My first reaction was to roll my eyes and say, "he must be new to publishing!" But in an effort to be magnanimous and fair, I began to think, are there times where it is better to forgo the agent? After all, all of my opinions about how valuable agents are come from agents. Hmmm.... there is something a bit biased there.
BookEnds Literary Agency has a post about the value agents bring here and here.
Interestingly, Miss Snark has a very open-minded post about it here, in which she does give circumstances (or types of books) in which it is acceptable to self-publish.
An editor writes from the publisher point of view here about how important it is to have an agent bring your manuscript to them for consideration.
I also found an excellent blog written by a publishing consultant (who knew those existed?) who also details many different facets of publishing for profit, both agented and non.
After researching the possibilities, this is my take on the issue.
If you are writing non-fiction, it is easier to get published without an agent than if you are writing fiction. I'm not talking to the non-fiction side because I don't know that as well, and I have a sneaky suspicion it is an entirely different beast (the way people think all diabetes is diabetes, even though type 1 and type 2 are entirely different).
If you are writing fiction, there are options, but you have to weigh what it is you really want, and how much money and time you are willing to pay or give up in order to reach that.
- If you want to have a publisher publish you, as opposed to paying a vanity or POD or equity press, you're options are very limited. Most big publishing houses won't accept unsolicited manuscripts. You could have the next Harry Potter and it will used to break in their new shredding machine. No one will even look the teensiest look at it.
- You can go to smaller presses. The competition here is fierce, but you have more of a shot than the big houses. You don't, however, get the same level of marketing expertise or large print runs. Depending on whether they decide to publish traditionally or Print On Demand (POD), you may not have a shot at even getting your book into a bookstore. They also can't afford the masses of editors and layout experts, and often can't even afford people who are trained in this, and as such, your book is much more likely to be fraught with typos and strange layouts.
There are upsides to the small press, though, which include better communication and author involvement, and more personalized marketing. A much more comprehensive article about small presses is here.
In short: small presses offer opportunities to get published for the novelist, but if you want to make real money, you may need to later look for an agent who can then sell your book to a large press. Also, if you want to sell foreign language rights or movie rights, it behooves you to have an agent in your corner for that, as well. If your book sold well you have a better chance of landing an agent than if you hadn't published at all. If your book didn't sell well, you'll have a harder time landing an agent.
My instinct, though, with this gentleman who initially brought this question up, is that he thought it would be better to self-publish and market the book yourself. Take your boxes, if you will, and sit in front of a bookstore or a library and peddle them yourself. Which, frankly, is something many agented authors do anyway.
- The downside to self-publishing, unfair or not, is that is has a really poor reputation among the publishing community. If you self-publish, most agents and publishing houses do not recognize that as published. You can't go to them and say, "I have published one book, and now I want you to re-publish it, or publish my new one." As most self-publishing presses accept almost anyone who wants to shell out the money, you buy no credit with those who are picky.
Here is a great article on what to beware of in vanity presses. They are fraught with sneaky, thieving companies who prey on an author's desire to see their words in print. Some are fine, but many are not. Be very careful who you go with if you choose this option.
- Money is the thing other than reputation that makes this seem less viable to me. You end up paying for these publications more than most authors can recoup selling. Unless you are an amazing seller, in which case maybe you should be doing something else other than writing.
Let's take Lulu, which is one of the more popular self-publishers these days. If I want to publish my 300 page novel in paperback book form the size of a regular paperback (and not a trade), the cost per book is $49.95. For 25 copies, it's $1,238.25. For 500 books, it's 22,135, about $44 per book. I'm not sure how I am going to peddle that in front of Border's when someone can go inside and buy one for $7.99.
I recently read a book published by ACW Press, a reputable small self-publishing press which includes cover design and ISBN number so you can supposedly sell it in a bookstore, if one would take it. They also say they have professional editing, but the book I read had many typos, and occasionally the wrong name of a character or grammar issues which were most definitely not intended stylistically. If I wanted to publish my 300 word book there, POD, I'd have to pay $1,799. That would get me 15 books, which I would have to sell at $119 a piece. I could order more at $10.28 a piece. If I wanted a traditional press run of 1,000 copies, it would cost $10,220, which is only $10 a book to break even, if I could sell them all. There are extra costs, of course, which range from .10 to 3.50 per book, which you almost certainly would want.
I'm not saying this isn't viable. I just think it would be very difficult to break even, money wise. I didn't get into writing to become wealthy, but I certainly didn't do it to lose money, either.
I'm quite sure I didn't cover everything, and I am equally certain I probably got something wrong, but in my own opinion, agents make their money, and it's worth waiting to get one. I'm not expecting Spielberg to pick up my book for a movie, or fifteen European countries to snatch up French, Italian and German translations. But if they did, I'd want someone who knew what they were doing to take care of it. And frankly, I'm too busy writing to figure out all these details. Maybe if I only had one book in me, and wanted to spend the next ten years peddling it.... nah. Even then, I'd need someone else looking out for me.
At least that way I have someone else to blame other than myself! :)