How to Sell Your Manuscript Without an Agent

First-time author Diane Kelly offers 4 strategies to connect with editors and sell your manuscript—without an agent.
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When people hear my story, some say breaking into a prestigious New York publisher without a literary agent was a coup. Others say it was pure stupidity.

I’m going with coup.

Sure, most first-time novelists who sell to large houses are represented by an agent. But I worked with two agents, and although both helped me improve my manuscript, we parted ways when they still didn’t think the manuscript was ready or marketable.

I knew selling to a large, reputable publisher alone would be difficult. But I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge. I needed to find ways to get my work in front of editors without languishing in the slush pile or having my cold query rejected per an “agented authors only” policy.

In time, I came up with four ways to do just that.

Tactic #1: Enter writing contests featuring editors as judges.

I’d learned enough about writing and the publishing industry to make a hard, honest assessment of my work. I had eight manuscripts in my inventory, and although they were in different genres, all contained a significant romantic subplot.

I hit the romance contest circuit hard, entering the books in multiple contests sponsored by chapters of Romance Writers of America. I carefully chose the contests to get my work in front of editors from different publishers. Throughout the process, I continued to revise my work based on judges’ feedback.

Over the course of a year, my manuscripts won or placed in nearly two dozen contests. That led to direct requests for complete manuscripts from three editors who had judged my work. One of these editors made an offer on two of my manuscripts.

Many major writing organizations sponsor contests on both a national and chapter level. If your entry scores high enough to advance to the final round, the editor who judges your work may request to see the full manuscript. If you don’t receive a request, the contest finals will still give you credentials and credibility, making other editors take note. And no matter what happens, the feedback you’ll receive will be well worth the entry fee.

Tactic #2: Go to conferences offering pitch sessions or workshops with editors.

I attended a variety of local, regional and national writing conferences offering pitch sessions and workshops with editors seeking manuscripts in my genres. It paid off. I received several requests for full manuscripts and eventually sold one of my completed manuscripts in a three-book deal as a result of a face-to-face pitch.

Be sure to perfect your pitch before the session. Know how much time you will have and practice to stay within that limit. Be brief, hitting only the high points about your work and experience. Be sure to leave a little time for questions.

If you can’t get a formal pitch session, you can approach your target editors before or after a workshop or lunch, or during meet and greets. Editors expect these informal pitches and are receptive as long as the pitches aren’t lengthy and don’t take place in inappropriate settings. Streamline your pitch even more—just a few brief sentences. Be professional at all times. Don’t invade an editor’s personal space and don’t linger too long.

Larger writing conferences will feature a greater number of editors from a broad spectrum of publishers, but don’t discount the smaller conferences. While they may attract fewer editors, they also attract fewer attendees, which means less competition for face time.

Tactic #3: Volunteer at editor-attended conferences.

Have a little spare time on your hands? Volunteer. Doing so at a writing conference may present the opportunity to speak directly with multiple editors. Although I volunteered as the editor/agent appointment chairperson for a local conference to give back to the organization, the position gave me the chance
to casually discuss my work with editors as I helped them get situated for their pitch appointments.

Again, be careful here. You don’t want to be seen as abusing your position, and you don’t want to come off as overbearing or manipulative. But often an editor will ask about your work, giving you a chance to discuss your projects and gauge her interest.

In addition, volunteers are sometimes offered the perk of extra pitch sessions if an editor’s schedule doesn’t fill up or if someone cancels. What’s more, volunteering can sometimes land you an invitation to private
dinners or cocktail parties with editors. These casual settings can provide rich opportunities to discuss your work in a relaxed environment.

Tactic #4: Build a platform to target editors directly.

This is the most traditional tactic of the backdoor approach. But it’s still a viable one. While a platform—any network and means you have to promote yourself—is vital for writers attempting to sell most nonfiction, it’s valuable for a fiction writer too.

The ideal platform promotes your career, and also offers something of value to writers and readers. One way to do that: Share your expertise. Everyone is, or can become, an expert in a subject. Find a topic that relates to your work, as your platform will provide a natural tie-in to your projects. Then develop multiple ways to present the information so you can reach a variety of audiences.

I’m a tax adviser, so I developed live and online tax workshops for writers, offered a quarterly newsletter with tax tips, and published tax tips on my website. When I landed a deal—a romantic mystery series starring an IRS agent—I had a built-in audience.

A platform can complement any of the other three backdoor tactics, showing editors that you’ve taken steps to make yourself known and to develop a fan base. And it gives you an advantage if you want to query publishers directly. With your platform in place, do some Google sleuthing, and find the publishing houses that don’t require all submissions to be agented (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Harlequin; Penguin’s DAW imprint; Tor/Forge; etc.). Then, submit away.

No matter how you rope your deal, don’t forget to have a contract pro look over the paperwork. Agents aren’t just gatekeepers—they’re savvy businesspeople who know the ins and outs of getting you the best deal, and handling any issues that may arise.

Sneaking in the back door isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always quick. But with a lot of hustling and a little luck, anyone can stage a literary coup.

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