Why simultaneously submitting to very small presses and literary agents is not working

globeandmail booksI’ve seen an upswing in authors simultaneously submitting to very small print presses and e-publishers as well as literary agents. I’m going to share my frustrations with this practice. I understand that writers are looking for a ‘win’ in a sea of rejection and to get themselves bumped up in the slush pile, but this is counterintuitive and here’s why:

It suggests that you and an agent might have very different ideas about the market for your book and vision for your career.

If a writer submits to agents, small presses, and e publishers what outcome are they looking to achieve? Get a small press deal and have an agent negotiate it? Get an e-publishing offer and turn it down once you’ve accomplished what you wanted: to get an agent? Use a small deal to leverage a bigger one? Ditch it all once you get an agent and then shoot for a publisher with a bigger distribution channel?

Agents are running a business and we have systems in place that works for a reason. We’re looking to discover fantastic new writers in the slush and it’s okay just to query us and not have an offer attached to your project. Don’t waste anyone time, including your own, by throwing your project into any open door in the industry. Get an agent, find one that understands your needs and loves your work, and then tackle this crazy industry together with a similar vision for your career.

Yes, the industry is changing quickly, but guess what? Great agents are ahead of the curve and know how small presses and e-publishing work and their place in the greater publishing ecosystem.

Yes, coming to an agent with an offer of representation is a good way to get yourself read quicker by an agent, but it’s almost a false start because we’re going to evaluate you on the same principles as we would anyone else.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against small presses, but commercial agents such as myself want to pursue projects that will appeal to big and small publishers alike and we often start by submitting to ‘the Big 6.’

Writers aren’t helping themselves by looking for any ‘yes’ when what they really need is the best fit of agent & publisher. This industry is not getting any simpler or more straightforward. With every news article there is a new complication introduced. Protect yourself from the sea of confusion and select an agent straight away–then carry out your career plan with your agent getting the best deal, not any deal, for you.

Q: Help me understand, why are writers submitting to both agents and small presses simultaneously? 

Image via the Globe and Mail

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

42 thoughts on “Why simultaneously submitting to very small presses and literary agents is not working

  1. I think this is a great post, with some great questions. All I can do is give you my experience as a sort of answer. I just finished revisions on my project, had sent out about 10 queries, and got a request via a pitch contest on twitter for my mss. Which I sent. At the same time, I also had an agent request. Well, that small pub request turned into an offer, and I let the agents I had queried know. That turned into an agent offer of rep, as well. Truthfully, I had no plan to submit to small press pubs — my goal has always been to find an agent who loved my work and who I could work with to get my little book(s) into the hands of readers. I thought the twitter contests were mostly frequented by agents, but I now understand that is not the case.
    Ultimately I turned down both the small press offer AND the agent’s offer. Why? Because I didn’t feel either were the right fit for the goals I have for my book, and career. I believe in finding a great fit, and will keep at it until that happens. I’m making a ton of further revisions, and will then query again.


  2. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can give my two cents for what that’s worth. For the most part I would say it’s lack of experience. Even when I was newer, I knew enough to query one group at a time. I viewed it as a courtesy. I was, and am, looking for a meaningful writing career. I started with agents and moved on to small presses, and so on. I’m going to walk the middle ground here and agree that unpubbed writers should choose what they want BEFORE submitting. This would make less of a headache for literary agents and exhaust one possibility on the writer’s part before trying small presses. BUT, looking from the writer’s perspective, there’s the not hearing back from agents, or wondering if the agent you queried even read the materials you sent. Some agents use interns to filter their inboxes and often only the queries the interns flag get read by the agent. You can understand a writer’s frustration in sending something an agent is looking for only to have someone else entirely decide the fate of their query. Some writers also see having a deal on the table as leverage. We all know this is a subjective business. Adding layers, on both sides, seems to over-complicate things.

    In the end, it’s up to each individual writer to do their homework and decide what they want out of their writing. Do you want a career, or are you merely looking for the satisfaction of hearing you’re good enough to be published, e.g. a line through an item on your bucket list? When I was in the Air Force we followed a chain of command. If we had a problem we would go to our supervisor (often a lower ranking sergeant), then on to our shop chief (higher ranking sergeant), and if the problem didn’t get solved we would keep going up the chain (the higher up you went, the higher the individual’s rank). We couldn’t skip links in the chain. I think simultaneously submitting circumvents the chain…but I can understand why some writers do it. Maybe we need a submission chain to make things easier. ;)


  3. This is very timely for me as I am getting ready to query and trying to figure out what to do.

    I think the most likely answers you, Karma Brown and btaylor have hit on: sending out as much as you can to get a hit or two because you know you will get mostly rejections, inexperience, etc. Here’s are some reasons I can think of:

    Being overwhelmed. There is so much information on what to do and not to do and, like you said, the rules change all the time. You can read an explicit set of directions from one agent and find a completely different approach on the next agent’s blog. The amount of information is amazing and fantastic – but utterly overwhelming when when a writer is trying to focus on what would best suit her needs. The goal is publishing (and a good writing career) – with all the possibly pathways to that goal, it’s little wonder they start to blur together for us.

    Terror. We are so terrified of rejection and doing something wrong (Did he reject me because I included five pages when his guidelines didn’t specify? Did she reject me because I didn’t include sample pages when her guidelines didn’t specify?) that we sometimes make choices that seem weird to you, but make total sense to us in our perpetual state of learned helplessness. Sound a little dramatic? We’re writers. ‘Nuff said!

    The opposite of delusions of grandeur. It’s all well and good for us to say, “I think an agent would be the best approach to ensure the best for me and my career.” Um, yes please! We do our research and create a rank-ordered list of agents who we KNOW would understand our artistic vision (or at least get our jokes). We’ve read the blogs and posts and we KNOW Agent Smartypants could not be anything but a kindred spirit. “I want HER,” we boldly state. “Or him, or her.” We give it our best query shot and – BAM – form rejection. After rejection, after rejection. The reality is that, after the first, second, third, kajillion, round of rejections, we are pretty much convinced that we aren’t the driving force here. Very few can pick and choose. (Congrats Karma on sticking to your guns!) We begin to believe we will never get an agent. We look around and think – well, what about my regional press? They might be interested. So we query them while we continue to grasp at the agent dream. This jump to multiplicity may come at different thresholds for different writers.

    So there are a few possible reasons – some or all of which may or may not apply to me. lol

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Excellent reasons, Jodi! And all true, I think, for many of us at one time or another. For the record, I don’t think I can ‘pick and choose’, but I’m not taking an offer that doesn’t make me tingle from excitement … gut, heart, brain must all be in alignment : )


      1. Sorry – I didn’t mean to imply that! I admire that you are sticking to your guns/gut, and hope I have the courage to do so (i.e., not snatch at the first/any-old offer that comes along) if I am ever in that position.
        Best of luck!


      1. I concur with this line of reasoning. Totally. As I am preparing to dip my toe into the world of sending out queries (getting rejections) there is a sense of panic that takes hold. Too many times, aspiring authors hear the age-old, “It took me 10+ years to get an agent.” Well, in this day and age asking anyone to wait 10+ years is unrealistic with the pleathera of options out “there”. That may distract newcomers to do everything all at once instead of taking a deep breath and making a PLAN. Make a plan for the submission phase of your writing career. That’s the advice I recieved and I am FORCING myself to stick with it, regardless of what the panicky Mel feels moment to moment.


      2. I think the important part is when you start to question whether you’re making the right choices to go back to the ‘plan’ and remember why you chose that route in the first place. All the shiny new e-pub imprints can be distracting, but you need to know why your end goal is important to you and how you can get there.


  4. Follow-up question(s) – what constitutes a small press to you? Would it be ok to simultaneously submit to mid/larger pubs while querying agents? Why is that different?


    1. Agents need to be the ones submitting your work. AND We might see areas that need improvement BEFORE a publisher of any size sees your work. We know what editors want and the format they want it in. And we have direct and already built relationships with editors which means we can do direct and get responses back quicker. The list goes on.

      What is a small press to me? I’m talking about e-publishers, regional presses, new start ups, and publishers with small & experimental lists that usually result in small print runs.


  5. We cast a wide net because we’ve been indoctrinated with the notion of needing Plan A, B, C or best-case/worst case scenarios or exploring every avenue that leads to publication. Publication is always the goal. Inundated with info, we’re spurred to exhaust every possibility. Blogs like this are a helpful counterpoint, encouraging willy-nilly submitters to slow down and query mindfully.

    I’m quite taken with Karma’s careful, conscious commitment to brain/heart/gut alignment. A wonderful way for the selective author to determine proper fit. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I recently attended a writers’ conference that included several editors and a couple of agents. All are accepting submissions from attendees for a period of time following the conference. What are the pros and cons of this opportunity, in terms of the editors? Thanks for the information you include in this blog. It is always informative and helpful.


    1. It’s up to you whether you want to take the opportunity, provided it’s a perfect fit. In an ideal world you would query right away and get an agent before you even hear back from the editor (meanwhile letting your agent know exactly who has the manuscript).

      This also depends on genre. For something like picture books, I would definitely send to the editor. But something like adult fiction, I would try to secure an agent straight away.

      I don’t have a conclusive answer for this one. But I hope it draws your attention to the pros and cons nonetheless.


  7. Great post Carly and I appreciate your candor.

    A few of my writer friends get worked up on this subject, ad nauseum. I personally think it comes down to a writer’s sales strategy. I have a business degree. So I often wonder about market positioning and branding until my brain hurts.

    Whether were selling widgets or books, we writers need to distinguish ourselves. No matter who publishes or promotes our books — and I include myself in this mix. Personally, I’m a believer in paying people for the value they bring to the market place. We write to entertain, inspire, evoke, connect, etc. Writers who think they can do it all, often self-publish (if that’s how they’re bent, that’s fine. They just need to be forthcoming with that strategy). Writers who don’t want to have “all the answers” often pull together a great, multidisciplinary team — and will likely seek representation. So that everyone has a hand (in the piggy bank) in delivering the best product they can. I have a tendency to lean towards the latter.

    I could get into margins and revenue analysis, but quite honestly — I think I’ve “geeked” this up enough.
    Just my thoughts, spurred on by yours.


    1. Its me again,
      Of course, I didn’t mention anything about small print and e-publishers. I think it just comes down to math and perceived value for writers, agents and publishers. Small print publishers and e-publishers are less likely to spend the money to promote a breakthrough novelist (they don’t have the budget), like one of the big six would. But there is an opportunity cost to that as well.

      Based on your post Carly, I can now see clearly where an agent has there challenges: They need to find quality manuscripts, in the appropriate genre, in a short period of time and find a writer who they can have an open and honest relationship with. Then both writer and agent along with the publisher can work together to create that great product for readers to enjoy.

      Between agent, writer and publisher, the relationship must be mutually beneficial – or it won’t work. Strong communication upfront is the key. Yes?


  8. This is just the conversation I’ve been looking for. At a recent pitch conference, senior editors from both Harper Collins and Penguin New York asked to read my manuscript, but I’ve also had requests from three agencies. I know that I want an agent, and two of the agencies appear to be a good fit for this novel. Do I go ahead and send the ms. to the publishers and also send it to my first choice of agencies, letting them know who has it? Or do I send it to the agent, letting them know that Harper Collins and Penguin have expressed an interest?


    1. If you think the agents will act/read quickly I would do agents first but let them know about the publisher requests. If agents take longer than 3 weeks send to editors, because that is also in your best interest.

      If an editor ends up offering they might give you a list of agents or put you in touch with one or two, as well.

      Hope that helps!


  9. First, what a helpful blog! And this post in particular is so timely, with great feedback.

    Obviously the same question can be asked of pitching to both. Even after years of learning how the business works, I’m guilty of pitching to both at a conference recently. *hangs head in shame* I hadn’t been actively submitting to or querying ANYONE, so I guess I wanted to do what Cyndi said: cast a wide net, have all Plans at the ready, exhaust all options. To be fair (and in my defense?), some people don’t really know what their best option is, even after extensive research and advice. And they likely don’t have a clear vision for their books/career.

    One aspect of it is that, when attending a writing conference, the opportunity (temptation?) to cast a wide net is just…there. A conference and chance to pitch happened smack-dab in the middle of my “what’s my goal/best course of action” dilemma. Still, I didn’t want to waste any single opportunity that I’d been afforded, so I went for it–all of it. Well, unsurprisingly, having pitched my book to both (and thankfully being met with seemingly genuine interest from everyone), I’m still faced with the lack of clarity that I had pre-conference.

    Your post made me ask myself: Would I choose to send queries/submit to both if it hadn’t been for the conference? Now that I think about it, NO. I’d choose what I think is best and keep following that tack until I: 1) realize that goal, 2) re-evaluate and change my goal, 3) quit, or 4) am dead. Just gotta fine-tune my vision!

    I can’t fully speak for those who DO actively query/submit to both, but these are the reasons why I did this once. Thanks for helping me see that I need to focus on this before I move forward in any direction.


    1. Glad I’m encouraging some inner clarity on the matter! I like that question: “Would I choose to send queries/submit to both if it hadn’t been for the conference? Now that I think about it, NO.”

      Don’t get swept up! Make sure you are setting yourself up for success in your career from the beginning.


      1. Yes ma’am, I will take a step back to ensure the right path, and I encourage others who have a ‘clarity issue’ to do the same. There is soooo much to consider, but there’s no rush; rushing could be quite detrimental. I now realize that the perceived sense of urgency some of us writers feel is only that–a perception.


  10. I’ve submitted Book 1 to over 60 agents, in over 1.5 years. No interest. Finally tried a small publisher, who even though I said it was New Adult, said their Young Adult category was full based on five pages. Though, the novel had promise.

    Honestly, publishers do a far better job of providing guidelines for submissions than agents do. They actually post 90% or more, of what the author needs to know in order to meet those guidelines on the website. I’ve seen agents on twitter complain of authors not following their guidelines, when the only guideline they have on their site is an email address. They don’t even include names of preferred genres.

    With agents taking six months, or not being professional enough to reply at all, is it worth it to the waiting author? They may have dozen novels finished by the time the agent replies, if they do, many years later. Yes, agents tell authors to find an agent first. However, for every agent, there are likely more than 10,000 writers trying to find one. And the numbers of writers aren’t going down. Nor, are the numbers of agents going up.

    And as one agent so clearly stated on Twitter last night, (paraphrased) – Don’t even bother to query an agent until you have had your novel professionally edited. That’s nice. If I had an extra $1,000 to $3,000 sitting in an empty jar, I could. I’m disabled, and unable to work in the paid world.

    Another thing, why would an author pay one editor to edit work before the agent sends it to a publisher – who will pay another editor to change it yet again?

    And you have the issue of many agents wanting the sales letter to be ready for them to copy and paste to the publishers. Not the way it should be. Part of what an authors 15% to the agent should include the agent writing the whole of the sales letter to the publisher.

    In many way, it seems agents have moved from wanting to take a rough novel, and with a few notes helping an author get published, to insisting that a manuscript and sales letter be already completed and ready to be published that day, though it will still take years.

    So yeah, you need an editor to get an agent to get a publisher these days.

    If the site Carly Watters wants the name of the agent, and the tweet referred to, I’ll provide it to her privately.


    1. I think you’ve had some negative experiences so far, which is unfortunate.

      I would recommend refraining from generalizing about any aspect of the industry. I, for one, am clear about my interests, always respond to queries and manuscript submissions, write my own pitch letters, and don’t require a professionally copy edited manuscript to be considered for representation.

      It’s a subjective business, and a busy one. I wouldn’t lump all agents or all publishers together.

      Research is key to knowing which agents and editors would be the best fit. But whether you decide to go with an agent or not, you need to be able to protect yourself against corporate interests vs. your author interests.

      If just getting material out there is your primary goal, then any publisher will do, but if you want to reach the most consumers, through the appropriate book channels, with the largest reach and marketing/publicity power–then you’re going to want a traditional major publisher and you’re going to need an agent to help you get in those doors.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Whether its an agent, small press, or a big 6 (5?) House, no one should jump at a deal just to have a deal, but a writer also shouldn’t necessarily ignore one avenue just assuming another is the “right” path.


  12. So glad I found this discussion, very lively. I have been querying a handful of agents at a time and have only considered two printing presses/small pubs. The presses that I’ve considered are the ones that I feel are the best fit and they take at least 6 months to come to a decision. Your post is making me re-think my strategy, but ultimately, I do think the lack of response and the long response times from both agents and publishing houses create a barrier for an emerging writer. The best advice, that I keep giving myself, is to be patient and thoughtful about where I’m sending my query. I want to come off as professional and somewhat knowledgeable about the industry (even though I have a lot to learn).

    Above all else, I want to write. So my other piece of advice for writers who are querying is to keep writing!


  13. The small press has its place and I agree with this writer that a writer should try to find an agent before submitting to the small press (other than short stories). The problem with some authors is they so badly want to be published that they take shortcuts. Some small press publishers will take on a new author since they wouldn’t have to pay much. It makes it difficult for an agent to take on such an author. My suggestion is to first attempt to find an agent while submitting short stories to the small press. If getting an agent ends up being impossible, then go the small press route.


  14. This is such a great post, and your answers to the many questions extremely enlightening. I wish to goodness you’d done this 5, even 3 years ago.
    Why do I say that?
    Well…I’ve been writing a long time. I first submitted a novel back in ’79, before we had internet, word-processors, any of that. So I’m well used to the snail-pace of publishing. But I’ve always believed acquiring an agent was my number one priority, until age and frustration got the better of me and I submitted to an Indie traditional publisher, They accepted my work. I believe they are good. Their chief editor is extremely robust and the product is first-class, in my opinion. Since then, I found another publisher who accepted some of my work. So…I have TWO publishers. I’m old, you see. I can’t hang around any more. Time is running out…
    So, my question is this.
    I want to be a full-time writer. I know the only way to do this is to land a contract with one of the big 6, so I need an agent. Having secured publishing deals with 2 indies, does this exclude me from finding a literary agent, and get my work out there to a much wider audience?


  15. Impressive post and conversation. Here’s where I’m at: the small presses (and lit mags) tell you do to “exhaustive” research on the many many presses, read their lists, subscribe, get to know their “thing,” tune into their pulse, find the one(s) who are a “perfect” match for your particular piece, and be sure to tell them why they’re the perfect match for you. Umm, people who expect writers to do all of that work must not be writers. As much as I’d like to take on a third full-time job doing all that research (after my day job and my night job writing career), I think I’d rather just contract someone who knows the presses big and small and could do all that work for me with much more expertise and efficiency…oh, wait, that someone exists, right?, they’re called agents, right?


  16. Not guilty of this – yet.. but I have a timing issue: I once had an agent then I had children. I am published, was courted by Virago in the dim and distant past, still publish in various areas including self publishing and I would love to get my novel published in the traditional manner. However time is getting on….. agents take months, and if you don’t multiple submit…the years tick by… the pension looms and yes you look less and less attractive as a starter to an agent and publisher, but a great novel (and obviously mine is) or let’s say a good one, can stand on its own. It can stand on its own that is, if it can battle its way past the celebrity commissions, the trawling from courses and the endless polite rejections that come late and have a habit of saying…’I really enjoyed your novel but….’ Heigh ho!


  17. I have worked on a project/ms for six years. I’ve had four alpha readers, forty-seven beta readers, an expensive developer, and finally, a paid editor. I have not gone through a proofreader yet and I think I’ll leave that out for now. At this point, I am exhausted. This isn’t just any sci-fi book, betas have mentioned how complex and layered my book is. My goal was never a niche market but mass appeal. However, you can understand how tempted I am to just go full speed ahead to agents, small publishers and the “Big Six” myself. I’m a workaholic and this waiting game is killing me. It’s been over a month and I’ve heard back from less than 2% of agents. I’ve even set aside my career to focus on this.

    However, if I accepted an offer from a small publisher and my book never takes off the way I want it to, I feel it would have wasted my time. Tiny publishers sometimes offer less of a return than simply self-publishing and self-promotion. I saw one that sold books for 3.99 and the royalties were 15%, are you kidding me? This is not a career where you’re expected to make money but for that amount, I would make more with self-promotion. It’s similar to dating, I’m fortunate to be married for a decade now, but dating just to get a yes from anyone and just marrying anyone doesn’t work. You’re better off looking for the right man or staying single and killing it/self-publish.

    Whats also devastating is everyone says to go through the agents first but more than likely the odds are stacked against me. Two to three months from now I am almost guaranteed no results. This is a reality for debut authors. So I’ll be honest here because writers go nuts wondering what they are doing wrong and it’s important for them to realize that it’s almost like winning the lottery. You can be an amazing writer, you can have a degree in English or literature and you can pour money into editing and developing from the best of the best it STILL could be a big no for you. Yet I have read some horrible horribly written books published by one of the top ten publishers where the author just threw away all the rules and had multiple POV’s in the same paragraph and, well, I cried that day. Yet, there is a silver lining to all this, after all the rejection your book is still complete and there is always self-publishing for free. So you really don’t have much to lose but time. So be patient if you can you may just get lucky.


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