An author asked my opinion the other day about how long he should wait for his agent to sell his book before pulling it away from her and publishing it himself. Here's what I replied.
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This one is easy:
I'm semi-serious about this. If you've been fortunate enough (more like "blessed") to land a legitimate, hard-working literary agent who took on the work of a first-time author (whom you seem to be), you'd be crazy to dump that agent simply because you can get your book into print sooner yourself. If that's all you wanted, I doubt you would have taken the time and effort to find a literary agent willing to take on an untested author in the first place. Besides, self-publishing is not only a quick way to publish your book but also a sure-fire way to get you branded a "loser" within the publishing industry.
Also, self-publishing is a great way to spin your wheels and end up with very little to show for your time and effort. Most self-published books earn their authors less than $100 in their lifetimes. Far less!
Now, if you have a questionable agent—one you're not sure is actually working at selling your book at all—my question to you is why? Why didn't you check out the agent before signing on the dotted line? Asked for a list of some of her clients for you to contact? See what books she's sold for those clients? To what publishing houses? Every agent worth her salt should be willing to provide answers to questions such as those. If yours can't, it's safe to say you don't have a legitimate agent, and you need to get free of her ASAP.
On the flip side, no one knows how long a book will take to find a home with a conventional, advance-paying publisher—not even the hardest working agent in the world. My agent sold one of my books she'd been bouncing around from one publisher to another for nearly twenty years. Without a single taker! She believed in the book, though, so she kept pitching it, realizing that old editors leave their jobs, and new editors arrive to take their place on a continuing basis. Sure enough, one of those new editors happened along and agreed with my agent that the book needed to see the light of print.
Now, most agents won't carry a piece of work that may seem like "dead wood" for anywhere near that long. But I write two or three books a year and keep her busy with a handful of solid book proposals every few months, so she's always juggling properties and editors. Sooner or later, she knows that every one of my pitches will hit pay dirt. And it always does.
If a writer cranks out a single novel, however, and sends it to a receptive agent, that agent isn't likely to wait forever in hopes of finding a home for it. If you find one who's an exception, stick with her. She's worth her weight in gold. Remember, legitimate agents don't earn a dime for their efforts until they sell a property and the first advance check rolls in. Most of them, in my experience, tend to give up on one-book authors and their singular properties within a year's time and turn to more productive pursuits, like other authors with a selection of properties that may be more marketable to pitch.
What a conundrum, you say? It needn't be. If you're a one-trick pony (or a one-book author), maybe it's time you sat down and had a serious heart-to-heart talk with yourself. Do you want to be a published author, or don't you? If so, get busy on another book just in case the agent can't sell your first one quickly. And then write another after that. And another after that. Agents like productive clients. They rarely hang on to one-trick ponies.
In time, if the book is marketable and the agent is reliable, it will sell, and it will be published. You can bank on it. Until it does ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new e-Book series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. His blogs appear on his Website at www.djherda.org. You can also check out his columns, "The Author-Ethicist" and "Fury and the Beast," at Substack. They're free; they're entertaining; they're informative, and they run weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he does his best!)