Why I Signed With A New York Literary Agent

Last week I announced on my author blog that I have signed with literary agent Rachel Ekstrom from the Irene Goodman Literary Agency in New York. Thank you for all the congratulations I have received!

irene goodman literary agencyMany of you have been incredibly supportive of my independent publishing career so far and I know you will have some questions. Since I have always been transparent with my journey, I’m happy to share what I can.

I am a fan of publishing in all its myriad guises, and none of us know where the industry is going.  It’s also quite ironic that I feel like I have to defend my decision, since in the past, self-publishing has needed the defense more!

Why do I even want an agent?

I am an author and an entrepreneur, so my goals center around:

  1. Creating great books and quality products that will delight, entertain, educate and inspire my readers
  2. Building a long term career as an author and widening my reader base
  3. Growing a sustainable income that enables me to travel and spend my time on (1) above!

In working towards these goals as an independent author over the last 3.5 years, I have used business partnerships with professional editors, book cover designers and formatters. I also depend on distributors like Amazon, Kobo and BookBaby to get my books into the hands of readers. I use tools like blogging and social networking to market and I pay for internet hosting to enable this. I sell from my site so I use Paypal as a merchant service.

I could not run my business without these business partners.

I look at signing with an agent, and possibly a traditional publisher, in the same way. They are business partners who I will work with to achieve a mutually beneficial goal. I am not a newbie in this business anymore. I have been learning about publishing for nearly four years, so this is certainly done with forethought. I have also done a lot of research on contracts and legalities, attending the Rights workshop at the London Book Fair as well as poring over books on contract clauses. I’m not going to sign anything that doesn’t fit with my goals.

Being an indie author is not only about self-publishing anymore. It’s more about taking control of your career as an author and becoming a creative director for each book. The Alliance of Independent Authors has a fantastic definition here if you want to read more.

So signing with an agent and pursuing traditional publishing reflects on my overall goals above as follows:

wall of books (1) Traditional publishing is excellent at creating quality products.

I’m an ebook only author right now and although I have dabbled in print, I don’t enjoy the process. I know a lot of indies do it successfully but I am a huge fan of doing things I enjoy :)

I currently employ several different editors during my writing process, and I absolutely believe this is critical for any author to invest in. Traditional publishing will hopefully take me to a new level with my writing and push me further. I will certainly be looking for a great editorial team as part of any deal.

(2) Traditional publishing will enable me to build a wider audience.

There are still many readers who will only buy print books in bookstores, or who hear about books through more traditional venues e.g. book clubs. I can reach an online audience myself but there are possibilities with traditional publishing that I also want to pursue.

(3) On the income question.

I am the kind of indie who wants a hybrid approach combining traditional publishing with self-publishing. After all, traditional and independent publishing are not mutually exclusive.

This approach can bring in spikes with advances, and then a monthly rolling income with self-publishing. I specifically went with the Irene Goodman Agency because they understand self-publishing can be an option for some of their authors at certain times, depending on the specifics of the author’s career and goals. I know some of their authors who are already following this hybrid approach successfully.

Nothing changes right now in terms of my books being available for sale. You can still buy Pentecost and Prophecy at the moment (better snap them up though!).

Here are some of the other reasons for pursuing this opportunity.

Authority, experience, social proof and let’s face it, ego.

Writer's Green Room

I want to be waiting in the writer’s green room at literary festivals.

You guys know I am proud of self-publishing and absolutely intend to continue doing it in some form. Indeed, I recently re-released my first book on career change. But originally, this blog was sub-titled ‘Adventures in Publishing’ and it was always my goal to have a traditional book deal one day.

In the UK, there are still bookstores on the high street and my parents read books in print that they buy from Waterstones. I do want to be on those shelves among the bestsellers. There is definitely still some authority and social proof with traditional publishing that I want to benefit from, so long as I can integrate it with my self-publishing goals.

I would also like to say I have ‘done it’ so I can justifiably join in the discussions on traditional publishing that I can only report on second-hand at the moment.

Film rights and other subsidiary rights.

As well as my lovely agent, Rachel Ekstrom, the Irene Goodman agency has a couple of great rights agents who focus on specific areas of subsidiary rights. I am interested to see what they can do with my books.

Lee Child talked at Thrillerfest about the upcoming movie Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise. Very exciting. I want Morgan Sierra to be the next Lara Croft, so I need people with the right contacts to make that happen. I know the film deal is a lightning strike type of luck, but some authors make it, and I have always had stretch goals and dreams!

Peer respect, blurbs and networking.

At Thrillerfest, I was excited to meet some of the big name authors who I call my writing heroes. Much as I love self-publishing, even in the current market, I think I am more likely to be able to get blurbs from big name authors if I get a traditional book deal. I have to build my author brand over time and peer networking is critical for this.

Entry into prizes.

This is an arena that is slowly opening up to indies, but most prizes are still currently based on traditional publishing. I think nominations and awards can help marketing and enable the expansion of readership.

Speaking opportunities at festivals.

I already have a professional speaking career but it doesn’t currently include talking specifically about my fiction :) The festivals in the UK especially are only about traditionally published authors, and this is an area I want to break into. (btw, I’m speaking at Zurich WriteCon in October if anyone fancies some Swiss chocolate with their scribbling!)

New York statue of libertyWhy a New York agent when I live in London?

I am British but I moved back to London last year after 11 years in Australia and New Zealand. In the last four years, I have learned about online marketing from mainly US blogs so I am enmeshed in their business models. My Mum also lived in the US for many years so I have visited a lot. I love my homeland but in terms of publishing, I believe the Americans are still ahead of us in terms of the new paradigms in publishing. I wanted a forward thinking agent at an innovative agency.

It’s also a bigger book market in the US and my current sales are about 4:1 US:UK split. I wrote for the US market and even use an American spell-check. My traffic for this site and my podcast is over 50% US so most of my existing audience is there. In publishing terms, books that make it big in the US are more likely to be picked up in the UK and in other countries. So it is a business move that hopefully will put me in a better position for achieving my goals.

I have years of writing ahead of me.

The books I have out right now are not the end of what I can create. They are not precious snowflakes (much as I love them!). I have stacks of ideas and I am writing more books. At the moment, I am mostly in the library working on edits for Exodus, ARKANE book #3 and researching my next book, Hunterian, which is possibly a stand-alone or the beginning of a new series.

This is a serious career for me. I want to sell some books to the right trade publisher and self-publish others.

I am 37 with (hopefully) 50+ years of writing ahead. The decision to sign with an agent and pursue traditional publishing for some of those books opens possibilities but it certainly doesn’t stop me from doing all kinds of exciting things in the future.

This is just the beginning. I hope you will join me for the ride!

I’d love to hear what you think as I know it’s an emotional topic. Please do leave your comments below.

Images: Flickr CC: Wall of books by sbisson, my own and iStockphoto.

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  1. says

    Congrats, Jo. I don’t feel abandoned by you but then I never thought of it as Us and Them anyway. 😉

    I think it’s a fantastic idea for indies to have an agent, even if you continue to self-publish, because they are especially good at negotiating foreign language rights, movie rights, etc. For some things, online communities do the trick, but for other things you need Connections. What do most of us know about negotiating with a Brazilian publisher to have our books translated into Portuguese???

    The sky’s the limit, girl. Don’t let anyone else put a glass ceiling in your way! 😀

  2. says

    Hi Joanna!
    I enjoyed very much reading your article on the literary agent.
    Of course it’s not the first time I hear from you, since I’m subscribed to receiveing your newsletter.
    Since I’m a newbie in the self published authors area (and the social media in general) plus from another country (Greece), not English native speaker, that is (the most difficult part of the task), I have to read and re-read things in order to decide what to keep and what to throw away, whom to listen to, what to take and what to leave, in one word. I must admit that you are someone whose newsletters I always read and then keep in a file for re-reading…
    So, it was nice to find you “out there” and leave a comment in public, thanking you -and conglatulating you -for everything you offer us.
    Best wishes for your career and your personal life as well!
    Kate Papas

  3. says

    Congratulations on your continuing journey and the realization of your goals along the way. I remember chatting with you before you became a worldwide phenomenon! I was one of the few who bought a PRINT copy of your first book… Unfortunately, my writing journey has stalled, but I have hope for the future as I have begun anew. Much luck and continued success in your future.

    • says

      ooh Kevin, that print copy might be worth something one day :) There are only a few hundred of them around as it is now “out of print” and that version doesn’t even exist in Kindle form any more as I fixed a lot of issues with it. So that has typos and everything – there’s even an art history gaff that I was devastated about later and changed pretty fast but you’d have it in that version. You never know :)

  4. says

    Exciting news Joanna, and the beginning of another exciting chapter for you I’m sure! I don’t think you have any need to justify your decision – as far as I can see, you’ve always made it abundantly clear on this blog and in the podcast that you’re interested in exploring *all* forms of publishing, as are many of your readers. It’s great that you’re exploring yet another avenue, because that means you’ll have more material to share. Personally, I’m very encouraged by the idea that indie publishing and traditional publishing can be complementary parts of a wider continuum. Good luck!

  5. says

    WOW! Um… Congradulations??? I’m sorry to be so hesitant right now but I just have previous posts and interviews in my head where your tone or comments seemed kinda against traditional publishing. You were all about the indie! Consistenly retweeted JA Konrath’s posts on how self- pub will topple trad pub. I even remember disagreeing with you on Facebook a while back when the tone of your post seemed to discredit traditional publishing all together and spoke something like “bookstores having so many returns. Is print really worth it?” and me arguing “there are many territories traditional publishers can take us like airports, mass market retailers, etc, that self publishing can’t. Why are you acting like their work is not valid?” So to tell you the truth I am truly SHOCKED at your decision. Were you pulling our coattails the whole time? Secretely wanting to be traditionally published but needed a “platform” to query an agent? You seriously don’t have to answer that cause I am in no way trying to judge you, I’m just shocked. HONESTLY. But like I said in the beginning… CONGRADULATIONS!!! Can’t wait to see you on the red carpet.

    • says

      Hi Aleshia,
      I absolutely welcome your comments & appreciate your thoughts.
      This blog was originally called “Adventures in Publishing” and my publishing quadrant – published back in 2009 shown here:
      always included traditional publishing. I was just never going to get in the query queue or join the slush pile. I don’t do rejection so that was never the path.

      In terms of tweeting, I tweet Konrath as well as the Guardian Books blog (a bastion of traditional publishing) so I have never been anti-trad at all. Just focused on my own journey which has been indie – so far. Indie is also brilliant and I won’t be giving it up – that would be a deal breaker. My latest book, How to love your job or find a new one, is currently free on Amazon – and that will remain indie published.

      So I hope to mix both worlds – it just didn’t seem like that was possible until recently. I am open to all possibilities – and hope this will enable me to expand my business. As above, I didn’t expect to have to justify or defend my decision so much – but I welcome your thoughts as ever.
      Thanks, Joanna

  6. says

    Congratulations, Joanna. It’s great to hear a positive author tale out there for a change! Looking forward to reading about your journey from indie to agented, and I agree that what’s important is that you write well and choose the path (or paths) that work for you. When’s the party?!

  7. Pat says

    Congratulations, Joann! It is no easy feat to sign with a good agent. All your hard work is paying off, plus you are inspiring the rest of us. You do not have to defend signing with an agent. It is an accomplishment many will envy (me, included :) ) I can’t wait to see a book of yours on a San Diego bookshelf. Here, we have Barnes & Noble. I remember the delight of shopping at Waterstones as well as Easons when I am on your side of the pond. All best, Pat McAuliffe

  8. says

    Wow, Joanna! What a response to this post! I’m late but had to weigh in. I think your choices will work for you. You are a role model for all new writers. You take it seriously, as a businesswoman should. You work hard and make it your focus. It’s quite apparent this is no hobby for you but a life/career choice. You are the perfect indie author to be taking this path because you’ll do it your way and you’ll share the experience with your readers. I’m so happy for you and all the future opportunities that will open to you!Wishing you nothing be success!

  9. says

    Hi JoAnna,

    Congratulations on the literary agent. I wish you all the success you deserve. My goal is the same, to get connect with agent, publisher, etc. My problem is readers buying my books. I have people interested and raving about my books but they don’t take it to the point of purchasing it. I know you can’t answer this problem in a sentence or two, but I would appreciate any suggestions. Thanks and rock on!

    • says

      Hi Jerome, I would definitely be looking at
      1) your book cover – does it pop out of the page – the cover is incredibly important to the buying decision
      2) your description on the sales page – is it actually a sales description – this will help
      3) is your price enticing enough? try a sale
      4) check your first 2 chapters are enough of a hook for people to buy. I often download samples based on the reasons above and then don’t buy the book because I’m not hooked after 2 chapters.
      I hope that helps.
      Thanks, Joanna

  10. says

    Congratulations on signing with an agent. I am a little late to hearing this news, but I am very happy for you. You have created an incredible presence online and through twitter. I very much admire you and you are one of my heroes. I hope that the future of publishing, is one where the line between independent authors and authors who are traditionally published becomes very fluid. I look forward to continuing to hear about your journey. Much continued success,

  11. says


    Congratulations on getting an agent. I hear that the Irene Goodman Agency is fabulous, so it seems as if you’ll be in good hands. I was interested in what you said about the hybrid model of publishing. I self-published my first novel THWARTED QUEEN at the end of last year, and was pleased that it got short-listed in 4 prizes, BUT I’ve only sold about 300 copies. So I’m clearly not reaching my audience! I’m going to self-pub my second novel AN UNSUITABLE SUITOR early next year, and then I’m thinking of doing an MFA because I want to hone my craft AND meet that special person who will act as my agent. So that’s how I’m thinking of building my audience, by networking through an MFA program.

    Thanks for all the work you do for authors!

    Best, Cynthia

  12. says

    Congratulations, Joanna! I always love to hear about your latest successes.
    I’m an American but recently moved to Canada to stay. If most of my audience for my first novel will be Americans, is there any downside to getting my ISBN through Canada and listing my Canadian address on the copyright page? I’m asking because I’m thinking down the road, if I decide to go with a traditional publisher, could I argue it hasn’t been published in the U.S.A. yet?
    And can I distribute the book through all the Amazon sites, including U.K., Canada and U.S.? Everyone I’ve asked so far says, “published is published” but I’m discovering the world outside of the U.S. isn’t always the same. I appreciate any suggestions from your experience publishing outside the U.S.
    Thank you!

  13. Perley J. Thibodeau says

    I have six murder mysteries in the New York Public Library that I have self published through Create Space.
    I have the seventh coming out soon with others in various stages of completion.
    All of my writings are available online through Amazon and Barnes&Noble etc
    I’ve written them to be interesting as dramatic presentations, also.
    How do I find an agent for subsidiary rights?

    • says

      I’d go about it the same way I did as above. Take your self-published sales and evidence of platform, spend the time looking for appropriate agents and submit, or meet them in person at conferences. The only short cut to a deal is to make #1 on Amazon and have them call you :) which let’s face it, we’d all love to do!

  14. Michael J. Graham says


    Maybe you can help me. I am one of the lucky ones that had an idea for a book, wrote a sample chapter and prospectus and had a contract within 3 months with a traditional publisher. I have no agent and no idea what I am doing. The book is in the final stages of typesetting and is set to be released on April 23. I am a teacher, the book is about how to use Google in the classroom.

    My questions are:

    Should I get an agent now?
    What is a good royalty rate for that genera?
    Should I get an agent before my next book?

    My editors and people that work for my publisher are amazing and have been very helpful and nice to me through the process. Should I just take that at face value or could I have gotten a better deal with representation? I literally read the contract myself and signed it, was that a good move?

  15. Perley J. Thibodeau says

    I’m pleased to see that there is an intelligent give and take conversation being held here.
    However, I don’t know if I’m over wrought or over wrote, but I am still a little lost as to the exact meaning of agent at this point.
    Are we talking about agents that submit manuscripts to publishers for possible print publication only, or are we talking about agents who also contact the various performing arts producers; as in television, movies, stage, and yes radio?
    Are they all one and the same?
    I’m perfectly content being my own publisher, however I would like to know if there are representatives who strictly work at sending already published paperback books around to the various dramatic presentation production offices.
    And if so, where do I find the names and addresses of these businesses where I can submit copies of my paperback books to for their consideration for representation in these fields?
    Is the First Writer a good website to subscribe to in this quest to further market my already marketed and selling written works?

    • says

      There are all kinds of agents – literary and also entertainment and foreign rights, and many others. You have to decide what you want and then do the research. But this blog mainly focuses on self-publishing so you are best off asking on a blog about agents re this topic. I recommend http://www.RachelleGardner.com – she is an agent who blogs and she has a lot of great info on her site about your questions.

  16. says

    Hello Joanna,

    I’m the author of “Dead Bishops Don’t Lie” , a religious thriller which I self- pubbed with Create Space and Kindle last fall. Its French version “la Danse des Évêques” was traditionally published with Marcel Broquet Éditeur in Montreal. Having a foot in each of the publishing camps, I read with interest your comments on the hybrid aspect of publishing nowadays, and the fact that indie and traditional publishing are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
    I am thinking of going to Thrillerfest this July, to explore the possibility of landing an agent for my novel “The Jewish Pope”. Is this realistic, keeping in mind that sales of “Dead Bishops Don’t Lie ” don’t warrant opening a Swiss bank account just yet?
    Your opinion would be greatly appreciated.

    Best regards,

    André K. Baby

    • says

      Hi Andre, I think Thrillerfest is fantastic and you should go for reasons other than getting an agent, since that is just one part of the convention. Networking with other authors is also really valuable and I learned a lot at Craftfest and all the panels.
      Agents are all looking for different things so I can’t say whether you would get one, but your self-publishing certainly won’t hold them back anymore. If your sales are over a couple of thousand, that’s still worth talking about.

  17. says

    Hi Joanna;
    I’m reading your Blueprint and wish you well with your agent. My experience with agents has been mixed. The problem with the last three was for them to stay in business. Many seem to flash and fade quickly. I’ve self-published five books, and traditional published through small publishers with 21 books; most in the hardboiled crime genre; 15 are available online, mostly through used book outlets. For now, I have no agent, but do have a small publisher who seems to publish anything I send them. Sales are less than spectacular but reading the Blueprint will help.


  1. […] Indie authors! This is a must-read from Joanna Penn on why she, a self-publisher, signed with a New York Literary Agent. […]

  2. […] On the other hand, traditional publishers handle the business aspects of the book and leave you to the writing. They also do things that are still very difficult for indie-authors to do, like create beautiful covers and paper stock for print products, sell translated copies overseas, and cover the author’s expenses with an advance until the book starts earning royalties. For more insight, check out indie-author Joann Penn’s post on why she decided to  go the traditional route for her next book: Why I Signed With A New York Literary Agent. […]

  3. […] that she’s signed a deal with an agent is interesting news. She’s put together a  post explaining how and why she made the decision to hybridize her approach to publishing. For those looking for a more independent path, her post […]

  4. […] Joanna Penn has become part of the latter’s list. First of all, a huge congrats to Joanna, and secondly, this Post shows you a great insight into the mind of a successful Indie. Not everyone who reads this will aggress with the thought process, but Joanna has her reasons for getting an agent. […]

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