Once upon a time, authors who had completed manuscripts sent their treasured darlings directly to publishing houses. Editors would read the manuscripts and offer publishing contracts to those deemed worthy. Of course, those who had contacts--authors who were personally acquainted with editors or could be recommended by friends--had the advantage over others who were unknown.
The rise of the literary agent principally came about for two reasons: one, editors simply became too overwhelmed by the sheer volume of manuscripts received; and two, as the publishing world expanded and became more complicated, it behooved writers to have a professional representative to handle contracts and negotiations. So in the beginning, agents were designed to benefit both author and publisher.
And in a large part, agents today continue to represent the best interests of both parties. For the as-yet unpublished author, though, it can seem as though literary agents exist merely to confound her dreams--to be the stalwart guards at the gate to publication.
Agent Nathan Bransford states that "[they] are the baleen to the publishing industry's whale." True enough! And in order to slip through those filtering teeth, writers aspiring to be published must write the perfect query letter, summary and sample.
Consider that agents receive between 5,000 and 20,000 (or more) submission per year. Think about how distinctive a letter would have to be in order to catch the attention of this tired agent. Discouraged yet?
And yet. . .somewhere in the neighborhood of 170,000 books are published each year in the United States alone.
It can be done. But there are two important questions.
The first is, how is it done?
And the second is, should it be done?
Stay tuned for some thoughts about those questions.