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Do I need an agent?

Last month, we looked at how to get published traditionally in Malaysia—and we brought up the idea of a literary agent. So do you need one or not?

Here’s the whole ’nother post on literary agents we (didn’t) promise you. Keep in mind that no publisher in Malaysia (that we know of!) requires you to have an agent at the moment. You’ll only need one if you’re trying to break into the international market, or if you’re trying to sell foreign/translation rights.

But still, good to know lah!

Do I need a literary agent?

What does a literary agent do (in the UK/USA)?

Whilst traditional publishers still represent the official gatekeepers to the industry, the entry point to getting published no longer begins with submitting a completed manuscript—or even a query letter and opening chapters—to a publisher. More often than not, the first foot in the door is catching that elusive unicorn: a literary agent.

A literary agent’s primary and most obvious role is to sell the writer’s work to the publisher. They are expected to know (or find out) what publishers want and match that to the manuscript and author they are representing. Part of this consists of putting together the final query letters and materials that the publishers see.

Translation: You pitch to agent, agent pitch to publisher. Agent = middleman.

Like that only, need agent for what?

Because… agents do more than just sell. They handle financial and legal matters, including

  • negotiating contracts and payment schedules,
  • selling various rights and licenses, and
  • ensuring the contracts and deals comply with industry standards and best practices.

A good agent will have the clout, ability, and business acumen to get the author the best possible contract that maximises the author’s income streams rather than the publisher’s. After all, agents don’t work for free—they stand to earn between ten to fifteen per cent of the author’s income, even up to twenty per cent for foreign markets.

A lesser-known task of literary agents is to groom their clients and manage their careers. Not only must the manuscript be marketable, but the authors themselves must also be palatable to the public. This includes working with the author on their platform and public-facing engagements. Whether they are promoted for their celebrity status, credentials, or eccentricity, the author’s immediate sphere of influence—including their social media presence and/or other personal and professional networks—can and does influence a publisher’s decision.

A fairly new phenomenon is the provision of editorial assistance. In the past, agents focused on selling the manuscript, leaving editorial work to the actual editors in the publishing houses. However, some agents now provide editorial notes that writers are requested to work on before the manuscript is submitted to publishers. This acts as an additional service to the author and as a way to improve the saleability of the manuscript.

Translation: Actually leh, agent = business manager. They kautim all the business stuff so you focus on writing, not selling.

So why Malaysia don’t have?

Few literary agents exist outside the UK and USA English-language trade publishing industry (even in Europe). Those that exist are more likely to deal with foreign sales, translation rights, and other subsidiary rights rather than being the first liaison between author and publisher.

Publishers in Malaysia and Singapore all accept direct submissions and do not even use the same language of “solicited”, “unsolicited”, “agented”, or “unagented” in their guidelines. Most simply state that writers should send their completed manuscript to the given submissions email address. Some require certain formats or ask for a cover letter, but there are no standard rules or guidelines yet.

We believe that this is because local publishers do not receive as many submissions as those overseas. Writing is often still seen as a past time or hobby, or for the select “talented” few. As such, Malaysian publishers do not deal with the sheer volume of submissions that overwhelms trade publishing in the UK and USA.

The industry is also relatively informal and has more small independent presses than large publishing houses or conglomerates. This laid-back scene could also be a key factor. As the industry is small, it’s easier for publishers to work directly with the writers.

Translation: Market too small, no need agent. Just sell direct.

Anyway, I want to self-publish so no need agent lor

That depends!

If you want to sell translation or movie rights, getting an agent might help you negotiate a better contract! A few successful self-published authors have used agents to advance their career. These include Andy Weir (The Martian), who jumped from self-publishing into a traditional publishing deal, and Hugh Howey (Wool), who sold paperback rights to separate publishers but held on to his e-book rights.

Hybrid authors like Howey benefit the most from an agent’s experience in selling translation, foreign, and movie rights, as well as breaking down the sale of territorial publishing rights—an aspect often out of reach for self-published authors, whether through lack of contacts or lack of business know-how. Getting the advice of an agent—or a lawyer specialising in rights—would be the best way for self-published authors to navigate the tricky and difficult management of rights that goes beyond the text in their books.

Translation: When you’re famous, maybe you might need one.

Ok. So I can ignore agents for now

Yup! The need for literary agents hasn’t made its way over to Malaysia yet. If you need one here, it’s more likely for the sale of subsidiary rights (translations, movie deals, foreign rights) rather than the publishing deal.

How do I get published in Malaysia?

We’ve talked a lot about self-publishing your book, but what if you want to get a publishing deal? How do you really get published in Malaysia? For those unfamiliar with the business of publishing, the process looks something like this:

  1. Write.
  2. ??? something magical happens here???
  3. Book appears in bookstores!

Here’s a brief rundown of how to get from the writing bit to the published bit.

How do I get published in Malaysia?

Polish your work

First drafts are rarely ready for publishing, whether you decide to self-publish or are trying to attract the eye of an agent or publisher. You’ll need to go through your work with a fine toothcomb to work out all the snags and snarls. You have several options for this, including self-editing, sending your work to alpha or beta readers, or engaging an editor.

Research literary agents (international) and/or publishers (local or regional)

Getting an international publishing deal generally means you need to get an agent, though some small presses do accept direct submissions—that’s a whole ‘nother post for another time! If you’re targeting only publishers in Malaysia or Southeast Asia, you’re likely to NOT need an agent (or get strange looks when you talk about agents).

A literary agent is the person who will help you sell your book to a publisher. You’ll need to research which agents are open for submissions and what kind of books they represent. There’s no point in submitting your Wonderful Fantasy Novel to an agent who only represents Literary Novels or vice versa—that’s just the best way to rack up useless rejections.

Once you have a list of agents and publishers who might best represent your work, you’ll need to start approaching them.

Going on submission

Look up the submission guidelines for your selected agent(s)/publisher(s). Most agents & publishers require a cover letter, a synopsis (for fiction) or a proposal (for non-fiction), and sample chapters of your manuscript, however, these requirements and/or the format may sometimes differ. Some might want them in attachments, or some might want them in the body of the email, or some may use specialised submissions forms such as Submittable or Moksha. Do your due diligence and follow their requirements.

If you are looking for Malaysian-specific publishers, MABOPA has a list of publishers that you can look up here: http://mabopa.com.my/index.php/members/

Your submissions package

Your standard submissions package consists of the following:

  1. A Cover Letter
    At minimum, a cover letter tells the agent who you are, what you’ve written (a synopsis or a blurb), and why you were the best person to write it. Here are several guides to cover letters and how to write them:
  2. A Synopsis or Proposal
    Your cover letter already has a 1- or 2-paragraph synopsis of your novel which looks like the back cover blurb, enticing potential readers to want to read the novel. It’s full of mystery and potential. This is not that.
    A one-page synopsis is a full summary of your novel, including the ending of your story. Not all agents request this at the start, but they may request it after reading your cover letter so it’s always good to have this ready.
    If you’re writing a non-fiction book, what they’ll look for is a proposal. As some non-fiction books are written on-spec (as in it’s not finished before you approach an agent or publisher), this is usually a chapter-by-chapter outline of what the book will cover.
    Some useful guides can be found here:
  3. Sample chapters
    Most agents will request the first three chapters or the first 50 pages of your novel. Even if you’re submitting a proposal for a non-fiction book, it’s likely they’ll ask for a sample chapter. This is for them to evaluate the quality and style of your writing to help them decide if they like it enough to want to represent you.
  4. A One-Sheet [in-person pitches]
    If you’re going to a writing conference that has in-person pitches, agents in the USA prefer a one-sheet. (No one in the UK mentioned this at all, so it might be an American thing.) This is kind of like your cover letter, only made pretty. It still has your 2-paragraph synopsis, your bio, and your contact info, so think of it as a brief resume for your book. Here’s a useful guide with several samples:

A Full Manuscript Request

So far, all you’ve sent to the potential agent or publisher is a sample of your work. If they like what you’ve sent so far, they’ll ask you to send them the full manuscript. If they didn’t like it, or you sent your letter to the wrong person, you’ll get a rejection.

If you get a full request, OMG CONGRATULATIONS! This doesn’t mean that they will represent you, but it does mean that you’ve got good stuff going for you. So send that baby along and go celebrate a little.

OMG so tension

At this point, all you can do is wait. This can go in several ways:

  1. We love it and want to represent it.
    YOU MADE IT!
    …not yet, actually. This just means that you have an agent. Now you need to sign official stuff and then the agent will have to sell the book to a publisher (which takes another million years) and then it will take another 18 months or so to actually hit the bookshelves. But this is now out of your hands—your agent will be doing ALL THE WORK on your behalf for their 15% cut and you just have to keep waiting and praying and making decisions like “yes, we will go with this publisher” or “no, I want more money” (lol, you wish) or “oh no what do I do with this bidding war?”
    Or if you’re really unlucky, your book will still not sell after a few years and then you have to decide whether you want to stay with this agent or if you want to try your luck somewhere else. Just keeping it real here, folks.
  2. We liked it but can you fix this and resubmit?
    This happens on very rare occasions. You’ll have to decide if you agree with the changes they are requesting. If you agree, then fix it and resubmit it. If you don’t, move on to the next agent or publisher.
  3. We liked it but…
    These are the worst. This means that they liked your work (yay validation, your book is a good book) but not enough to make them want to sell it. This could be because it doesn’t quite fit what they usually sell, or they’re already representing a similar book, or they just don’t know what to do with it.
    You’ll just have to continue submitting to the next agent or publisher on your list and keep hoping for the best. Maybe you might do another edit and fix stuff that you think might make your book better.
  4. Sorry, no.
    This is pretty clear cut. It’s a no. Moving along…

Wah, like that take how long?

As a general rule, traditional publishing takes like a gazillion years between finishing your novel and seeing it in the bookstore. In practical timelines, here’s what you can expect:

  1. Signing an agent: anywhere between three months to a few years. Agents seem to take at least three months to request a full manuscript. From there, it may take anywhere from one week (if it’s an easy no) to maybe six months or more for a decision. Seeing that you may have to approach several agents over several submission cycles, this could take a very, very long time.
  2. Getting a publisher: nobody knows, really. Once you sign an agent, the agent repeats the same process above on your behalf with the publisher. Even if the agent is really, really close with the editor, publishing decisions rarely rely on only that one person. The agent has to convince the editor, who has to convince the managing/acquisitions editor, who has to pitch it at the marketing meeting… This is really a business tender. Getting numbers and proposals together takes time, so this could take months at minimum.
  3. Seeing the final book: 18 months. This is the only bit which has something of a set timeline. This 18 months includes edits (again!) and doing all the marketing stuff like getting a pretty cover, press releases, sending out Advance Review Copies (ARCS) for review (6 months at minimum), printing and distribution.

There you have it. The mysterious side of publishing demystified.

Wait, wait, but what if I only want local publishers?

Everything above applies… just delete the parts about the agent. This means you’ll:

  1. Polish your work
  2. Research potential publishers
  3. Submit to publishers
  4. Wait for a reply
  5. Get published! Or try again.