how traditional publishing and agents work

Evan Marshall is a literary agent and owner of the Evan Marshall Agency.

He’s also a multi-published novelist and a nonfiction author, and the creator of The Marshall Plan novel writing software.

Evan was born in Massachusetts. His first job was with the Big Five publisher Houghton Mifflin in Boston. Then he moved to New York and worked with Signet Books and a small company called Everest House, which is no longer in business. He also worked for a very famous old company, Dodd Mead, known for publishing Agatha Christie.

After working with these traditional publishers, Evan became a literary agent. He started working for another well-known agent, Sterling Lord.

Evan started his own literary agency in 1987.

What’s Changed in the Publishing Industry over the Last 30 Years

When Evan started in the publishing industry, there were many more publishers than there are today. There were many small independent publishers that were actually considered major industry players, typically based in New York City.

Over time, the small independent publishers engulfed and devoured each other so that now there are just the Big Five traditional publishers.

  • Macmillan
  • Penguin Random House
  • HarperCollins
  • Hachette
  • Simon & Schuster

Most of the publishing companies that existed when Evan started in the business are either now imprints of one of these five publishers or they don’t exist anymore.

What this means for agents and traditionally published authors is that now there are fewer places to sell books. Very often, Evan will submit projects to different imprints within a publishing company, but when he does, he has to tell each of the editors that he’s already submitted to that company, because the individual imprints of the publishing company can’t bid against themselves.

That’s very different than the old days, when Evan could submit to truly separate publishing houses, and get more and higher bids. Publishing is no longer a “gentleman’s business.” There are no more midlist authors.

Midlist books were books that were bigger than so-called category books, but not “top of the list books” as they would say in the industry.

Basically, a midlist book is a book that has the potential to perform solidly in the market, earning a good living for its author, but isn’t going to be a massive bestseller. These were the books authors built their careers on, putting out a reliable stream of books and getting a reliable, if not massive, income in return.

Today there is no room for books like that. A book has to be a solid genre category, or has to be able to go out on its own in a big way.

In the past, there used to be midlist thrillers that had modest sales projections. If the book hit those projections, that was great. In order for a thriller to be successful today, it really has to sell in big numbers or, more than likely, that author will be canceled.

Publishing is a much more hard-nosed business today than it was 30 years ago.

Another example of how the publishing industry has changed is that bookstores very rarely want to do signings anymore, unless you are a big brand-name author.

There used to be signings practically every week at local Barnes & Nobles and Waldenbooks, all the brick-and-mortar bookstores that used to exist. Now, many brick-and-mortar stores say it’s not worth their time to have a book signing unless you’re a big brand-name author, like Oprah.

Some small bookstores will hold signings for local authors, but these events often don’t sell many books.

One positive development in the publishing industry are the new independent publishing companies like TCK Publishing. Small publishing companies like TCK Publishing make it possible for projects that don’t have a home with one of the Big Five traditional publishers to be put out in the marketplace, so they can find readers.

Most editors have to play it safe. They’re looking for reasons to say no. They have to buy something they know will work because they know their jobs are on the line.

Ironically, many times the Big Five publishers will try to swoop in and sign an author who has done well with a smaller publisher like TCK Publishing. And yet, when authors are asked if they want to switch to one of the Big Five publishers the answer is often no.

What Are Traditional Publishers Afraid of?

Basically, traditional publishers are afraid they’re going to buy a book that won’t sell very well, and then people higher up in the company will fire them.

Every editor at one of the Big Five publishing companies has a cost-benefit analysis done of them as part of a regular review process. The publishing companies compare:

  • What the editor bought
  • Whether the projects they bought were profitable
  • How profitable those projects were as compared to the editor’s salary

If the books the editor bought don’t make more money (usually a lot more money) than the editor is paid by the publishing company, very often they are fired.

That’s not to say that new things never come out of New York. But when New York tries something new, it does so in a very safe way. A few years ago, 50 Shades of Grey was an unexpected success, so now all of the big publishers want to publish S&M romance. That was a new development, but it was safe and new because the ground had already been broken.

What Should Writers Do if They Want a Big Book Deal?

One approach to getting a good book deal is to work backwards. You find out what the editors are looking for.

You go to places like Publishers Marketplace or the deals page of Publishers Weekly.

You read book reviews.

You read the New York Times book review.

You go to writing conferences where publishers’ staff appear and explain what they’re looking for.

And if you think you would enjoy writing something in one of those areas, you read their guidelines and give them exactly what they want.

Just remember: You have to look carefully at what they’re already publishing so you don’t give them something too close to what they already have.

If, on the other hand, you’re an author who has an idea that’s a little different and doesn’t fit into what the traditional publishers want, there’s nothing wrong with indie publishing.

Indie publishing used to be called vanity publishing, and it was an embarrassment to most people. Generally, it meant that your work wasn’t any good and you had to pay $5,000 or $10,000 to fill your garage with books that usually just got moldy, that you were never able to sell. Typically, the author just ended up giving them away to friends and family.

Everything is different now. You can have your book on sale as an ebook and a print-on-demand paperback in a matter of weeks. Especially if the book you’re writing is in more of a niche genre or subgenre, it makes perfect sense to indie publish your book. Don’t waste any more time banging your head against the wall trying to sell to gatekeepers who aren’t interested.

If your book does well enough, traditional publishers will come knocking at your door after your book has proven itself.

You Can Get a Book Deal after You Self Publish Your Book

It’s entirely possible to get a publishing deal after you’ve self-published a book. Today, self-publishing your book and getting a bunch of sales is a way to prove to traditional publishers that your book as a product, and you as an author, are a safe bet.

Evan has many clients who got a traditional publishing deal after their book sold many copies in the marketplace as an indie published book.

Evan has also successfully sold indie published books to the Big Five publishers after the book sold many copies online without a traditional publisher backing it. Often, a traditional publisher will rebrand the indie book they bought by giving it a new title and new cover.

But remember—the book has to do really well first.

On the whole, unless a self-published book has sold phenomenally well, agents aren’t going to be interested in taking it on to try and place it.
– Evan Marshall

If an indie book doesn’t sell well, publishers believe the book has “had its life.”

For traditional publishers, an indie published book that’s selling phenomenally well is a book that selling hundreds of thousands of copies per year and continuing to do steady sales.

Usually when an indie author is selling that many books, though, they aren’t interested in a traditional publishing contract. The money you can make as a phenomenally successful indie author is far more than you can make as a traditionally published author under contract who has the same level of success.

There are examples of authors who began as indie published authors, got big advances for their next projects from traditional publishers, didn’t sell as many copies as they did with their indie published books, and now have returned to the indie publishing marketplace where they started.

In general, publishers aren’t going to be interested with an indie published book. If you really want a traditional book deal, it’s better to offer them something fresh.

How to Get a Traditional Book Deal in 2017

The process of getting a traditional agent and book deal begins with a query letter. A query letter is simply a professional business letter. One of the first things that professional business letter would say is if the author querying was referred to Evan by somebody that he knows.

Then it would launch into a description of the book the author is trying to sell. The description would include:

  • The genre
  • The word count
  • Any comparisons between the book being offered for sale and anything out in the marketplace now, or any book that has been out recently (either one or several projects)
  • A brief description of the plot

At the end of the query letter should be a brief list of any credits the author might have. You’ll want to include:

  • Anything you’ve published
  • Any honors you might have
  • Any organizations you might belong to

The initial query letter should really be no longer than one page.

If Evan likes what he sees and the query looks promising, he asks to see the manuscript.

Evan will either read it himself or give it to a trusted reader. If he gets a recommendation from his trusted reader, then he’ll read it himself.

If Evan likes the book and thinks he can sell it, he’ll give the author a call and they’ll have a conversation. In that conversation, Evan will:

  • Tell you who he thinks he can sell your book to
  • Ask you what your career plans are
  • Ask you how many books you think you can write in a year
  • Ask if you want to keep writing the type of book that you submitted to him

His general goal in this conversation is to get a feel for the author that he might be representing.

Evan is really interested in working with people who are in it for the long haul. He likes to help people achieve their goals. Many of his clients have been with him since he started his company 30 years ago. He even has a few authors who were with him before he started his own company.

Evan has had many authors who started their journey with him and went from unpublished to bestseller. Certainly that’s not true of every author, but quite a few have seen great success.

Often, agents and authors have a very close relationship. Sometimes the agent plays the role of manager, and sometimes the agent plays the role of therapist. The agent and author work together to build a career as a team.

Evan has two or three trusted readers who used to work as editors at one of the Big Five traditional publishing houses. They aren’t paid employees, but they are trusted professional acquaintances. They know what he’s looking for. In some cases, they have even bought books from him. The benefit of using former traditional editors as first readers is they know what to look for. They also know when to stop reading.

how to write better fiction

Evan’s Process for Reading a Manuscript

Often, Evan will stop reading a manuscript very quickly. He does that when he sees that the author has no idea how to write point of view.

One viewpoint error you want to avoid when writing fiction is writing in an omniscient viewpoint that jumps from one character’s point of view to another within the same scene.

You also want to avoid writing in what Evan calls “cinematic viewpoint.” That’s when you describe the setting of the scene without actually letting the reader experience it through the viewpoint of any particular character.

Evan also looks for grammatical errors. What he wants to see is smooth, professional fiction writing. If he sees too many errors, he knows this author doesn’t know what he or she is doing, and he won’t spend any more time going over the manuscript.

However, when Evan sees that a person gets the rules of writing professional fiction, he gets very excited and he wants to finish the manuscript because he wants to know what the author has done with the story.

It’s funny how the right way to write fiction is right there in front of us in bookstores, on our own shelves, and yet there’s a disconnect between what we read and enjoy, and what we do when we try to do it ourselves.
– Evan Marshall

Evan thinks that some writers, deep down, just need to do it their own way. And that’s fine! But he is looking for writers who want to write stories the way publishers and readers want to see them. Those are the authors Evan can sell.

Evan can usually tell on the first page of a manuscript if the book isn’t going to be a good fit for him. If he gets to the bottom of the first page and the writing is good, he’ll generally read the first chapter. The goal for Evan is to get to the end of the book without stopping because the book is so good.

Two Steps to Getting a Literary Agent

  1. Write a great query letter that gets the agent to ask for the manuscript.
  2. Write a great manuscript that has the agent reading until the end.

Just as there are great examples of fiction all around us, there are also examples of great query letters all around us.

It’s very important that you make every effort to be professional when presenting yourself to an agent or publisher.

Once you’ve mastered the art of the query letter, you are through the first door. If you have great fiction to back it up, you will find an agent and get a book deal.

What Happens After You Find an Agent

The first thing Evan does after he has signed a new client is go over all the material they have to make sure it’s as strong as it can be. If the author has submitted a full manuscript, Evan will often send the author notes on improving the manuscript. He might ask for some revisions on the manuscript that he thinks would make it stronger. Very rarely does Evan get a perfect manuscript.

The next thing Evan and his new author talk about involves future planned projects, so that when he’s talking to editors at the Big Five publishers, he can talk about his author’s future plans.

Once Evan has everything he needs and a good solid bio of the author, he’s ready to start submitting to publishers.

He submits his authors’ work right away and keeps his authors informed of what he’s doing. He likes to show his authors the correspondence he’s getting from editors about their work, so they can learn from it. After all, in the traditional publishing model, writers are selling to editors.

While Evan is trying to sell a project, he’ll encourage his author to write something new. Selling a book to a traditional publisher can take anywhere from two months to more than a year. The only way to have the best chance of having a successful career as an author is to write multiple books.

You only have unlimited time when writing your first book. Traditional publishers generally want an author to publish a book a year.

Books have to be good, and they have to be written fast. Evan’s most successful authors write top-quality fiction, and they produce it regularly.

When it comes to genre fiction, Evan will often sign his authors to multi-book contracts where the publishing company will lock the author into delivery dates for future fiction.

Authors have to produce regularly and they have to be on time.

What Happens when an Author Doesn’t Meet Their Scheduled Delivery Date

It’s imperative that authors maintain communication with their agent and give them a fair warning—if at all possible, at least a month in advance—that the book won’t be ready.

If you give your agent enough warning and the agent is able to reset the delivery date, and you deliver on that new delivery date, then you aren’t really late.

It’s when the publisher is waiting for a manuscript to fill a publishing slot and the manuscript doesn’t arrive that real trouble ensues. Things take a long time to get published in traditional publishing, but that also means the publishing process is equally stretched out.

If the production process on the book gets going without a manuscript being delivered, and with no warning that the book is delayed, it’s a black mark against the author and they’ll never work with that publisher again.

Everyone is human, and life circumstances can cause delays. Publishers and agents are very understanding as long as the lines of communication stay open.

Sometimes a big-name author is late. That puts the agent and editor in a real bind because they don’t want to lose the author. With big-name authors, all the sales channels are ready to go. Big plans are being built around some of these bestselling series with loyal fan bases.

One thing you have to realize as an author is that you’re part of a much bigger plan.

how to take competition constructively

Write Your Second Book while You’re Still Trying to Sell Your First

The benefit of writing your second book while you’re still trying to sell your first is that you’re focused on the day-to-day work of writing. You want to avoid focusing on the process of selling your first book. Selling your book is not a result you can control.

The other big mistake authors make is focusing on the results other authors are getting. So much information is public knowledge now. Sales figures are public knowledge, and often advances are public knowledge.

What you have to realize is that we are all on our own track. Focus only on the results you can directly control. That is the surest way to success.

You’re only competing with yourself. That’s the healthiest way to look at it. Otherwise you’re just going to become bitter.
– Evan Marshall


Links and Resources Mentioned in This Interview

The Marshall Plan novel writing software – one place to find what publishers are looking for.

Publishers Weekly Deal Page – another place to look and see what’s selling in the traditional publishing marketplace today.

The Evan Marshall Agency – Evan’s agency website.