What to do when you receive an offer before you have an agent

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

Let’s imagine a scenario (this could be pretty close to a future reality for some of you):

You’ve been submitting your manuscript to agents and editors for the past year, but then, out of the blue, you receive a call (or email) from a publishing house saying that they would like to publish your book. You’re blindsided by this news and can’t decide whether to scream because you are excited or because you are terrified. I do suggest that you keep the screaming inside until you hang up the phone. :)

The publisher tells you the basic terms of the offer (royalty rate, advance, due date, publication date), and you shakily jot notes. Then they ask you what you think or if the offer is acceptable to you. Here’s where you need to be careful. Don’t agree to anything! Say that you are thrilled with their interest, but you would like to pursue an agent’s representation so you need a little time before you can respond to the offer. Most publishing houses would prefer that you have an agent anyway so they will understand.

Hopefully your proposal or manuscript are already out with some agents so the process will be relatively quick. Two to three weeks is usually enough time to hear back from agents when you have an offer on the table. If the publisher asks how much time you need, I suggest asking for three weeks.

After you hang up the phone or send your email reply, go ahead and scream, but then you should immediately followup with the agents who have your project and even those you haven’t heard anything from yet after the initial query (if you are interested in their representation). In your followup email, make sure that your subject line states that you have an offer from PUBLISHING HOUSE NAME. That way your email will stand out in the inbox full of queries. Give the agent a general deadline of when you need to hear back from him or her (usually two weeks). With a deadline you give everyone the same courtesy while respecting the publishing house’s outstanding offer as well.

You should start hearing back from agents right away–either passing on the project because it’s not a good fit or with requests for proposals or manuscripts or with offers of representation. If you get multiple offers of representation, I suggest that you have phone conversations with all of those agents to see who is the best fit for you. If you don’t get any offers of representation, you will have to decide if the offer of publication is one you want to accept. If you would like help with the contract, contract reading services are available for a fee. I believe some are listed in the Jerry Jenkins’ Christian Writer’s Market Guide. Do not turn to your uncle who is a family law attorney to read your contract; publishing contracts are a specialized type of contract. If you want an attorney, you should look for an intellectual properties attorney.

If you do end up with a reputable agent (only query reputable agents!), the agent will take over the negotiations with the publishing house to get you the best contract possible.

Do you have any questions?

For those of you who are published, tell us your story of when your first publishing offer was made to you.

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41 Comments

  • Thanks for this information, Rachel! I don’t happen to have any publishing houses calling me right now. :) But if I did, I would now know exactly what to do!

    Appreciate it! Hope yall had a great time last week!

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    Hmmmm. How are you tuning in to my daydreams? Might have to get one of those tin foil hats . . .

  • Great advice, Rachel! I would definitely want an agent in my corner, so this is great information to tuck away in case it ever happens for me like this.

  • Thank you, Rachel, for this advice and especially for the time frame. I know that whether I wanted an agent or not, I would not want to say yes immediately to terms given over the phone. My head would be spinning and I would want to be able to calm down and think before agreeing to anything. Since I do want an agent, however, it’s good to know that it’s reasonable to tell the publishing house that and to ask for three weeks’ time before responding. If you hadn’t written this post, I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking for more than a few days before getting back to the publisher for fear that the offer would be withdrawn. Thank you for giving guidelines as to what is acceptable and reasonable.

    Blessings!

  • Lisa says:

    Thank you for this great advice! Sets my mind at ease about something that could potentially feel stressful and yet amazing at the same time:)

  • Wish I had this advice last year. :) I faced this exact dilemma. I contacted the agent to let her know I received an offer from a publisher, but she didn’t get back to me for months, so I ended up signing with the publishing house. I wasn’t sure if I made the right choice. Is it bad to admit I’m still unsure?

    Thanks for talking about this, Rachel. I’ll be better prepared next time.

  • This is good advice, and smart to not agree to anything before you’ve got back-up! I’d definitely want an agent in my corner to help negotiate and make sure I’m making the wisest choices.

  • Jeanne T says:

    Rachel, this advice makes a lot of sense. I definitely plan to keep this info in mind. In case this scenario does ever happen to me.

  • It made me giggle that you included the exact moment when it was appropriate to scream. Phew! Now I know when to slip in that screech if this scenario ever happens to me. :)

    But in all seriousness, I think this is something that crosses writers’ minds, but we quickly file it under “wishful thinking” and move on. But we need to know how to handle this sort of thing so as not to come off as unprofessional should it actually occur. So thank you for sharing your wise advise.

  • Since I have a law degree, I thought that perhaps I wouldn’t need an agent when the dream came true. I mean, I took Contracts 101 AND 102. :) But then I read James Scott Bell’s story of publishing without an agent in the beginning but how his career and income took off after he signed with an agent, and so here I am. Great information, Rachel, and I’m filing it away for when I’ll need it in the future.

  • Christina says:

    Thank you, Rachel, for the advice. A scenario I often dream about. ;)

    Does this hold true with category publishers?

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      It should. They might ask you for an answer more quickly than another publisher, but I think 3 weeks should still be okay with a category publisher too-in most cases. Sometimes they are trying to fill a spot that is coming up quickly and if they ask for a faster response you can press the agents a bit more.

  • Voni Harris says:

    Of course, the family law attorney-uncle would be a good place to start for a reference to a reputable intellectual law attorney. So is the Christian Legal Society. But, of course, those are just starts.

  • Ann Bracken says:

    How interesting that I find that I’m in this exact scenario! The publisher actually suggested I mass query, that having an agent would be in my best interests.

    It’s six weeks later, and I now have two agents who’ve expressed deep interest. Both were in town for a writer’s conference I attended, one had read the full and the other a partial before the conference started. They had long discussions with me about the book. These weren’t normal pitch sessions discussions, but ‘let me take you to lunch so we can talk freely’ and ‘please come to my room to chat for over an hour, and would you drive me to the airport so we can talk some more?’ kind of talks. They both indicated that I would hear back by the end of next week (one even gave me an offer of representation contingent on a reader at her agency), and have called and emailed me since the conference to remind me they are interested (like I’d forget!).

    This leads me to a question: How do I choose when both are highly reputable and I had so much fun with both of them? This assumes they both come back with a firm offer, of course. ;-)

    • Ann Bracken says:

      I should add that the publisher is fine with waiting. The acquisitions editor was actually happy for me, and reiterated it would be good for me to have representation, even if it meant I went with a different publisher.

    • Ann, how surreal and wonderful to be in this ‘predicament’. Congratulations! Let us know how things turn out.

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      Talk to some of the clients that each agent represents to get a better idea of the author/agent relationship. Maybe that will help you decide? Sounds like a nice predicament to be in! I’d also suggest praying for God’s guidance. Congratulations!

  • Thank you for this advice, Rachel. At ACFW I had two publishing houses ask to see my manuscript (and both asked me if I had an agent – to which I said no). I’m handing in my MS November 1st and I plan to also query agents at the same time. After reading this post, I feel more confident about how to proceed if this scenario were to play out.

  • Sarah Sundin says:

    This sounds familiar, huh, Rachel? :) I do wish I’d had this advice back in 2008, because I had no idea my eager, squealing-with-joy email response actually served as an agreement to the offered terms. I’m thankful those terms were really very fair.

    That same day, I emailed Books & Such, which I’d already decided was my dream agency, and signed with Rachel within a week. One thing I did right – putting “Contract offer from Revell” in the subject line.

  • Dale Rogers says:

    That’s a problem I’d love to have!

  • To answer your question, I had a publisher express interest at a writer’s conference (Mt Hermon) after reading a proposal. I met with various agents while at the retreat, and several offered representation. The one I wanted most was a bit more… uh… judicious, and wanted to check things out a little more. A few weeks later, she offered representation, and sold my first book to a publisher. I found out in the wee hours of the morning (4ish, I’m an early riser) when I read an email. “You have an offer… here it is…” I debated waking up my wife, and decided against it. So I paced around doing the silent cheer for a while. Super-blessed to be in the Books & Such family.

  • This is great advice, Rachel! Thank you!

    Question, I’m always leery to write in caps in the subject line as I once read on an agent’s blog that it could wind up in their spam.

    Is it best to chance it and use all caps? Or do you feel it will still be noticeable in lowercase?

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      Oops! I just put it in all caps to set it apart so that you’d all know to fill in the publisher’s name. Lowercase is just fine. Sorry to confuse you!

  • Thanks for this! Great information.

  • Sarah says:

    Wow – a scenario that’s still only in my dreams, at the moment, but gets my heart beating faster anyway! :-)

    Question: In the email to the agent, is it appropriate to detail the terms of the offer from the publishing house or is this just a notification sort of email?

  • Okay. I’m going to ask a potentially dumb question.

    How does this happen? Every publishing house I go to anymore does not accept unsolicited queries, but instead, require agents. Is it via conferences? Blogs? Contests?

    Just curious.

    Blessings,
    Becky

    • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

      I met three different editors who all requested proposals at two different writer’s conferences. The agents…not as interested.

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      It is typically through connections made at conferences or through referrals. Good question!

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Thanks Rachel, this helps…but what if all of the agents you really like have already rejected you and a publisher has just enthusiastically asked to see the full manuscript. So confusing.

  • Rachel, thank you for those great tips. I am not holding my breath that a publishing house will call me, but I am glad to know what to do should it happen. Currently, I am praying for God to send the agent right for me.

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Thanks Rachel, that clears things up for me a bit.

  • I’ve been querying agents for about five years. I’ve also tried going straight to a publisher, usually one being recommended by other authors I know. In July one of those authors suggested I contact his new publisher since they were looking for unpublished mystery writers. I queried and sent my prologue. They came back and asked for 30 pages. They decided they wanted to see the entire manuscript. They emailed a couple of weeks later and asked some general questions about the story. In early September, the email came that said if my book was still available, they wanted to offer me a contract. I did all my squealing right then and consulted two attorneys. They both indicated the contract seemed fine, but in truth, I probably would have signed it not matter what they said. Another author friend, upon learning I had been offered a contract, suggested I contact an agent who had already told me she wasn’t interested in representing me. I was not inclined to bring her or anyone else into the mix after I did all the work securing a publisher. Full disclosure here: I don’t care about the money. I wanted to be published by a publisher I didn’t have to pay to have it done. I’m happy. The book will be out in March in time for the Left Coast Crime conference. I’m ecstatic!

    • Jenny Leo says:

      Congratulations, Patricia! Your story is so encouraging. Personally I would probably still opt to seek an agent because I don’t have a very sharp head for business. I’d be too nice in negotiations. :) But I probably wouldn’t choose an agent who’d previously declined to represent me, because if she didn’t care for my writing the first time, she might lack enthusiasm going forward, contract or no contract. The exception would be an agent who declined, but nonetheless saw a glimmer of promise in my writing and encouraged me to persevere. I’d notify that agent of a contract offer without hesitation.

  • Tina says:

    This is great information. I may be finding myself in this situation within the next two weeks.

    I have an offer from a publisher and I sent my follow up to the two publishers who have my manuscript. One answered right away. Said they took a look and would like two weeks to review it. So by next week I may have two publishing offers.

    May I ask a question about agents? I submitted to forty with thirty-two no’s. If the agents didn’t feel a connection to my characters when I queried, why would they now?

    I wanted an agent. I wanted someone who knew what they were doing and would be able to help me. After all the no’s I decided to start looking for publisher’s myself.

    If anyone has some insight I’d love to hear from you. This is not an area that I have any experience. I’m fumbling my way through the dark.

    Thank you.

  • This exact thing happened to me, except I got a DM from an Acquisitions Editor on Twitter! I actually asked a published friend if she would be willing to look over the contract for me and she said, “no. But I will introduce you to my agent.” I was on the phone with him a few hours later and had an agent by the end of the day!

    I seriously pondered relying on friends who have walked the publishing road before many times to help me navigate mine. But I’m SO glad I didn’t. Having the right agent help me has been such a blessing.

  • Thanks for the advice, Rachel. I do appreciate it. I’ve wondered about this, too, because I am nearing this process of finding a publisher and agent. Question? I noticed under Submissions that you accept middle grade fiction, but I didn’t see any agents who accept MG. And if so, do you accept MG fantasy? Thanks.

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