Now, I'm not talking about bumping your agent off, although I'll bet it's crossed the minds of some writers out there. Kidding aside, I've had more people ask me this question than any other over the years, so I thought I might 'splain' myself. And, of course, this is Guerrilla Warfare For Writers, where I tend to do some things that might be unconventional, or suggest things you haven't heard of before. To the gritty, here's the question:
"Chris, why in the hell are you submitting to publishers when you have an agent?"
Answer: "Because I wouldn't have it any other way."
I've had three agents over the last 24 years--good agents--A-listers, and if there's one thing that I do stipulate in a contract with an agent, or make perfectly clear via email or over the phone, it's that I intend to be PRO-ACTIVE in my association with them. And that is the perfect word to use when describing your intentions. You wish to be pro-active and part of the submission process. It goes without saying that your agent knows what he/she is doing, has been doing for (probably) years, knows the submission ropes, contract snafus, and, above all, has the contacts in the industry. This is a given and we hope our agent has all of those bases covered. What your agent doesn't have is an endless amount of hours to pour hundreds manuscripts into the Valley of the Editing Damned, considering he/she might have a hefty client load, and that's besides little ole you, who might be a new addition to the fold, and an unknown, nobody, whosit.
In the first place, don't even think about submitting (the same manuscript your agent has) to the Big Six, or is it the Big Five now? You can't anyway--their door swings open only for agent subs. Stay away from the huge independents that might not require an agent submission, but are most certainly known to your publisher in the pertinent genre, like Baen, Daw and some of the others. However, keep on the lookout for major publishers who sponsor "open calls", (like Harper Voyager) which are designed to open the flood gates to new authors without agents. Your agent might miss a few of these, and you can certainly alert him/her to the notice, or ask if you could send in a sample. This goes for major contests too, and you can really shine here and add some heft to your submission stock. Also, new publishers crop up all the time. The ones to take notice of are the one's who pay advances and have a good, legit distribution--it happens--some publishers come into the arena fully prepared--I know of about six houses that have just surfaced and offer mildly lucrative contracts, even if the advances run from $200 on up to $2,500.
Just to put you at ease: I've never had an agent refuse my offer to help out. Never. In fact, they appreciated the offer. This also works out when you find or suggest a publisher to your agent that he/she might have missed or never considered. I just recently tipped my agent off to a publisher who just started accepting thrillers. The result was a $6500 advance and contract to one of her clients; one of my stable buddies. I was thanked profusely. Not the first time this has happened. When you have your eagle eye on the markets like I do, you can bust out with the latest info or opportunities and alert your agent. That's just one way of showing support and helping out.
SOME GUIDELINES FIRST:
Research the living daylights out of your prospective publishing houses. Go to sites like Predators and Editors and AbsoluteWrite.com for the low down on all of them. You'll find them and their current rating, unless they're so new they haven't made their first boot print in the snow. Look up their published titles on Amazon--look for good rank and lots of positive reviews. Contact an author or two if you're curious about how personable and efficient the pub house is. You definitely want publishers who pay advances, small and on up, and have the ability to get your book into libraries, bookstores and supermarkets. You would be shocked to know how many small and independent presses there are out there who can do this.
Send your tentative list to your agent and let him/her peruse it. There might be some bad eggs on your list, or ones that he/she intends to solicit. And lots of agents pitch on the phone--a very effective and swift mode of contact. Make sure you do not cross-list with your agent's list--this is very important and could cause a train wreck down the rails if two like manuscripts end up under the eye of the editor, or you have two manuscripts floating around in an office shared by two editors.
Don't go hog wild. Give yourself a submission limit. Send out about a half dozen or so to test the waters. Wait for the responses. Keep your antennae tweaked for any comments or rewrite suggestions (see item below). Your sub train can start out right along with your agent's, but truthfully, this works best toward the end of your agent's submission process. You know, that ugly time when it doesn't look so good and you've taken a dozen or more rejections on your book and you feel or suspect your agent might be winding down? This also works great after your book has gone the agent route and there's seemingly no hope for it.
If you get a request for a rewrite, an R&R, go ahead and do it if you think the outcome will give you a much better book. Don't make any promises to the publisher. You can decline, and then actually perform the rewrite later if you want. What about rejections that suggest certain work on areas that need it? What if more than two publishers tell you that you have serious problems with plot, pace, characterization, typos, grammar problems, genre confusion, or other problems? If you agree with their reason why your book got the boot, and you can fix it, by all means forge ahead and do the rewrite. You've just been blessed by an editor and it hasn't cost you a nickle--another positive perk to getting feedback you can use. Do your rewrite and send off the new edition to your agent. It's not all that much of a bother to swap it out--delete one--paste in the other.
What if you get an offer? Politely tell the publisher that you would like your agent to check the contract. Explain that you always hand the ball off to your agent for the fine details, and you follow his/her directions before acceptance. What if the publisher writes back and wonders why in all that is holy and decent did you not state that you had an agent, and why did you make the submission in his/her stead? This won't happen if you list your agent's name and company name at the bottom of your query letter--the place where your bio and credit list goes. Second answer: "I'm allowed to be pro-active and take care of some of the smaller press and independent submissions. My agent is aware of my activity, and knows who I am submitting to.
Multiple offers? Send all that information to your agent. Your agent might have an offer on the table as well--this can all work great for a leverage type deal, or even an auction or preempt.
Let your agent know of any major developments. But DO NOT utter one word about negotiations, deals, contract changes, rights, advances or royalties with an offering publisher. Nothing. Mouth shut. Do the lateral hand-off to the pro. Ask your agent what he/she thinks of the deal. Go ahead and express your gut feelings, if you want, but don't argue, beg or plead. Listen and pay rapt attention. If your agent thinks that a solid independent niche publisher is a perfect fit for you, pay heed and get ready to rock and roll.
So, is double-tapping unethical? No. It's being pro-active. And in this day and age of trade publishing where it can take up to 1.5 years for your agent to land a deal, this process gives it a little fast track that can only work to your advantage. So don't sit on your ass and complain after the dust has settled. Ask to help out--be part of the process either from the beginning or toward the end. But so help me, if you feel that your agent hasn't worked for the deal that you land, and you leave him/her out of the deal, I'll come through this screen and throttle you properly.