Columns > Published on March 19th, 2012

Ask The Lit Coach: "How Does The New Trend In Self-Publishing Affect Literary Agents?" and More

Will U.S. agents consider work from writers abroad? And what is the fate of the literary agent now that the self e-publishing revolution is full throttle? Let's get into it, shall we?

Question from Robert N.

I'm currently working to get my doctoral degree in molecular biology here in the US. As a hobby I write science fiction, and I'm currently working on the final draft of a novel. Things are going well and I plan on starting the search for an agent soon, but I recently hit a snag: my mentor has decided that the lab is going to move to South Korea. Will agents be less likely to look at my manuscript if I'm out of the country?

Great question, Robert. The answer is no, agents aren't less likely to consider your work if you live outside the United States. Not only is it normal for a U.S. agent to receive pitches from U.S. citizens living abroad, but also from non U.S. citizens living all around the world. If an agent thinks your book has a great chance of being successfully marketed to a U.S. audience (and of course the writing must be there), they'll be interested in considering your work. The bottom line is - your book must resonate with a U.S. book buying audience.

Regardless of your citizenship, a literary agent in the United States will want to sell the North American rights of your work first. Many agents work with foreign rights agents either within their own agency or outside their agency to sell whatever foreign rights remain available after the sale of the work to a North American publisher, generally speaking. Publishers like holding on to the most foreign rights possible, but of course, it's all negotiable (except when it's just not - I know that's not terribly helpful, I'm sorry). Publishers and agents have no problem sending whatever monies are due (advance payment and royalties) to authors not living in the United States. It's just not an issue.

So go ahead and start researching U.S. agents. is a great place to start - see what they're looking for, what they've sold to whom, and who handles their foreign rights (there is a $20.00 monthly fee, but it really is a great resource). Start querying however they like to receive queries. Let them know you're a U.S. doctoral student living abroad just so they're clear about who you are and what you do for a living. Keep querying until you get a yes.

Good luck with the rest of your work on your doctoral degree. Oddly, I found some of the best writers in workshop were perusing degrees in medicine or the biological sciences. Oh, and if you've finished a full length novel, it's no longer a hobby. You're a writer, dear.

Happy trails!

Question from @VonMalcolm, New York

How does the new trend in self-publishing effect Literary Agents?

ePublishing, which is what I think you intended to mean here, has greatly affected how agents and publishers do business, no doubt. It's not news anymore and I'm afraid I don't have much to add to the topic that hasn't already been said. But since you asked, here I go with my two cents.

Some writers are choosing to ePub or self print pub as a means to build their author platform and "test out" their book on the market in the hopes of building a readership or following, and maybe getting the attention of agents and publishers. This is a wise decision if the writer has the wherewithal to invest in professional editing services, cover design, and professional eBook formatting services (which I HIGHLY recommend). Then, just like a traditional publisher, the writer must drum up some PR three months prior to the release of the book, during the book's launch (of course) and for a minimum of three months after the release, all the while keeping up with a social media campaign. This all takes a tremendous amount of patience, energy and strategy, so if you're up for it, do it! Why not? If you need to hire a team to help you, by all means, do it! There's no reason why you shouldn't e/self pub if you're sure you can totally rock it. Maybe an agent and/or publisher will see your good work, maybe you can show them you're a good investment or...maybe you don't need an agent or a publisher because you're doing just fine on your own. 

OK. To answer your question now. I think the good agents will continue doing business as usual. "Business as usual" has changed for agents and they were smart enough to have seen these changes years ago - it's their job to spot trends in publishing. Many very reputable agents have adjusted their business models to include offering ePublishing services to their clients. Some feel this is a conflict of interest to the client because an agent is supposed to try their best to sell their client's work to a publisher. As a former agent whose favorite books have yet to meet a reading audience, If an agent can't sell their client's work after their best attempts (where the agent has kept their submission process and rejection feedback totally transparent), I see no reason why an agent's ePublishing imprint shouldn't be a viable option for the client so long as the agent is not taking more than 15% of the royalties and charges the client no fees whatsoever. More importantly, the agent must make absolutely clear to the client their professional responsibilities as the agent, publisher and promoter of the book. Everything has to be agreed upon, basically. It would be wise to seek outside legal counsel on this type of publishing agreement or at the very least the client needs to be clear about what's standard with this type of publishing agreement.

Keep in mind, while traditional and indie publishing (and I don't consider indie publishing as another name for self-publishing... I mean actual independent presses) do offer their authors attention and promotional services, a publishing contract isn't necessarily the golden ticket. I've seen books orphaned at critical stages pre-launch, publishers demanding their advance back due to lack of sales or they just decided to cut the title outright before the book even moved through editorial, all of which harm the author's chances to publish traditionally again. Both the good and bad happen in publishing no matter the route and an author should in no way consider their career made in a matter of a few published titles. Anything can happen. This is not meant to scare you, only to make you aware that there is no "best way" to publish a book anymore. 

The movement to self pub via ePublishing or print self publishing is a clarion call to the agent and publishing world. Sometimes it really is best to let the public decide what's good rather than a team of marketers, some of whom have yet to cross the Hudson. Is there a lot of garbage out on the eShelves as a result of this new publishing egalitarianism? Sure. But there are a lot of great books too. Vive la difference! And long live agents who continue to be the best supporters of their writers - the ones who continue to keep it real in this business.

Thanks for the question, @VonMalcolm! 

That's all for this week, LitReactors. Now go do something worth writing about.

About the author

ERIN REEL is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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