Do you need an agent to get published?

Graeme Macrae Burnet
Category: Writing

Like a lot of first time novelists, my first novel isn’t my first novel at all. Back in the 1990s, I wrote a crime novel called Hard Rain which loitered around various publishers' desks for a year or so before accepting its permanent interment in my bottom drawer. When I came to submit The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau I realised quite a lot had changed in the publishing world. Chief among these changes was the fact that most publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. This, of course, necessitates Getting an Agent, something which among unpublished writers has become, in itself, something of a Holy Grail. Once you have found an agent, fabulous riches and acclaim will rain down from the heavens. You will start wearing cravats and smoking fine cigars. You’ll spend your afternoons getting sozzled in Soho basements with Will Self.

Once you have found an agent, fabulous riches and acclaim will rain down from the heavens.

So, you send out your carefully tailored letters, synopses and sample chapters and await your fate. You get good at waiting. You get a few rejections, but tell yourself that they probably haven’t even read your submission. Then you get a few more rejections and you start thinking that, yeah, they’re probably right, your stupid novel probably is unpublishable drivel. Then you get a bit of interest, you send off the complete manuscript. You wait some more. Then another email: ‘Can we have a meeting?’ Things are looking up. You buy a new shirt. You resolve to sit in such a position as to conceal the cigarette burn on the sleeve of your Good Jacket. The meeting is entirely focussed on the manuscript. Nobody mentions your nice new shirt. You go away and make some changes. Quite a lot of changes. You send the manuscript back. You make some more changes. Then, ay-caramba, you sign a contract: you have an agent.

The real Holy Grail

Then you realise that Getting an Agent is not the Holy Grail. The agent is only the gate-keeper to the gate-keeper. Sure, when an agent sends something to a publisher it carries a bit of weight, but that, as you find, is no guarantee of acceptance. In my case, the rejections piled up until we reached the point at which ‘all avenues had been exhausted’.

The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau cover
Strangely, I did not find this process wholly disheartening. The feedback from the publishers (maybe they were being kind) was generally of the ‘this-doesn’t-fit-with-our-list’ nature. Nobody said, ‘This book stinks.’ And the fact that the agent had invested a considerable amount of time and expertise reading and suggesting improvements to the manuscript and then pitching it on my behalf, gave me some faith that, even if I hadn’t found a publisher, I was at least in possession of something of publishable quality. I only had to find a publisher who thought the same thing.

Unlike the major publishers, whose names first draw your eye when you open The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, many independent publishers do accept unsolicited manuscripts.

The road to Co-op cava

Enter Saraband. Unlike the major publishers, whose names first draw your eye when you open The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, many independent publishers do accept unsolicited manuscripts. I thus sent my now reasonably polished manuscript to a small number of indies. Within days I got an email back from Sara Hunt at Saraband saying that this was of interest and they would fast-track it. Within a few weeks (lightning quick by publishing standards), they had expressed a serious interest and asked me to make a few minor changes. This I did and within a couple of weeks, Sara emailed to say that, yes, they would like to go ahead and publish. Copious amounts of Co-op cava were quickly procured and drunk.

The process since then has been a joy. I can’t speak highly enough of Sara and everyone at Saraband. I’ve been incredibly impressed by their professionalism, enthusiasm and creativity, and I’ve been consulted at every stage of the process. I feel very privileged to be on board with them.

A happy ending

So, for me, a very happy ending. And hopefully a beginning. When The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau comes out this month, it will be almost three years since I started the submission process. I don’t regret the way I went about things – you have to follow the advice that’s available to you. I benefitted hugely from the editorial input of the agent, even though they were ultimately unable to place the book – something which was no doubt equally disappointing to them. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that, as a writer, the only thing you are ultimately in control of is the quality of your manuscript. It has to be worked and re-worked and re-worked until you can’t stand the sight of it anymore. And then there is the little bit of luck that it lands on the desk of the right person at the right time. Thankfully for me that was Sara Hunt’s desk and I will be eternally grateful for that.



Win a copy of The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnett. Simply email your answer to the following question to or post your answer in the comments below. 

- Which Glasgow-based publisher is publishing The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau?

Closing date for entries: 21 July 2014. UK Only. Winner chosen at random.


Read a short extract from The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, and check out some of our other New Writers' work here.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

Graeme received a New Writers Award in 2013. He studied English Literature at Glasgow University before spending some years teaching in France, the Czech Republic and Portugal. He then took an M.Litt in International Security Studies at St Andrews University and fell into a series of jobs in television. These days he lives in Glasgow. His debut novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, is published by Saraband. He is currently working on a new novel set in 1860s Wester Ross, and developing two more books featuring Georges Gorski.