Since I've been writing about agent-hunting, I've received a number of e-mails from readers who tell me they don't have agents and they're doing just fine, thank you.
I believe them – and appreciate the reminder to tell readers: You don't need an agent to sell a book. I sold three novels to small presses without representation. Unfortunately, I also got in deep financial doo-doo because I was clueless about how to negotiate the sales.
An agent would have saved me some grief. But so would a union rep. If you're going the no-agent route, I recommend joining a union. In the US, The National Writer's Union www.nwu.org is a powerful ally – and members can access great insider information, including a comprehensive comparison study on POD publishing – the best I've seen. You need to be published to join, but a few articles will qualify you. Dues are way cheaper than hiring a lawyer.
If you haven't queried widely, keep at it. But if you're getting dozens of "great writing but I don't know how to sell it" rejections for a polished novel and query, consider the self/small-press publishing route.
I know people say if your work is good enough, eventually an agent will take it on. But definitions of "good" can be subjective. Check an agent's recently sold titles. If you'd rather read cereal-box copy, your stuff won't float her Lucky Charms, either.
It's like an American/Pop Idol competition. The top contenders are excellent practitioners of a prescribed, copy-cat style. But Mr. Cowell would sprain a sneer muscle if confronted with a young Dylan, Louis Armstrong, or Ralph Stanley.
The global economy has American Idolized the world. In Jane Austen's lifetime, success meant selling a few thousand books. Her publisher didn't worry about sales in Durban or Perth – or whether Texas Wal-Marts might ban Pride And Prejudice because Lizzie's sister was a fallen woman. But today a TV show is cancelled if it only draws twelve million viewers. Big publishers buy fewer and fewer novels. Like television producers, they make more money with schlocky "reality" than with crafted fiction. And that fiction has to appeal to millions.
It's true you can't get a manuscript read at a big house without an agent, and even medium-sized presses are closing doors to the unrepresented. But major house publication can be overrated. Often a first novelist gets fifteen Warhol minutes, then splat – if she doesn't have a film in development at Warner Brothers within the year, she's a failure who has to change her name to publish again.
Writers – even novelists – can start careers through small presses and/or self publishing if they're good at promotion and publicity. A great source for book marketing strategies is writing guru Dan Poynter http://www.parapublishing.com/sites/para/. His valuable newsletter is free.
The Web provides increasing alternatives to the old publishing paradigm. E-publishing is still in its infancy. Clever online networking can reach way more customers than treeware languishing on a shelf.
Plus there's much talk now of "Long Tail" marketing – a term coined by Wired editor Chris Anderson. It refers to the part of the sales chart composed of niche sales, which he argues will become as important as mega-hits now that technology has provided the "infinite shelf-space" effect.
One caveat if you go the POD route: Have your book professionally edited and proofread. Every shoddy self-published book adds to the bad rep of the rest.
If you're not Web savvy, consider regional publishing. Most areas have small presses that specialize in local history and guidebooks. Sometimes they'll take on a novel or memoir with a local setting. Or self-publish for the local market. Sometimes you can place books on consignment in gift shops, hotels, and restaurants – which avoids the problem of bookstores' distain for POD.
Suggestions for becoming a big fish in a hometown pond:
Incorporate a local legend or ghost story into your paranormal romance.
Set your cozy at a nearby landmark.
Contact community outreach at your local police department. (Some offer formal classes.) A fictionalized version of a famous local case might make a great police procedural.
Write about sex in your city. (If your heroine shops in neighbourhood stores, they might carry your book.)
Join local genealogical/historical societies and set a family saga against the backdrop of your region's history.
Publishing with POD or regional presses can result in substantial sales if you're willing to work. Plus, your book can stay in print for decades rather than months. Go for it!
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and freelance writer. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food Of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as firstname.lastname@example.org