itís not acceptable to send your proposal to more than one agent at a time. However, you can limit the amount of time an agent has to consider your proposal, such as giving an interested agent a two-week exclusive look. If you donít hear from her within two weeks, then youíre free to move on to the next interested agent.


If an agent decides to represent you and your project (and you feel this agent could do an effective job for you), she will probably expect you to sign an agency agreement. Most agents receive a 15% commission (20% for foreign sales) on all advances and royalties. For example, if you receive a $15,000 advance (the money paid up front to write the book), your book will start earning royalties from the day itís published. The royalties will be applied against the advance. Then, when the book ďearns outĒ (your advance is repaid with earned royalties), you will continue to receive royalty payments through your agentóafter she deducts a 15% commission.


A good agent knows what certain books are worth. For example, the first offer for THE HOME DESIGN HANDBOOK came from Macmillan. I was thrilled that a New York publisher was interested! However, my agent said it wasnít a good offer and we should walk away from it. She was right. We ended up receiving double the money and better terms from Henry Holt and Company. THE HOME DESIGN HANDBOOK has been on bookstore shelves for over a decade and is now in its 12th printing.


Sometimes an agent will decide you have a particularly hot book (and knows several publishers who would love to acquire it). In this case, she will conduct a book auction, where she will give the houses a date and time by which they need to make their offers. My book, MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS, was auctioned and it was fun receiving updates about the incoming bids. The book auction is typically conducted over the phone and can proceed in a variety of ways, such as round by round (letting a publisher know they will need to increase their offer), or simply by best bid offers.


A good agent does far more than make the initial sale. She develops your career, often brainstorming book ideas and giving you deadlines for projects youíve proposed to her. She will offer specific feedback on your book proposals so you can make improvements before she sends them to publishers. Once a publisher expresses interest in your book, she negotiates your contract. Publishing contracts are extremely complex, and most authors donít fully understand the various types of rights and good royalty rates.  


Your relationship with your agent is that of a partnershipóthe two of you work together to create a successful first book and your agent will help you develop ideas for future books. A good agent is your advocate for your book even more so than your editor. One aspect of an author-agent relationship I have appreciated is that whenever I encounter a tender situation with my editor, my agent will handle the business end of the dealings. Perhaps Iím not happy with the book cover or have great concerns about the (lack of) publicity planned for the book. My agent handling most business-related problems allows me to have good working relationships with my editors.


Your agent takes care of many other business-related aspects of your book such as reviewing your royalty statements to ensure that the publisher is accurately reporting the book sales. On a periodic basis she may ask the publisher to provide more specific information, such as ďspecial salesĒ documentation (books sold outside of a bookstore).


The road to publication can be a thrilling and challenging journey. Finding and working with an excellent agent can be your key to a successful writing career.


© 2010 June Cotner, publishing consultant and author of the bestselling Graces and Dog Blessings and 24 other books. PO Box 2765, Poulsbo, WA 98370


For information on having your book concept analyzed or your nonfiction book proposal evaluated, please go to:


For more articles on how to get published, go to and click on "Articles on Publishing."