I recently had occasion to exchange some emails with Peter Buckman of the UK-based Ampersand Agency Ltd. In the process of discussing other matters, he made the following comment: "I wish you'd also make clear to American hopeful writers that if they're writing on American subjects in an American setting, they really need an American publisher on board before the British and European editors would take notice. I am constantly surprised by how many Americans write to us when they should first secure an American agent--and equally surprisedby the number of Americans who seem to think their stamps (for return postage) will work outside the USA!"
Overseas submitters take note: you need to deal with the return postage issue in a way that will actually work overseas. Or if possible, use email.
But that's not really my subject today. What I want to focus on is Mr. Buckman's comment about the appropriateness, or not, of overseas submissions.
Writer Beware often gets questions from writers in one country about agents in another. Mostly we hear from US writers who want to know about British agents, but we also hear from UK writers who are interested in querying American agents, and occasionally from Australian writers looking for agents in the US or the UK. Sometimes these writers feel they've exhausted agent possibilities in their own countries, and are looking for fresh options overseas. Sometimes they think that as long as the agent is interested in their market or genre, one agent is as good as another, no matter where in the world the agent is located.
Unfortunately, that's not the case. Agents generally focus their selling efforts in their own countries, where they know the market and are easily able to maintain the contacts and business connections a successful agent needs. For overseas sales, they use co-agents who have similar connections and contacts in those countries. A British agent won't try to sell to American publishers himself; he'll send the ms. to his co-agent in the US, and that agent, who knows American editors and what they're looking for, will submit it out.
However, it’s usually only once a book has been published and has picked up some momentum--good sales, excellent reviews, media interest--that it becomes a viable candidate for foreign sales. Your agent, therefore, will concentrate on selling your book for first-time publication before he starts thinking about foreign and/or other subrights--and since he’ll be doing that in his own country, your book needs to be a good fit for that market. Books with American characters in American settings usually aren't suitable for first sale in the UK, just as books with British characters in British settings usually aren't suitable for first sale in the US. It's tough enough for any book to find a readership; it's even tougher when the subject matter may not resonate with with the prospective audience. That's certainly how publishers see it.
Note that the statements in the previous paragraph are qualified by "usually" and "generally speaking." Obviously, there are exceptions. You read about them in the trade press: the hot manuscript put out to bid simutaneously in the US, UK, and Germany; the blockbuster that took the Frankfurt Book Fair by storm and sold rights in thirteen countries before the fair was finished. This kind of thing, however, is rare, and it’s a whole lot more likely that your book is not suitable for this kind of treatment than that it is. There are also books that by their nature are less culture-specific: historical epics, for example, or science fiction and fantasy, or thrillers that take their characters around the world. For those books, it's feasible to approach an agent in another country if you’ve researched the agent and feel he or she would be perfect for the book. But if your work is culture-specific--if you're an American writer who has written a detective novel set in Chicago, or a British writer who has penned a literary novel set in Glasgow--you're best off seeking an agent in your own country, who will market to appropriate publishers there.
This brings me to a "beware." If an American agent tells you he can sell your book in Britain as easily as in the US, or if a British agent encourages you to believe he can sell "anywhere" because he has contacts all over the world, be wary: it may be a sign of inexperience (the agent doesn't know the way things work) or of fraud (he doesn't care where you come from as long as you pay his fee--a late, unlamented example of this is the notorious Christopher Hill). Experienced, reputable agents target their own domestic markets first--and so should you.