Home » Agents, Bestsellers, Big Publishing, Books in General, Marketing, The Business of Writing » What I Learned From Having A Literary Agent.

What I Learned From Having A Literary Agent.

30 January 2013

By Scott D. Southard:

“For five years, my books were represented by a big agency out of New York City. While I don’t want to name any names, I think I can safely say that this agency has a long history and has been associated with such writers as Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, and John Irving. (Yeah, I have two degrees of separation between my books and Scout!) Their clients are a who’s who of writing over the last one hundred years and as a writer and literature buff I could not have been more thrilled.

“Thrilled? No, let me correct that.

“I bragged! I gloated! I patted myself on the back every chance I got! I was big man on literary campus and it was only a matter of time before everyone knew my name. Start preparing the Booker prize trophy now… Wait, do they do a trophy? Or is it a medal? I have no idea (if it’s just a certificate that would be lame).

“There is this wonderful Hollywood dream for artists that when someone of importance finds their work that suddenly everything is going to be streets of gold from then on and all the hard work is over. (Remember “The Standard Rich and Famous” contract in The Muppet Movie?) Well, I fell for that dream hook, line and sinker; and over the five years I was signed with this agency my career was stagnant.”

Read the rest here:  The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard.

Julia Barrett

Agents, Bestsellers, Big Publishing, Books in General, Marketing, The Business of Writing

83 Comments to “What I Learned From Having A Literary Agent.”

  1. Hoo boy.

    From what I can tell the author is espousing the worst of both worlds: Yes, sign up with an agency! The bigger the better! But don’t expect them to do any work to justify their control of your work, no-competes, exclusives, and 15% forever, that’s on you! It’s YOUR career!

    (In fairness that is an exaggeration. But not, in my opinion, all that much of one.)

  2. In contrast to the author’s assertion that you should should sign up with a literary agency:

    http://www.ninc.com/blog/index.php/archives/dodging-the-agent-bullet

    • Laura – great post. I really appreciate that you are putting your experience out there, unsoftened. A great gift to other writers.

  3. “If an established agency (And I wrote here about what to look for with an agency because not all agencies are equal) wants to represent your book you should always jump onboard, that’s not a question.”

    Just sign what they put in front of you and get to writing, because you’re set! :rolleyes:

  4. I think it is very obvious that he is very much traditional route minded when it comes to publishing and that is okay. He knows from experience now what it is really like. I don’t agree with a lot of the things he says but that is okay too. We all have different views when it comes to publishing. You have to pick the one that works for you.

    • -I- am very traditional-minded when it comes to publishing. It’s been my full-time self-supporting income for over 20 years and, as of 2012, my earnings from publishers still accounted for 2/3-3/4 of my income, and self-publishing and other Long Tail ventures only about 1/3-1/4 of my earnings.

      But, as per the link I posted above, I disagree with this individual’s endorsement for the author-agent business model.

  5. Is that the John Hawkins Agency? Just guessing/remembering off the top of my head. My second guess would have been HN Swanson if he didn’t say NYC.
    If you’ve never visited Paris, you want to go there, just like you want the prestigious agent trip, too.
    For the outliers, it’s swell.

  6. I just discovered that my post was shared on this site (Hi!). Thanks for everyone reading it.

    Barbara, in regards to which agency I am talking about; No, it is not John Hawkins. I’m hesitant to name names, but I can at least confirm that that is not the agency.

    I agree with Vera, a writer needs to choose the path that works best for them and what they want from their writing. I had dreams (and still do sometimes) of New York Times Best Sellers and displays in my local big chain bookstore for my latest book (cardboard cutout of me holding my book, for example). Agents are gatekeepers to the big publishers and big dreams; I don’t see that changing any time soon. But, let’s be honest, the marketplace is changing.

    Dan, I did read the contract before I signed with them and it was a very fair contract and typical of any agency contract. The only issue is nothing happened after that. I was simply not on their radar; they had bigger fish.

    If anyone would like me to respond to future comments, please post them on my site below the article. I also have other articles on writing and life in general. I hope you will check it out.

    Thanks for reading and sharing my article.

    • Thanks for being a good sport, Mr. Southard. I found your article intriguing. Another side of things.

    • Scott-
      After following the link, I also read your “indie publisher SOS” post. You have a *perfect* platform to release that book as self-published and it’s hard to imagine what the downside might be.
      A lot of us here would look at that situation and think, “WOW! Thanks for doing all the work and handing me a ready-to-publish book with no strings attached!”
      I can’t speak from personal experience, but many here can, and it doesn’t sound like there’s really all that much marketing support from publishing houses anyway.

    • Actually, Scott, you’ll be happy to know that agents are *not* gatekeepers to the NYT best seller’s list. Several indies have made it there without representation, and only after they made the list were they persuaded to go with an agent and then a publisher. I repeat: there are no gatekeepers anymore, save one group … the readers, as it should be.

    • Hi Scott.

      I was just remembering from my experience at Hawkins that they had a long and impressive history with luminaries. But that doesn’t mean they were the only ones who have.

      Glad to see you here and good luck with all you do.

  7. Here’s a quote I had issue with. Otherwise, I think he’s just expressing his experience and conclusions based on that and the following misinformation:

    “While agents are, and will always be, the gatekeepers to the big publishing houses…”

    Agents will NOT always be the gatekeepers. It’s been said here before and other places many times. Agents are becoming almost obsolete; and certainly, many authors are now making a living sans agent (like me!) The floodgates are open and most of the gatekeepers are being washed away…

  8. Thanks for posting this Julia.

    This is a really interesting post. It’s nice, but he’s pissed underneath – appropriately so.

    I suspect he’s being nice because he wants another agent, and he’s worried he’ll get a bad name if he trashes his former agency. But he’s pissed, and hurt enough, that he wants to let people know what happened. He really got screwed by his agency and that rings loud and clear underneath.

    They let his books fester for 5 years and then dropped him. That’s pretty awful. And he’s right – he can’t get those 5 years back.

    I’m sorry he was mistreated. I think it is terribly painful when authors are disillusioned like this.

    I hope that he starts to realize that the problem is not his lack of self-promotion, but a system that treats the author as unimportant and disposable. Over time, as he realizes that he doesn’t need an agent (or a trad. pub. for that matter) he may decide to be stronger in his message – “I was screwed over.”

    As for what agency – again, he doesn’t want to name names (I wish people would start doing that), but anyone who wanted to figure out who represented Steinbeck, Lee and Irving could figure it out.

    He wants us to know, but he’s nervous about it. I appreciate that he wrote the post.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head. He’s putting out there that his writing was good enough for a big agency and maybe hopes some other agent will want to see what he has to offer. It is possible that the traditional method is what he is most familiar with and hard to let go of. Most people don’t like change and after being able to brag about this A-list agency, it must be quite a let-down to be once again, just an agentless writer.

      I give him credit for being honest. Five years ago, if I had landed an agent like that, you better believe I’d be bragging up a storm! lol. Or at least name dropping whenever possible. “Oh, you know, my agent with ‘Fantabulous Agency–the one that represented Harper Lee–yes, To Kill a Mockingbird, has high hopes for my manuscript.” ;-)

    • Exactly–it’s the system, which was broken and is just getting more broken as time marches on.

      I had THREE agents–fancy, fancy agents. Two of them were willing to work. None of them did me any good. I think when competent people of good will are completely unable to get anywhere in a particular system, you need to be very skeptical about that system. Especially when there’s another system out there that actually allows you to produce books instead of letting you dangle for years on end.

      And like you say, when that system treats YOU as the disposable bit–well, really. Why would you want that?

      • “I think when competent people of good will are completely unable to get anywhere in a particular system, you need to be very skeptical about that system.”

        Amen to that.

      • @ Mary, you said:
        “I think when competent people of good will are completely unable to get anywhere in a particular system, you need to be very skeptical about that system”

        EXACTLY. Well said!

    • Mira, as per my bad experiences with four agents (one of whom has since retired; three of whom are still active and, as when I hired them, very “big”), as well as bad experiences with various agents whom I queried over the years (I don’t mean that rejection was a “bad experience,” I mean that a number of my queries got mundo-weirdo and unprofessional responses from well-known agents), as well as the awful expriences that dozens of writers whom I know have had with agents, as well as the negative experiences with several agents that Mary Sisson mentions above… the NAME of the agent is IRRELEVANT.

      The problem is not specific individuals whom you can readily avoid by taking down their names, a process which isn’t going to help you. The problem is the business model–and the sh*t the writers keep putting up with from agents as the “normal” s.o.p. of the biz, as well as the incompeteny and unethical sh*t that agents, AS A PROFESSION, keep inflicting on writers, as the “normal” s.o.p. of the industry.

      Given that NAMING an agent in public, on the web, when recounting your bad experiences with him (a) usually commences a quarrel or flamewar with the agent, (b) invariably commences a quarrel or flamewar with aspiring writers who want to believe that agent will be Prince Charming and take them away from all this, (c) has been known to lead to DEATH THREATS on a number of occasions from some of the less-than-perfectly-balanced aspiring writers out there, and (d) leaves the naming author open to a slander or libel lawsuit from the angry agent who doesn’t LIKE a former client going around publicly describing him as unethical and incompetent… only a very, very stupid writer names names in public just to satisfy the curiosity of total strangers on the web–which is the only purpose that would be served by naming names.

      • My experiences with my two Very Big Lit agents were also frustrating. The first one dragged out the process, not submitting, asking for a rewrite, sitting on it for six months…then deciding he didn’t want to represent a book in that genre after all, but “what else do you have?” Second one would only submit to those editors she liked (not a big group) and would not submit to others. I should have learned from my experience as a screenwriter. That was even worse. I had two agents for that and EVERY dime I earned from screenwriting – not a fortune at all – I earned from contacts I made. One left the business suddenly without telling me. If I didn’t know better I’d say they were all actively sabotaging my career. The rise of indie pubbing came along not a minute too soon.

        • And, again, the specific experiences Larry describes above with two literary agents are =very widespread= practices/problems. Getting Larry to open himself to a libel suit, as well as finding his in-box flooded with angry messages from aspiring writers eager to see his two former big agents as their personal dream-deliveres, as well as becoming an angry-blog target for the agent, his friends, and/or clients eager to support him… None of that’s going to protect others here from hiring an agent who follows the same practices as described in Larry’s post, because those two agents aren’t special, unique, or unusual. The problems he describes are very, very common. Too common for name-the-agent to be your solution to avoiding them. I, for example, had these problems with all four of my former agents, and I hear monthly or weekly from longtime pro writers having the exact same problems with their current agents and wondering what the solution is (the only one I ever found that worked was: fire the agent and submit yourself–I’ve made 3/4 of my 30+ book sales WITHOUT an agent)), or else being harrassed by an agent they’ve decided to leave because of the practices Larry has described.

          As long as these (and many other) bad practices remain so widespread, naming the agent in public is pointless–it provides a LOT of headaches for the departing or former client, while not helping or serving anyone else.

          • Right. My point is, it’s not the agents – I still think mine were better than many – but the system itself that tries to convince us that the gatekeepers are necessary, worthy, career-makers, indispensable, etc. If I had to add up all the time I waited on them to punch my ticket for me, it would be MORE than five years.

            • It was six years for me–pretty much a complete waste of time, energy, and money. Now I have two books out with more coming, and I don’t have to dance around trying to please people who, for no particular reason, have been given 100% of the power.

              • Congrats for securing your own release from the prison of the system. Another problem is our own making: writers who haven’t published are so grateful – TOO grateful – that any gatekeeper is paying us any attention, we’ll jump through any hoops, “wait six months,” etc., just so we won’t fall out of disfavor with them. Done with it.

      • Laura, your comment is spot-on. For me the stats are 14 & 0; two agents, both well known and respected in my niche market, 14 contracts signed and not one of those deals made by my agent of record at the time. Naming names is irrelevant and serves no purpose, as this sort of thing can happen in any pairing of author with agency.

        • @ Laura and Deb -

          I completely respect where you are coming from by saying this is a system problem, so what is the point of naming names? You’re likely to get alot of flack, and maybe even lose some of your reputation, if you get a flamewar directed toward you (although it could always go the other way, and you get positive attention).

          But I can’t fault anyone for not wanting to buck the conventions or risk personal damage.

          But I will say this: The reasons I wish some brave people would start naming names are these:

          a. I believe it is inappropriate that there is so much pressure not to. Writers are customers of agents. There should never be pressure on a consumer not to complain about the performance of someone they hired. I can complain about my dentist, my doctor, my lawyer, my haircutter. I am their client, and I can go onto Yelp, their website, other websites or my own website or blog and share my experience. I have the right to go to the Better Business Bureau and file a complaint.

          As a consumer, I have rights. And writers are consumers of an agent’s service.

          b. The pressure on writers to remain silent and isolated (or they will be blacklisted) is long-standing and exploitative. It is one of the primary ways this exploitive system was allowed to flourish. It wasn’t until some transparency came with the internet, and information was shared anonymously and through agent blogs, that writers finally began to realize they were being used.

          Writers need to speak. They need to protect themselves, and they need to break this silence and become a force that advocates for themselves.

          c. Even though this is a system problem, it is also an individual problem. Individual agents who screw over writers should be held accountable for their actions. That means they are named. If they remain secret, they are not being held accountable.

          Someone has to start with the naming of names. Once a few people start (and it’s true, they will most likely be given a hard time), it will make it easier for other people to name names. Over time, it will become normal to name names, but someone has to be the pioneer.

          I don’t fault anyone for not wanting that role; there are other battles to be fought. But I hope someone takes that plunge and shakes up the taboos.

          p.s. I really don’t think there is a possiblity for a libel and/or slander case here. I could be wrong, I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think anyone can have a case if you stick to the facts and your feelings about them. I also think it would be really dumb for a literary agency to sue if someone names them – think of all the potential media attention and bad press. Of course, you can never count on someone not being dumb. But I honestly think this rumor that you could be sued is a tactic to keep people quiet. I could be wrong about that, though.

  9. I read this posting and the comments, and then went over to Scotts site and read the whole blog. Out of curiosity I then decided to check out a few of his books on Amazon. So that in itself is proof that getting your name out there, even in a blog, can help your discoverabilty.

    But what did I discover at Amazon? That the only thing available for the Kindle is a Blog subscription. None of his books are available in my preferred book buying format. That seems like a wasted opportunity.

    As a reader, it does not matter to me in the slightest whether an author has an agent or not, what matters is getting books into the hands of the reader and ignoring the kindle is not going to help reach that goal.

    • Hi Tom,

      Sadly, my publisher for A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM my most recent book just closed up shop because of a health issue of one of the co-owners. Seriously, this all happened over the weekend! Yeah, if you went looking a week earlier it would have been there.

      In regards to MY PROBLEM WITH DOORS and MEGAN, both of them are available as eBooks but are only sold via Google Play which is compatible with a Kindle. That was that publisher’s decision.

      Cheers.
      -Scott

      • Not meaning to pry, but why on Earth would they take a published book down because of somebody’s health? Once up they don’t need maintenance.

        I hope the rights reverted on depublication.

        • Trust me, you weren’t the only person to ask this question (i.e., me as well). The book was only out for a month and I had a series of reviews, interviews, guests posts, etc. lined up around it when the ball dropped. They also canceled other books they had out and some they were in the process of planning; so it was across the board.

          I do have a signed letter of termination, showing again my rights. Nicely, as well, they gave me the cover image which I like.

          Right now I am talking to a few other publishers, so I hope it will be back soon… and if not, I will dip my toe in self-publishing.

          • Dip! Dip! Dip!

            Dip that toe!

          • I mean, it is none of my business and nothing personal at all, but why would you keep putting your hand in the gator’s mouth when it keeps biting you?

            Agent->fail. Publishers->fail. A publisher that can’t get your book on Kindle is no publisher at all.

            The only thing you haven’t tried is self-pub. And why not? Is there some psychological barrier, or is it an ego decision, or do you not yet feel confident of your skills? Most indies learned by hitting the ground running and made it up as they went along. If you have the skill and perseverance to write a book, the rest of it is in your reach.

            Again, I have no vested interest in any particular route. I just think people abdicate far too much responsibility in this world. Because you nailed it–NO ONE WILL EVER CARE AS MUCH AS YOU DO!

          • Dip that toe! It’s a lovely pool! (And just think, if you keep it up? Every cover can be one you’re satisfied with. Being your own art director is the most awesome thing. ;) )

      • Just as an FYI Google Play Books are not compatible with Kindle per Google’s own site.

        http://support.google.com/googleplay/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=179849

        If I had to guess, I would say that Google Play is at least 4th (maybe lower) on the list of places to get e-books. They would be behind Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble. The dedicated devices offered by those outlets really funnel their users to their individual book stores. I think that the publisher is leaving money on the table and hindering your discoverability by not having it available at the other e-book retailers.

        Anyway, I hope you get everything straightened out to your liking and thanks for responding.

        • Don’t forget Kobo, which (as I have read) is ahead of Apple in terms of volume of book sales, and leaves B&N in the dust. As for Google Play, in nearly two years of research and practice, this is, I think, only the second time I’ve even heard it mentioned.

          • I’ve heard it a few more times than that.

            But I’m fairly sure I could count all the times I’ve heard it mentioned as a good place to go and buy a commercially published book you actually want to read on my manipulative digits.

        • I can’t figure out how to get onto Google Play (either to sample books or publish them!), and if The World’s Search Engine can’t make it easy to find that out… I’m not really interested in that much work. If I can’t figure out how to get books from them, and I’m pretty tech-literate most of the time, how will anyone else figure it out?

    • @ Tom- I did the very same thing. I was looking forward to downloading a sample or two as I was a bit intrigued by what I saw on the site.

      @ Scott- Since the rights have reverted on the Jane Austen book, I hope to see them on Amazon soon.

      Google Play Books are not compatible with the kindle. You might have your publisher looking into why they’re not available on the larger platforms. I think not having there is to the detriment of both you and them.

      FWIW, as a reader I purchase from 4 stores and Google Play is not one of them. MMV for others.

      • LOL. I try not to return to the comments, but you guys keep roping me back in. I can’t give you guys up! LOL.

        Okay, in regards to GooglePlay, I’ve had a few debates about it with the publishers. I didn’t know it was an issue with Kindle. (Personally, I am all about holding a book, so I will be pulled kicking and screaming into that world). I’ll have to bring it up to them. Which is a shame, I’m proud of DOORS and MEGAN (you can read samples of both on my site- sdsouthard.com

        I hope to have an idea what is going on with AUSTEN something soon.

        • Re: “I try not to return to the comments, but you guys keep roping me back in. I can’t give you guys up!”

          Dude…welcome to Passive Voice. That’s kind of how this place rolls.

        • Yes, The Passive Voice does kind of suck you in, doesn’t it?

          I’m with the other commenters here, there is *no reason* for your books to be missing from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo. Google Play is a very very distant 4th (or even 5th, after Sony’s ebookstore).

          Better yet, take those reverted rights and your already-polished book, hire a formatter (or tackle the formatting yourself) and publish yourself for 60-70% of the profits. Seriously.

          I’d be happy to send you a list of vetted formatters that a lot of indie authors use. Drop me a line – anthea at anthelawson dot com.

        • I like paper books. I currently own just over 3,000 physical volumes. I’ve probably bought/sold/traded twice as many again in my lifetime (which still makes me a small fish but I hope establishes my cred.) However, I wonder if you have thought about what you said from the point of view of the would-be reader who for whatever reason does not want to or cannot buy your books in hard copy?

          Perhaps they’re old or have health problems that make e-readers more convenient. Perhaps they have limited physical space. Perhaps they just think that chopping up trees and shipping their carcasses hither and yon is wasteful and bad for Mother Earth.

          Because if I’m that reader, what I just heard was, “I don’t care if you want my book or not. I don’t want to sell it to you.”

          I’m fairly sure that’s not what you meant. But it’s what that reader may very well hear. To which the only reasonable answer is, “Fine. I won’t buy it.”

          • Whoa… Didn’t mean it that way. Let’s all be friends here, Marc. It’s all good, I’m sorry if I came off harsh or something; not what I was aiming for.

            When A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM was out as an eBook I pushed it, and I hope to do it again, once it is back (fingers crossed).

            In regards to DOORS and MEGAN, that was the publisher’s decision, and I debated with them about it over quite a few e-mails. Everyone here has given me something to think about and bring back up with them. I didn’t know it didn’t work with Kindle.

            Each post I write on my blog notes that they are available via Google Play, so I am pushing them in that format, but you are right. There is more that can be done.

            • Like I said, I was pretty sure that was not what you meant.

              But if I am Joe Q. Reader, who just wants to read a book from this Southard fellow people seem to think well of, and I can’t find it, and I search and I see a comment along the lines of “I don’t like e-books so I don’t go out of my way to make sure my books are out there for e-readers,” my response might very well be, “Well, then why should I go out of my way to read them? Plenty of fish in the sea.”

              That’s not what you meant, but it’s what you said.

              And, to be perfectly blunt, I am a bit leery of any author who doesn’t buy a a copy of his books, print and e-form, and make sure they are readable as they hit the market. (Yes, I do this. I buy my books from Createspace, Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, Kobo, and iTunes. As soon as they hit the purchase page. And then I review them. I don’t read every word but I scan every page.) Any author who doesn’t own a device which can run the Kindle app, the Nook app, and the Kobo app, at the very least*, and purchase and review their books on them is telling me they don’t care about the reader experience. Which is fine. There’s no reason an author who doesn’t care about the reader experience couldn’t write a good book. But if I have a choice between authors who do and who don’t, ceteris paribus I’m going to go with Door #1.

              This gets back to what your original post was saying, really: it’s YOUR career. Ain’t nobody gonna mind it better than you.

              *Unless they are Kindle Select, in which case just the Kindle App, or a physical Kindle, is acceptable. :)

  10. It’s almost like readers didn’t know who his agent was!

    I’d have had the same feeling he did about the agency, but these days you can’t depend on any company just because they were big three years ago. Much less farther back!

  11. Just to satisfy the insatiable curiosity of some commentators here, this website provides the name of the agent and agency representing Harper Lee. Presumably, someone there repped Mr. Southard.

    http://querytracker.net/agent.php?agent=264

  12. First, the primary point I read in Scott’s blog could be considered “How to work with an agent 101″: a writer must keep up contact with the agent, just as you must keep up contact with everyone you do business with on a regular basis. Otherwise, even the agent who could help your career (please assume for the moment that this rare species does exist) will forget you exist & fail you.

    That said, there is a very understandable issue that fuels the myth that a writer needs an agent: do editors in major publishing houses read unagented submissions? I’m not an insider so what I know is based on what I read, & I’ve encountered many accounts that editors will discard or return unread manuscripts sent directly from authors, & none from new writers whose experience contradicts that.

    I read somewhere this new arrangement came about after the anthrax scare in 2001: editors are wary of any letters or packages coming from addresses they don’t know. (Which would explain why people like Laura Resnick & Dean Wesley Smith can submit directly: the acquiring editorial staff know they’re not sending anthrax-tainted letters to them, or at least they’re smart enough not to do it in their own names.) Which then leads to the question, how do these acquiring editors know which submissions are from agents, & which are from writers? Maybe the secret is in the stationary: unpublished writers should submit their manuscripts thru fictitious agents under their letterheads. That would be simple to do in this day of cheap laser printers.

    Too bad we don’t hear from new writers who managed to get published without any help of agents. I assume they exist…

    • “[D]o editors in major publishing houses read unagented submissions?”

      Yes, they do. When they are in the Amazon Top 100.

      It seems that your chances of getting a book not only in front of an editor but sold to an editor, if you want to do that, are rapidly becoming as good if not better if you indie-publish and establish that people will pay to read it in reasonable numbers than if you get an agent to take it to take it to an editor.

      (Yes, that sentence was labyrinthine. That was on purpose.)

      Yes, editors have trust in agents (sometimes) to put unknown work in front of them. But talk, as a man once said, is cheap: whisky costs money. Maybe the agent believes in you. Maybe he can get the editor to believe in you. But if the editor sees that 5,000 people bought the book in e-form in six months, with no publisher backing it, she doesn’t have to “believe in” anything. Money talks and nobody walks.

      If you don’t think you can get a book into the Amazon Top 100, or at least establish that yes, a lot of people who aren’t related to you will pay cash money for it, then maybe you’re better off going with the long-tail theory and sticking to indiepub. Because if you get the editor to have faith in the agent who has faith in you and the book doesn’t sell, you’ve wasted a lot of time and a lot of money and established that you’re an author whose books don’t sell.

      KDP, as has been pointed out, is becoming the new slushpile for the Big Six-ish. It is actually far more advantageous, from an editor’s point of view, than agent-submissions in many ways. It’s convenient. (At the airport for an hour? Shop in your genre in the Kindle Store and see what’s hot!) And the book’s sales rank is right there on the page. Has it got a lot of (literate) four and five star reviews? Are people buying it? Are its also-boughts indicative of quality and genre fit? My God, what in the world more do you want? Hit that sample button and read a few pages!

      The argument to the agent being the first gatekeeper is rapidly decaying: It turns out agents aren’t any better at predicting what will sell than editors are. And it’s becoming more and more apparent that many of them actively hinder the process not as “gatekeepers” but for random and arbitrary reasons. So why should the editor care about their gatekeeping when they can crowd-source it to the customers who will ultimately be buying that author’s books?

      • Exactly. Risk-free acquisition for the suits. It’s been that way with Hollywood studios for years: You, mister filmmaker beg, borrow and steal to make your film, and if somehow it’s a hit at Sundance or elsewhere, then we’ll swoop in and snap it up.

      • Also, ‘no unagented submissions’ is a myth. Go read Dean Wesley Smith on “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing.” http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?page_id=860

        There are ALL KINDS of ways to get to editors, including cold submitting, conferences, contests, etc.

        • I thought I used the word “myth” with that statement. Yep, looking back I did write “the myth that a writer needs an agent”. I hope my incredulity that anyone would believe this myth came thru; otherwise, I will be forced to resort to larger doses of sarcasm to make it clear.

          To repeat myself, people here — & at all the other blogs mentioned at PV — can shout until they’re blue in the face that a writer doesn’t need an agent. And I’m happy to add my own voice to those. (I suspect part the myth is due to newbie confusion between the terms “unsolicited” & “unagented”. Please note carefully I know the difference.) However, in reading other writing blogs I have yet to see one writer say they achieved publication with a traditional house thru directly submitting to an acquisitions editor.

          The story that gets the publicity is that an agent played some role in getting the book published. That story gets repeated in other blogs over & over. Doubtlessly there are some cases where someone with insider knowledge of the business has made a difference in getting a book accepted — I have heard of one or two such special cases. But if anyone wants to combat this myth, there needs to be counter-examples of first-time writers bypassing agents by submitting directly to editors. Not cases where they create an audience thru publishing ebooks, but thru directly dealing with editors. And these cases need to be made better known.

          Because until information like that gets out, people will continue to believe in this myth. And that fact doesn’t depend on any response people write — no matter how well argued — to my post here.

          • Umm, I sold a book through the slush to a publishing house, although this was in 2002, the Stone Ages, and it was Kensington, a mid-major and not a Big Six. Then got an agent.

            After dry spell, left agent and went indie while dealing with a couple of other agents who never sold anything. Stopped wasting my time on agents. Sold to readers instead.

            Five Kindle Top 100 hits later (in the US, in addition to 5 in Germany and two in Italy), who needs an agent? Funny, but my first agent is now interested. And I said, “Get an offer if you can and I will consider it, but I am keeping on with what I am doing. I am not pausing or taking a detour for anyone.” And also that I wouldn’t even look at anything that wasn’t six figures.

            He was a little stunned but also a little more educated, because these stories are increasingly common. These days, when they WANT you is exactly the point you no longer need THEM.

            I don’t know about the old myths. I believe in creating new ones.

          • ‘However, in reading other writing blogs I have yet to see one writer say they achieved publication with a traditional house thru directly submitting to an acquisitions editor.’

            I did. As per the link I posted above to a blog I wrote about this subject, I’ve signed for over 30 books,mostly with major houses, and was only represented by an agent in a small handful of those sales. The first time I ever got an agent to rep me was after I’d already sold 8 books; and rather than selling something for me, he dumped me within 5 months after taking me on with big talk about all he intended to do for my career. Most (not all, but most) of my subsequent sales over the years were also made without an agent, and I quit the agent-author business model entirely about 6 years ago (since which time I’ve sold 7 books to major houses so far).

            I know many, many writers who broke in without and agent, as well as knowing more and more who’ve decided to stop working with agents after years of having done so.

            If you go to the Writers Resources Page on my website at LauraResnick.com, you’ll find two links there to first-novel-sale surveys. Each of them include stats on whether or not those authors had agents; as you will see, many did not.

            And so on.

        • That article of DWS’s came about 10 years too late to be of any help to me. You see, back in 2001 and thereabouts, when genre publishers began officially adopting a no-unagented-subs policy, I believed them. I had no reason not to. Consequently I wasted much time in looking for an agent, and restricting my submissions to the few houses whose stated policy was to receive unagented but solicited submissions. (I have not made a cold submission of a book manuscript, full or partial, since the 1980s.)

          When I hear that the proper method of submission is to ignore the rules and charge ahead, I get rather angry. You see, I’m a Canadian. We are notoriously (it’s probably the only thing we’re notorious for) the people who stand and wait at a DON’T WALK sign until the light changes, even when there is no cross traffic. We believe in following the rules. If you want to see the typical Canadian in a state of moral outrage, tell him about a set of rules that cannot be followed, so that only the rule-breakers are allowed to get anywhere.

          So when publishers set up their policies to make it impossible to do business with them, and then do all their business with people who violate the policies, my reaction — both emotional and intellectual — is that I don’t want to do business with anyone that fundamentally dishonest. If you don’t follow your own damned submission rules, why should I put a nickel’s worth of faith in your contracts, or any other promise that you make?

          This is why I have joyfully embraced the new self-publishing, even though for me, the financial returns so far have been minuscule. With Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and the rest, you know where you stand. They tell you how to sell your work to them, and they stick to it. You don’t have to go through the VIP entrance and know the secret handshake. You don’t have to pull strings or have connections. All you do is follow their publicly stated rules, and they do the same.

          • Exactly! I mean, I have a lot of respect for Resnick, Rusch and Smith but really, when they constantly say, “oh them rules, take no notice!”, then the equilibrium of the world is seriously askew. Having been brought up Catholic and British-educated, it has been inculcated in me (and a lot of Brit/Commonwealth writers) from a young age to follow the rules and, when we see people breaking them left, right and centre and seemingly getting away with it (especially those damn brash USAians (yes yes, a sweeping generalisation, but bear with me here)), it is infuriatingly heart-breaking.

            I wonder what other industry takes such a fundamentally deceptive approach, because being courteous and respectful doesn’t seem to have ever mattered a damn to publishers! Tom is much farther along in his career than I am but what he says truly resonates. Big publishing deserves to fail because they are built on lies to begin with, and the way “in”, via *wink*wink* ignoring the rules, is worse than with the damn Freemasons and their secret handshakes!

            PS And I see Tor UK has opened to unagented submissions. Trying to catch up, eh? ;)

            PPS As you can see, I moderated my language quite a bit. Thank you very much.

            • It makes a kind of sense if you understand that traditional publishing is an industry that is geared toward rejection and looking for reasons to say no to stuff. Kris Rusch has a good analysis of why publishing (and TV and movies) is this way: http://kriswrites.com/2012/03/14/the-business-rusch-scarcity-and-abundance/

              Right out of college I interned at a magazine where I sorted slush. Ninety percent of what we got was crap, but the remaining 10% was good, and it was FAR more than we had room to publish. (I’d say I found a good story or two a day; we published one story from the transom every other month.) So the final winnowing process was completely arbitrary, and the stories we ultimately published weren’t any better than the ones we ultimately rejected. When you constantly have to reject perfectly good stories, I think it’s human nature to start inventing secret handshakes and arcane rituals that must be observed to help you feel better about it.

            • Kaz, I was baptized in the Church, too, but I fell away from it by the time I was a toddler.

              Some things to keep in mind about unagented submissions and following the rules:

              Always do your own first-hand research on this. One thing I’ve noticed all over the internet, for example, is people explicitly claiming that this-or-that specific house has a “no unagented subnmissions” policy when I happen to know that’s completely untrue, either because I’ve troubled myself to actually look at the publisher’s website rather than rely on rumors, or because I write for them and know their policies. Yet people contiue spreading misinformation all over the web erroneously claiming that the house doesn’t accepted unagented submissions.

              Also, the difference between an official “no unagented submissions” policy and the reality of reading unagented submissions isn’t a nefarious plot to deceive (no on in publishing is that organized!), it’s just the difference between official policy and actual practice, between stuff posted on the web and what people actually DO at work, between some bright idea someone had 3 years ago that never got corrected though that person is long gone, between rigid rules and the way people really behave, etc.

              There are editors and mail-room functionaries who respond by saying, “We don’t accept unagented submissions”). There are! There are also plenty who don’t.

              Finally, as Dean Wesley Smith has said, if they’re REALLY serious about that “no unagented submissions” policy and you ignore it and submit… don’t worry, they’re not actually going to come to your house and shoot you.

              More to the point, they’re also not going to write down your name and pass it around as A Bad Seed to blacklist. They’re not going to remember your name and refuse to buy something from you elsewhere, later, because they remember you. If they’re REally Serious about “no unagented submissions,” some junior functionary will return your submission. Full stop.

              (The worst thing I’ve ever heard of happening was, heartbreakingly, some low-level editor wrote a cover letter saying he really liked the MS but didn’t accept unagented MSs, but would love to see this again if the author got an agent. And really… do you WANT to work with someone so assisine their response to liking your book is, “But I won’t make an offer unless you’re willing to donate 15% of your earnings to a total stranger and let him handle your deal here despite his complete lack of qualifications in negotiating legal contracts”?

              • Actually this makes perfect sense: if the author gets an agent, it is safe to deal with them. If they won’t, they are too smart, and will be troublesome.

                Everybody refers to agents as part of the gatekeeping system, and they are. But nobody seems to realize what it is the gate is designed to keep out.

              • Laura, thank you for taking the time for such a cogent explanation. I’ve always enjoyed your writings and feel honored that you would take time to craft such a lengthy reply. :) And lapsed Catholics are the best kind of people! LOL

                I agree with you. However, I will admit it’s ironic that, just as I’ve began “learning the ropes” of the industry, so to speak, I realise that I have little will left to go the trad pub route. I’m down the self-pubbing groove for the next 3-5 years and will see where that pans out.

                If I may, there is another reason for my outrage. Inexperienced writers can learn the true state of affairs from, as many of you at TPV have detailed, (a) fora such as this, (b) general internet research, (c) conventions, (d) competitions, and (e) writing groups.

                But what if you aren’t in North America or Canada or the UK or Australia? What if you’re a talented writer with no writing group around, no competitions to enter, no resources to attend conventions halfway around the world and only one computer (or less) per family? In that case, you have to admit that some of the only dependable information available is via publisher websites (if the writer can get to them), and those websites say, quite categorically, that unsolicited and unagented submissions aren’t accepted.

                Six, seven years ago, I was very much in a similar situation. The publishers said they didn’t accept mss over the transom, so I never did it. I know NOW that that was misguided but, with no other information around to the contrary, I didn’t know it then. And that’s what really gets my goat. I STILL don’t have the resources to make it to editor-heavy conventions, and I’m now so used to navigating this industry by myself that the idea of joining a writing group is anathema to me. (It helps that I’m also basically rabidly anti-social.) Also, because of my geographical location, a lot of competitions with editors as prizes (you know what I mean) are locked out to me. And yet I still consider myself extremely privileged compared to other beginning writers outside the major Western sphere.

                The other thing is this. I can (and have) recently advised others NOT to listen to the publishers and submit anyway. You know what? They won’t. They won’t listen to me and, tbh, they wouldn’t listen to you, either. Because you and I are only individuals and I get the impression young writers think that I (and possibly even you!) are trying to sabotage their careers by suggesting they break the rules. And if some giant corporation is saying something that directly contradicts what you, DWS, KKR, the rest of the lovely crew here (and even I) are saying, then — I’m sorry — we don’t stand a chance in hell of being heard. And isn’t that just downright tragic?

                Kaz Augustin, currently of Malaysia

                • “But what if you aren’t in North America or Canada or the UK or Australia? What if you’re a talented writer with no writing group around, no competitions to enter, no resources to attend conventions halfway around the world and only one computer (or less) per family?”

                  Kat, that was me–except that I didn’t have a computer. I was living in Sicily when I started writing in 1987, where I knew very few people who even spoke English, and there were no English books, bookstores, libraries, or publishing infoor resources available to me. I read a book called HOW TO WRITE A ROMANCE AND GET IT PUBLISHED, I wrote my MSs by hand, and then I typed them on a manual typewriter–using paper of the “wrong” length because Italian typing paper was longer than American typing paper (to which I had no access). I traveled 600 miles to Rome to go to the American Library where there was an old edition of the Writer’s Market in their reference sectin, so I could look up addresses for publishers and agents, and then I started submitting via trans-Atlantic mail.

                  That’s how I sold my first book.

                  Writing groups, conventions, etc. it all window dressing. What counts is doing the work (writing) and researching the business. I did it without a computer or access to the internet (which I’m not sure existed then–the first time I ever saw it, at any rate, was after I’d sold a bunch of books), so it can certainly be done WITH a computer and access to the internet.

                  Excelsior! Onward! Break a leg! Etc.

                  • Ah, I think this is important. This is where we differ. You see, I personally feel that breaking into ROMANCE, unagented, with a novel-length manuscript is much much easier than breaking into any other genre with a novel-length manuscript, and I don’t think you can easily extrapolate from one to the rest.

                    • Kaz, if you go to the Writers Resources Page on my website, among the links there, you’ll find two separate links to two separate polls about first-book sales. One was by Jim Hines and I’ve just blanked on who did the other one, but it should be easy to find in a link near Jim’s link. Both polls asked whether the first-book sale was agented, and one poll specifically focused on whether the writer had contacts in the field before making that first sale. Neither of these polls were run by or aimed at romance writers. You may find them informative.

                    • Can’t reply to you directly Laura because the comments are nested too deep :) , but thanks! Will follow up at J Hines’s site.

                  • That’s how I sold my first book.

                    In 1989. It was possible to succeed by following the rules then. The big sea-change, as I myself observed, happened in 2001 and 2002; after that, you could not make a first sale to most houses unless you had personal connections or broke the stated rules. And that’s what gets my goat, and Kaz’s. The publishing industry doesn’t want our books, no matter how good they are; they are so determined not to have our books that they lie to us just to make us go away.

    • “I read somewhere this new arrangement came about after the anthrax scare in 2001: editors are wary of any letters or packages coming from addresses they don’t know. (Which would explain why people like Laura Resnick & Dean Wesley Smith can submit directly: the acquiring editorial staff know they’re not sending anthrax-tainted letters to them, or at least they’re smart enough not to do it in their own names.) ”

      I read that anthrax thing circulated on the internet, but I’ve never met an editor who actually was afraid of receiving mail or getting anthrax in the post, and I’ve met an awful lot of editors.

      But, no, the acquiring staff don’t”know” that or anything else about an envelope that’s got my name on it. I’m a midlist writer in a huge industry, and mail is opened by assistants and interns who deal with hundreds of packages per week. I’m just another letter in the pile. But I write a good query letter, which is probably among the reasons that, contrary to popular mythology, I’ve usually gotten faster response times WITHOUT an agent than WITH one.

      • I read that anthrax thing circulated on the internet, but I’ve never met an editor who actually was afraid of receiving mail or getting anthrax in the post, and I’ve met an awful lot of editors.

        I heard several editors express that fear at World Fantasy Con in Montreal, a few weeks after 9/11. I was, to say the least, sceptical. My thought, which I had the sense to keep to myself was: ‘Yeah, right. When I want to take down the Great American Satan, I’ll start by attacking people who publish stories about rocket ships and dragons. That’ll bring the power structure crashing down!’

        However, it certainly was in the aftermath of 9/11 that policies changed; many houses which had formerly accepted unsolicited submissions permanently stopped, and many that had accepted solicited but unagented submissions announced that they would no longer do so. The anthrax scare made a convenient excuse for some of these. It was a case, I believe, of giving a stupid ostensible reason to the public, because the real reason (orders from Higher Up to cut costs in the short term, and to hell with long-term planning) was not one that editorial people had the effrontery to explain. Whatever the case, the submission system for most New York genre publishers became permanently broken at that time and has not been fixed since.

        • However, it certainly was in the aftermath of 9/11 that policies changed; many houses which had formerly accepted unsolicited submissions permanently stopped, and many that had accepted solicited but unagented submissions announced that they would no longer do so. The anthrax scare made a convenient excuse for some of these. [...] Whatever the case, the submission system for most New York genre publishers became permanently broken at that time and has not been fixed since.

          My exact thinking.

          Getting rid of the slush pile doubtlessly boosts short-term profits for the corporation, in the exact same manner getting rid of R&D helps any manufacturer. If there were several dozen publishers, one or two doing this would be at most an inconvenience because the others would pick up the slack, profit from discovering the next big talent, & force those without slush piles to either change back — or go out of business. However, with only 6 (or 5 or 4 or…) major publishing houses, all run by corporations that heavily rely growing profits, one or two doing this will lead to the rest following suit.

          BTW, I still don’t fathom the reasoning for editors to accept queries from an agent she doesn’t know from Eve yet resolutely refusing to consider queries from authors she doesn’t know from Eve. The ways this process can fail as any kind of quality filter are countless. (For example, unpublished writers who badly want to be debut with a major house are likely to resort to straw-man agents, viz., one unpublished writer to another, “I’ll be your agent for your book if you are the agent for mine.”)

          • “BTW, I still don’t fathom the reasoning for editors to accept queries from an agent she doesn’t know from Eve yet resolutely refusing to consider queries from authors she doesn’t know from Eve.”

            Well, they DON’T really accept queries from agents they don’t know. Tehnically, they do, but in reality, when they don’t know the agent, the submission goes into slush.

            And there are certainly editors who really, truly, genuinely do not accepted unagented submissions… Which is so short-sighted and lazy that you really don’t want to work with that editor, ANYHOW. Write them off and move on.

            But for my own part, in 20+ years of doing this as my full-time, self-supporting living, with only a -tiny- number of my books represented by an agent, I’ve only had ONE instance of a submission being returned to me because they wouldn’t accept unagented submissions. Just one.

            (And that was a house where an unagented friend of mine had recently made a sale, so I knew I could find a way around this if I looked–but since I’d already gotten a good offer elsewhere for the book, I didn’t bother trying.)

        • “When I want to take down the Great American Satan, I’ll start by attacking people who publish stories about rocket ships and dragons. That’ll bring the power structure crashing down!’”

          LOL! Of course!

  13. Hi everyone again. While I find this debate all interesting, and very informative, I feel I must make a brief comment.

    No, Peter that was not my agent. Also, to avoid any issues, I would ask that other attempts to track this info down and share it… Well, it’s a dicey road, I’d rather not go down.

    Again, I want to thank everyone for reading my blog on my site. And I wish everyone the best of luck in the future with your writing.

    The marketplace is definitely changing and the old pathways are disappearing. I have no idea how the market will look next year or a decade from now, but I find it all exciting.

    Cheers.
    -Scott

  14. Hi Scott, thanks for sharing your perspective and your interesting blog. And kudos for venturing over here into the sometimes turbulent waters of The Passive Voice. ;)

    For some reason I couldn’t post a reply in your comments, but I did want to mention that you’re carrying over some of that thinking, your ‘bubble’ if you will, to what the major publishing houses do with marketing. Here’s my response to your assertion (in the comments) that they “handle all that.”

    Actually, big publishing houses do NOT ‘handle all that.’ Authors are expected to do the brunt of the marketing themselves. I have a friend on her 7th book with a Big 5 NY publisher who has always had to do her own ads – and this is a solid midlister. Authors are expected to do much of their own promo, do the social media bit, usually set up their own bookstore appearances, etc. Bestselling author Jeaniene Frost has this to say:

    “In addition to book trailers, I also do lots of online interviews, book giveaways, other promotional giveaways, attend conventions, go to signings, buy online ad space, send out newsletters, update my website, keep up several social media accounts, and have a website blog. If it sounds like a lot of work, it is, but these days authors are expected to have an online presence.” (Interview in the RWR, Oct 2012)

    There is no ‘just write’ for any author who wants to succeed in publishing. Don’t make the mistake that selling to a publisher (big or small) means you have lightened your load and can now just concentrate on writing. Take those words of wisdom about agents and extrapolate it to all of publishing. :)

    • That’s odd about my site and comments. I do have a moderation filter so I can screen some of my comments. I just went through my spam to see if you were there, no luck. I do sometimes decline to post something if I think I or another reader might find it offensive, but that is rare and I don’t see that being a problem with your point. Thanks for reading!

  15. Oh, and might I add, generally, I’m not against new avenues for writing or sharing writing. For example, on my blog, I wrote a novel over a 25 week period, sharing it in “real time”. It is called Permanent Spring Showers.

    The idea was to try and be like Charles Dickens and what he would do with his books. I had a basic outline but I threw it aside after Chapter 3, just going with the flow and seeing what came of it. I finished that book last week and am hoping to edit and find some avenues for publication in the next few months. You can find it on my site here- http://sdsouthard.com/permanent-spring-showers/

    Will a normal agent take a book like this? Probably not and I admit it, but writing it like that, getting reader responses as each chapter went up, was incredibly satisfying for me as a writer.

    So yeah, I’m not against new avenues for getting work out there… Because in the long run it has to be about the art of creation and the story.

  16. This is COMPLETELY off-topic but I hate it that I’m on the other side of the world. By the time I get to your posts, PV, so many people have already said what I wanted to! Aaaaargh. That is all, move along.

  17. This is the best discussion I’ve seen on TPV in a while. This place does rock. Julia deserves a tip of the hat for this one.

  18. Hi,

    After all of the comments around my writing, books, and experience; I wanted to give a quick update on three of my works:

    1. In regards to A JANE AUSTEN DAYDREAM I was able to find a new publisher for it! This is a major relief for me. It should be back in print and eBook status in two to three months.

    2. For those complaining about MY PROBLEM WITH DOORS and MEGAN and Google Play, I did reach out to that publisher again about the eBook status of it. I have not received a response yet. Hopefully, I can do something to change that.

    3. After a lot of consideration around the comments here, I have decided to try self-publishing with one of my books. Yup! You have convinced me to try this out! I have reached out to an editor who will be working with me through the experience. I also plan to share the experience over a series of blog posts on my site (sdsouthard.com). That book is called Maxmillian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare. It is a VERY experimental mystery period thriller.

    So if you like this post and are interested in my writing please consider following my blog (sdsouthard.com). And thank you for reading my article.
    -Scott

  19. I think a major part of the story is that publishers subcontracted out one of their most critical tasks–product development.

    They also don’t do much on the retail end. So if you look at their current circumstances, you see a big fat middleman whose job is to trim off a big lump of the profits while standing in between readers and writers (well, they do employ printing presses and delivery trucks, but you can see where they have hardly any value in a digital world–they are only now figuring out how to format a decent ebook, something indies were doing in 2008.)

    So the subcontractors have less and less to sell them, and it is actually lower quality–because the higher-functioning authors are successfully self-publishing, marketing, and adapting to an entirely new industry.

    I don’t mean this critically of anyone in specific, but anytime I see some writer holding up their agent relationship as an ego symbol (especially if that writer has never sold a book), I immediately lose a modicum of respect for that writer. To me, it is a negative, a sign of weakness or, at best, a lack of understanding of the current climate.

    • I personally always brag about my agent to anyone who will listen, and especially to anyone who won’t. I also walk down the middle of the motorway, yelling at all the cars, ‘GET A HORSE!’ The correctness of these procedures is self-evident.

      (Signed)

      Ned Ludd

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