Victoria Strauss — Writers’ Myth: “You Have To Know Someone”

Writer Beware - istockWe’ve punctured a number of writers’ myths on this blog, including the notion that commercially-published writers must give back their advances if their books don’t earn out, the fear that agents and editors will blacklist writers who displease them, the conviction that “just getting it out there” (via self-publishing, for instance) is enough to jump-start a career, the idea that getting published is some kind of crapshoot, and the “everyone has to start somewhere” excuse that throws so many writers into the arms of amateur agents and publishers.

Here’s another one: “You have to know someone in order to get published.”

Agents and editors simply aren’t interested in work by unknown writers, this myth goes, because unknowns are too risky. In order to get attention for your debut manuscript, you need to be famous, have a friend or relative in the publishing biz, be referred by a client, or already possess a publishing track record (hence a popular variant of the myth, “You can’t get published without an agent, but you can’t get an agent unless you’re published”). Without these connections, your chances of selling your first book are practically nil.

Of course, having connections doesn’t hurt. But trust me, they aren’t a pre-requisite for publication. If they were, very few debuts would ever reach the market.

Along with the “everyone has to start somewhere” fallacy, the “you have to know someone” myth is one of the most pernicious, because it convinces many writers that it’s not even worth trying for commercial publication. Instead of boldly querying the top agents who can get their manuscripts onto the desks of editors at big publishing houses, or going direct to the reputable independent publishers that accept unagented submissions, many writers who buy into this myth confine their queries to amateur or track-recordless agents, or decide to self-publish, or approach only micro-presses. Of course, while hooking up with an amateur agent is never a good move, self- or micro-press publication can be entirely appropriate in the right circumstances. But if you have commercial ambitions, it’s probably not the best place to start–especially if you haven’t even given the commercial route a chance. You’ll never know whether you could have succeeded if you don’t try.

We’ve actually touched on this myth before. Then, we had only anecdotal evidence with which to debunk it. Now there’s something a bit more solid.

A few weeks back, YA author Megan Crewe decided to conduct an inquiry into the publishing connections myth. She recently published the results of her poll–and they’re very interesting.

270 writers participated, representing a variety of genres: children’s picture books, middle grade, YA, adult genre, and adult literary/mainstream. Although “[o]nly 55% of the respondents had an agent when they sold their first book,”

[t]he majority of the authors who had an agent, got that agent with no prior connection (62%). They simply cold-queried the agent, submitted their book or proposal, and were offered representation…

Authors were even less likely to have a connection to the editor who bought their first book. 72% sold to an editor they had no connection to (28% cold-queried or submitted on their own, 44% had their agent submit to an editor the author didn’t know).

Megan’s conclusion:

The poll wasn’t perfect, but it seems pretty clear to me that having connections in the publishing industry is far from necessary when it comes to both getting an agent and getting an editor to buy your book. So if you have connections, sure, go ahead and use them. Certainly can’t hurt. But if you don’t have any, if you can’t afford to go to conferences to meet agents and editors, don’t despair. Cold querying works just fine!

There you have it–persuasive proof that you do not, in fact, need to know anyone in order to sell your first book.

(A note on the respondents who sold their first books without an agent: Given the reluctance of the larger houses to deal with unagented authors, the fact that nearly half the respondents had no agent surprises me. However, many respondents appear to have been children’s picture book writers, which is one of the markets in which it’s more feasible to go agentless, even with the bigger publishers. Also, the numbers may be skewed by when the writers sold their books–before the 1990’s, the big houses were still relatively open to unagented writers–or to whom, since smaller publishers are more likely to be willing to work directly with authors.)

(And another note, on why, rather than triggering publishers’ and agents’ risk-averseness, new writers can actually be more attractive than established ones: A new writer is an unknown quantity. He or she could fail–but s/he could also break big. J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer are extreme examples, but there are many more modest ones. An established writer, on the other hand, is a known quantity, since publishers and agents always have access to his or her Bookscan numbers–and this is not always a good thing, especially if the writer’s sales have been flat over a couple of books, or if they’re actually shrinking. In those circumstances, the publisher may well well feel that the untapped potential of the brand-new writer is a better investment than the lackluster track record of the established author, who may have proven his/her talent and professionalism, but has also demonstrated that s/he is not going to break out. This is why I’m always saying that while the difficulty of first publication hasn’t changed greatly over the past few decades, sustaining a career has become enormously more challenging.)

7 Responses

  1. Dave Rhodes

    I’m wondering, if agents are so necessary anymore. I would like to have some feedback from one. I am a SCI FI writer and last year, a large book company asked me for my manuscript and they published it. Of course I had to pay, however the overall cost is less than if you did it all yourself. I published the next two books with a POD publisher. Now the book companies also have marketing and in fact they seem to like my books. They are putting them in book fairs and other things like, press release, other shows and reviews. I do have to pay to put it in the catalog and booth at the book fair. Relatively inexpensive. I as an author can also market and there are fabulous third party marketers. Plus the ebooks on Kindle at amazon and at the authors web page. I agree that sustaining a career is more challenging. However, I think an author has to get involved. I’d like to hear back from an agent. What are your advantages? I’m way more involved in marketing as perhaps writing and marketing goes hand in hand especially in this economy, one thing that is nice, you meet people and find out that in fact there are readers. I was asked to even bring my books and do a book signing of all places at a wedding rehearsal. Perhaps an agent can do more. Can he or she. I wonder? I read that an author can expect a 5-7K front and possible 20K volume in overall sales. I also wonder why that surprises you that anybody would publish without an agent as you state above, I think that there is a shift going on. Are you listening Mr. agent? The author now is involved in social networking, websites, web presence, blogs, video’s, interviews, book signings, working with bookstores and libraries. I’m fairly new at this and we are just as able to make a marketing buzz as anybody else with far less money. However Bottom line, it does take money and contacts, and yes I’m striving for better than 20k volume in sales. Another advantage, It doesn’t take two years to get the book out. It now takes 3-6 months and you are on the market. Shouldn’t one strive for Faster, better, cheaper? A book is a product and yes of course my books are really really special!

  2. WriterBeware Post author


    If you want to place a book with an imprint of one of the big publishing houses (Random House, Penguin), an agent really is essential. Few imprints will even look at unagented work any longer, and those that do give it rock-bottom priority (i.e., there will always be an author with an agent in front of you). Also, agents don’t just place books with publishers–they sell subsidiary rights, run interference between you and your publisher, and provide career guidance. All very important functions.

    If you want to go agentless, there are many good independent specialist publishers that are willing to deal directly with authors. For SF/fantasy, you can find a list of them here. (There are also a lot of amateur publishers, though, so watch out. You can always contact Writer Beware–see our About Us page for contact info–to see if we’ve gotten any complaints.)

    There’s also no need for an agent if you’re willing to pay to publish, whether with a vanity publisher or a self-publishing service such as In Writer Beware’s opinion, vanity publishing is never a good option (see the Vanity and Subsidy Publishers page for a fuller discussion). Self-publishing, by contrast, can be a viable alternative for some people in some circumstances–but for others, it’s not a good starting point. Because self-publishing companies provide very little meaningful marketing and distribution, and individual authors don’t have access to the marketing and distribution channels that commercial publishers use, it is a huge challenge for self-publishers just to get books into the hands of readers–never mind getting national review or media coverage.

    There are also major problems of visibility (as a self-published author, you’re competing not just with commercially-published authors in your genre, but with all the other self-published authors as well–and you have almost no tools to help you do that), and, in many cases, of perception, since self-published books are widely (and not always fairly) perceived to be of lesser quality. As a result, the average self-published book sells around 200 copies, mostly to people the author knows or can contact face-to-face.

  3. seras nikita

    Hi, I’m presently querying with my first ms and I’m confused by the initial post –

    Of course I had to pay, however the overall cost is less than if you did it all yourself. Could you provide more insight? I was under the impression that author-to-publisher payment is never in order if you are publishing commercially. What did you pay for? All the information I can get is helpful

  4. WriterBeware Post author

    You’re right–in commercial publishing, the publisher pays the author, not the other way around.

    If you pay to publish, you’re either vanity publishing (never a good option, as noted above) or self-publishing (a reasonable option in some circumstances, but not in others).

    I suspect that Mr. Rhodes is talking about a vanity publisher.

  5. Paul Medus

    The response to Dave tells only half the story, particularly about agents and the services they provide.

    While it is true an agent provides subsidiary rights service and runs interference between the author and the publisher, these services are quickly becoming weak reasons to have an agent.

    Agents have slush piles read by, often, unpaid interns. If a writer wins the agent lottery, what, may I ask, are they getting for their 15%? The aforementioned services and career guidance? Really, that’s the reasons I should have an agent?

    The only reason I try to acquire an agent is they have the ability and opportunity to pitch my work to editors and publishers.

    On another note in the same vein, I’ve often read or heard that books are rejected primarily because they lack quality. Let’s see if I can thresh through the quality angle here:

    1. Words, sentences, and paragraphs do not have grammar, punctuation, or syntax errors.

    2. Plots are logical and coherent.

    3. Characters are full, rounded, and complex.

    4. Conflict is compelling, drawing the reader in and keeping them there.

    5. Length of novel (which varies, but 85,000 words for a first novel ought to fit the bill).

    Now, if a book meets these ideals, a rejection letter is still mailed out when on that day, in a slush pile of three hundred manuscripts, the unpaid intern determines that, well, the itch doesn’t make them scratch enough.

    This, my dears, happens all the time. Good books are rejected by agents on a daily basis. Thus, for the publishing industry as whole to continue to stick to the same old, tired line of soliciting a manuscript to agents who are more and more posting “unsolicited manuscripts” not read, is, at the very least, naive.

    Furthermore, the idea that a manuscript will get read based on a query letter’s quality is an absurd practice that is strictly for the convenience of the agent, editor, and publisher. The “good book” has a bad query letter, so how would an agent even know if they rejected a good book or a bad book? What they rejected was a bad query letter.

    The world is changing and the publishing industry has dealt with it almost not at all.

    Future writers with “good books” should not despair if the agents doesn’t pick their book, especially if the writer wrote a bad query letter. Just try another angle. It’s ok. It’s not demeaning for the unpublished writer to try and sell their own book.

    Writer Beware is one thing; casting doubt and shame on emerging venues that lead to publishing is quite another thing. It’s like saying, “Who needs a horseless carriage when I’ve got a fine horse right here in my stall.”

    Change happens even when everything else is standing still. Publishing and distributing books is not necessarily in the same arena as the occupation of selling books. By their own words, publishers seldom promote the books they publish. I can’t believe I just wrote that. Incredible! Not promote something they the publisher invested in? Well dang, no wonder they are going out of business.

    As for emerging writers, the sooner they learn about distribution and selling, the better chance they have of surviving in a brutal business.

    Or, you can get an agent who gets a publisher, and for 15%, the agent can recommend a publicist. Getouddahere already!!!

  6. WriterBeware Post author


    I agree that the world is changing. But one thing remains the same, at least for now: individual writers don’t have access to the marketing and distribution channels of the book trade. That’s one of the biggest advantages that commercial publishers offer–and for most of those publishers, having an agent is essential, or at least will substantially increase your chances, for getting a contract offer.

    Commercial publishers never did significant promotion for the majority of their titles. It has always been true that only a few authors got the perks of book tours, advertising, and the like. But all commercial publishers market their books–with catalogs, advertising, book fair displays, reviews, distribution, and a sales force that makes direct contact with booksellers. This kind of marketing, which mostly happens prior to publication, is quite different from the self-promotion that authors are expected to do, and far more important, since it gets books onto bookstore shelves. Without that kind of marketing and distribution support, authors’ own efforts don’t have much to build on.

    The thing about the horseless carriage was that went faster than a horse, ate less, and required less care. It offered, in other words, substantial advantages. By contrast, most of the “emerging venues” for writers (by which I’m guessing you mostly mean self-publishing options) are slower (no real distribution), eat up more resources (since many require the author to pay a fee and/or encourage authors to “invest” in buying their own books), and everything that must be done, other than merely producing the book for sale, must be done by the author. In other words, more money, more labor, and a smaller return.

    Do authors sometimes succeed with these alternate venues? Absolutely. But if they do, it’s generally in spite of the venue they’ve chosen, rather than because of it. Self-publishing is indeed an alternative to the agent-and-commercial-publisher route, and can work well for some writers–but it’s at best naive, and at worst misleading, to claim that it’s equivalent.

  7. sammy

    Well, I’m in the very early stages of publication (i.e., still working on the manuscript), but I was wondering, could I get a few pointers on what my query letter(s) should consist of? Much appreciated.