Home » Agents, Big Publishing, Disruptive Innovation, Self-Publishing » Agents Are Becoming Publishers Because They Don’t Think Legacy Publishers Will Survive

Agents Are Becoming Publishers Because They Don’t Think Legacy Publishers Will Survive

28 July 2011

SciFi/Fantasy author Sarah Hoyt shares an interesting theory about why so many agents want start publishing operations.


I haven’t been unagented since 97 and every time I dropped an agent before I secured one first. This time I chose not to do so because I think an agent won’t help. I could be wrong, in which case I’ll shop for an agent sometime in the future. However for now I’m alone, working without a net.

. . . .

But for the last year I’ve had a growing sense that something was wrong [with publishers]. Part of it was the response to two novels I sent out. I’m not going to detail the response, but it wasn’t just that they were rejected but that the way they were rejected indicated answering cold submissions was no longer part of an editor’s primary job. If I had to guess, I’d say that the same thing is going on with this as went on with slush two decades ago. In this case it is due to shrinking lists and problems with distribution. Publishing houses are either sticking with their stable (Probably 90% of the new authors you see are old pros with new names) poaching bestsellers from each other, or hiring on the basis of “she’s a friend of, who has done well for us.”

. . . .

I’m not writing off big publishers. I’ll continue working for Baen. However, my relationship with them is of the sort we never needed an agent. (First, I give the publisher Port, then we negotiate – evil grin.) And I’ve got a few novels I’ll be submitting to a couple of houses for highly targeted type marketing that I’m fairly confident of placing, at least if the houses are still there, and if there’s a market for traditionally published books.

And that brings me to the next step. You see, I believe there will be a market. I believe some (though not all) of the large houses will adapt and survive this. However – and this I can’t emphasize enough – the agencies don’t think publishing is going to be with us much longer or that you can make a living off it.

. . . .

Agencies are feeling the pinch from this, and in response they’re doing something which the agency Lucienne works for just did. (To quote my husband who is the sweet side of this association “Well, they’ve got to make a living, somehow. What would you have them do?”) And while I understand it, I want no part of it.

Yep, they’ve started their own digital publisher.

I know I’ve said here in the past that this was the logical next step in digital publishing. Agencies already sift through slush. They already promote their writers, to greater or lesser extent. So, why not transition?

Well, two problems. First, they’re not transitioning. They’re remaining agents and charging you for the privilege of selling things to themselves. (Kris Rusch has written extensively on the conflict of interest present, but it should be obvious to everyone, too.) Second, they are loading the deals with up front costs. (Perfectly understandable, if you’re in a bid to survive, but it makes them much inferior to most micro publishers out there, who will get you cover, proofread and put up your manuscript for a percentage of your earnings which comes out at the same time your earnings do. I.e. you’ll start earning from the first dollar, not after 1k or so is paid back to the “publishing agency.”)

So, agencies who publish you are making a desperate bid to survive and they’re not necessarily the best deal for epublishing. But why do I say this means they don’t think the big houses will survive?

First, because if they thought this was just a trough in sales, they’ve gone through those before without changing their model and they would do so again. Second, because of the conflict of interest. They wouldn’t risk the appearance of competing with the big publishing houses if they didn’t know, in their heart of hearts that the big giants as such are over.

Heck, the big giants think the game is over. Why do I say that? Because they’re not completely stupid. (Individual editors may vary.) They know – they have to know – that if all they keep in their stable are bestsellers, in a year or two the bestsellers will decide that they can make more money self-publishing or from a micro press. They can. And they have the name, so… why not? Publishers have to see this as clearly as I do. So, why go to that model? Unless your whole intent is as a stop gap measure “to keep us afloat just another two years.”

. . . .

So you could say I’m unagented because the agency my agent works for no longer believes the old model is viable, and I don’t agree with their concept of the new model.

Link to the rest at According to Hoyt

So the agents are afraid of two things:

1. Their authors will find self-publishing rewarding financially and artistically, and

2. Big Publishing is beginning to circle the drain so there will be no more large advances and no more need for authors to use agents to get published.

Passive Guy would be scared if he were an agent.

So is the solution to agent’s problems to slither towards some hinkey new business model that creeps out most authors or sign authors to you-are-my-slave-forever agency contracts so agents get 15 cents every time somebody pays a buck to an author?

PG says to agents, “Welcome to the world where lots of people have been living ever since dirt cheap computing power cross-bred with internet everywhere.”

Passive Guy will call this place Disruption World.

Disruption World includes graveyards. All the tombstones have the same inscription. “Here lies the body of someone who didn’t change fast enough or smart enough.”

An entire section of the graveyard is devoted to music studios. There are spots for telephone operators and stenographers and darkroom equipment manufacturers. You might think the graveyard is only for the old, but tombstones also mark the resting places of those who died young, like thick computer magazines and huge computers. Infants named WordPerfect and Lotus123 have their little spots.

Disruption World sounds like a grim place with all these tombs, but that’s not all you’ll find here.

Great palaces line broad boulevards with names like Google and Facebook. Everyone thought Apple would be in the graveyard, but Infinite Loop is the grandest of all avenues, a tale of redemption all the sweeter for its rarity.

The first rule of Disruption World is simple: Add Value.

There are other rules, but if you don’t obey the first one, you won’t have a chance to work on any others.

So, for literary agents, as for so many who have come before, Add Value. Figure out what you’re better at doing than most other people and work to turn it into a business. Disruption World is enormous and growing every moment and since speed and efficiency are mandates, match what you can do better with what fast movers need and you may have a business, maybe a better one than you’re in right now.

Don’t neglect Chinese math. You know Chinese math. If a billion Chinese each give you one dollar or one of anything, you’ll do quite well.

Twitter figured out fast movers need only 140 characters. What a worthless-sounding thing – the ability to take 140 characters and squirt it out onto the net. But at over 200 million Tweets per day, that’s 6 billion Tweets per month, 73 billion Tweets per year. Every day, Twitter users write a 10-million-page book.

One Tweet is worthless, but Chinese math kicks in with enough worthless things. In January of this year, based on prices in specialized markets that sell shares of privately-held companies, Twitter was worth $4 billion. Now, it’s worth $7 billion. All from 140 characters repeated over and over.

Deep, cleansing breath.

PG promises he has consumed only completely legal substances for years on end. He also promises this rant is not the product of any legal mind-numbing liquids. He sometimes misplaces his car keys, but shows no other signs of dementia.

PG probably hasn’t bucked up any agents with this rant, but he does feel better himself, so there you are. One of the benefits of having a blog.

Upon further consideration, he blames this episode on the mental strain accumulated by trying to squeeze great thoughts into 140 characters over and over. It’s great for Twitter, but hell for those who like big words.



Agents, Big Publishing, Disruptive Innovation, Self-Publishing

43 Comments to “Agents Are Becoming Publishers Because They Don’t Think Legacy Publishers Will Survive”

  1. It’s not a rant. It’s an observation of reality. Agents have no role in the digital business because they weren’t IN the digital business, and were only marginally in the book business. Publishing isn’t in the book business anymore. And that’s the fundamental schism that so many writers can’t grasp yet. Writers used to be last, but not they are on top. And a lot of them can’t handle it, so they’re trying to thrust someone else on top.


    • Scott, I think you could write volumes on why the average human goes out of the way to sabotage himself/herself.

      Personally, I like being on top of the dog pile. Better biew and not quite as smelly.

    • Scott and Suzan – Agreed that it’s nice to be on top.

  2. The beauty of Twitter is that it makes it impossible to monopolize a conversation.

  3. To be honest, the agency model really doesn’t make that much sense to me. With actors for example, an agent somewhat makes sense when an actor is getting numerous requests for auditions, roles, and appearances. Back in the day when actors were attached to 1 studio, they didn’t have agents. They were thrown a peanut once or twice, and anyone complaining too loudly was let go and replaced.

    I don’t have experience with a traditional agent, let alone a digital one. My guess is that they will come up with new tasks, such as author marketing services. Covering things like social media opportunities, the ability to cross-brand their authors they represent with their consent of course, and providing an intermediary between other service the author hires for the book, such as cover art, and editing.

    The problem is that very few have any experience in this new business world. The old ways don’t always ring true, such as cover art (you linked to a previous post illustrating that point). I would see the relationship being one where the author explains “This is what I want” and the agent either agreeing or disagreeing with a reason, but ultimately the decision rests with the author. Really, the better term might be “literary assistants.” 🙂

    • Elizabeth – Good analysis.

      Agents earned their traditional business by knowing the ins and outs of big publishing and how to sell books to that market.

      An indie author is interested in selling books to readers. If the bookstores of choice are online and the author wants some help, I would argue that an author might be better off hiring a digital media marketing consultant.

      There is nothing that says a given agent can’t morph into that, but their agency experience doesn’t count for much because the work is so much different.

      • PV,

        THAT’s what I expected agents to become. They do have “a little” experience in that since for at least the last three years, good agencies have been organizing promotions. What they’d need to do is “more so” plus your subsidiary rights, (Europe seems to like dealing with agents) plus any interest from the big houses. Instead, they decided to become publishers, another role that is fast disappearing or changing. I’d pay for the first transformed agency. NOT the second.
        Oh, and thank you for totally getting it. 🙂

        • Thanks for the perspective, Sarah.

          My only concern is I know a few agents and I know a few good digital marketing types and I don’t know if the agents can keep up. Digital marketers tend to be of an entirely different personality type.

  4. In Disruption World’s graveyard, book agents could soon be joining travel agents.

  5. The business model publishers and agents are operating under in the physical world is being replaced by the virtual world business model. The old business model: the publishers are the buyers (intermediary buyers) and the authors are the sellers. First, there were way too many sellers (authors) for each buyer (publisher) and second, authors don’t like or know how to sell. Here comes the agent who can sell (for the author) and acts as a filter for the buyer (publisher.) It makes sense; life was good for agents.
    The virtual world eliminates the intermediate buyers (publishers.) They were the middle men all along due to the constraints of the physical world. If the publishers are gone who is the agent going to sell too? No one.
    Or is there? The books need to be sold to the readers. If the authors will learn this skill there will be no lit agents anymore. On the other hand if the authors don’t learn this skill the smart agents will capitalize on the selling and marketing of books in the virtual world. Shrewd and unethical agents will take advantage of the lazy and fearful authors who will give the farm away and replace the old publishers with this new breed of agents/publishers.

    • DG – You’re correct, but see my response to Elizabeth regarding the likely lack of experience agents have selling in the new markets for books.

    • Also, I’m not sure these agents would need to be unscrupulous. There is a MINT to be made by saying “Just write, I’ll handle the promotion.” Most obsessive writers like me WILL do the other stuff, if needed, but would much prefer to just write. Doesn’t mean we’re idiots, we still keep up with the money side. We’re just preferencial introverts. A lot of writers seem to be. Weirdly, Walt Whitman not withstanding, the ability to say “I’m great” and BEING great don’t always come together. As is, I’m totally open to co-ops for mutual promotion…

      • Sarah – The critical question for me is whether the person who says, “Just write, I’ll handle the promotion” is actually competent to handle the promotion.

        The online promotion business is even more full of flim-flammers than subsidy publishing.

        • Yes. Part of the issue I had trying to find a publicity agency is that most of them either have no clue or are actively doing things I wouldn’t want. “We post comments about you in blogs!” (No, thank you, I can spam on my own.) “The blogs will relate to the subject of your book” (be real, how many blogs focus on hot often naked chicks in space?) Then there are the insanely expensive ones, but those seem designed for the people who have movie/comic/book career which is a level I’m not at.

  6. Editors also know the ship is sinking. At least, some do.

    I decided to self-publish when the editor-in-chief of Del Rey took me aside and told me self epublish. That’s right, the EIC of a big six told an author to self pub.

    I will be forever grateful to her. She stopped rearranging the chairs long enough to push me into a lifeboat.

    • Margaret – An excellent example of why it’s not accurate or fair to paint everyone in publishing with the same brush.

  7. Interesting post PG. Sarah may be right. David Gaughran made a good analogy when he compared literary agents to travel agents back in the day. I can’t remember which post of his it was but it was good.

    • Melissa – One of the things about disruptive change is that very few people are completely right about it.

      Everyone wants to predict the future, but it’s really difficult when all sorts of pieces are moving in different directions at the same time. Almost any business seer is really surprised by some of the things that happen.

  8. DG Sandru has a good point. The new model of publishing has removed a lot of the barriers between writer and audience. It’s one of the reasons I chose the path of self-publishing.

    It’s still early days, but as time goes on, writers are certain to get better at finding their audience, and the audiences will get better at finding the writers they want to read.

    • It’s a new and exciting world on a very level playing field.

    • Hunter – I think perceptive writers have a lot of advantages in identifying their audience if they take that task on as part of their job.

      Often authors will write what they read and hang out with others who read the same sorts of books.

      Traditional publishers tend to take the author out of the loop with their concept of “markets” which really means what they think the Barnes & Noble buyer wants.

      If you compare publishing with almost any other business, it has a horrible record of predicting what will sell and what passes for product development is entirely goofy.

      • correct, and I called you PV — passive voice — instead of passive guy. Sigh. For the record I’m honored you linked me!

        • Sarah – Don’t worry about PV. I’ve been called way, way worse things.

          I loved your post and thanks for sharing your thoughts here as well.

  9. This is an excellent take on how this entire corner of the Universe is going, and will keep going.

    I’ve pretty much given up trying to read all the blogs and articles on this out there and just read this blog.

    So PG, don’t taze me bro. I’ll be #1 fanboi fo’ sho’.

    • Judd – So if we both give up reading all the blogs, we’ll be able to construct the perfect echo chamber.

      I’ll try to keep the Tazer pointed in a safe direction. Speaking of non-lethal weaponry, I was interested to read about pepper spray controlling an angry kangaroo.

      • Let’s clear that whole thing up, shall we? NOTHING controls an angry kangaroo. The entire population of ’em is STILL pissed off about the time we hosted the Olympics in Sydney and a bunch of yobs in roo costumes welcomed in the games.

        They’re also not terribly pleased about being the only National Symbol that routinely ends up on a barbecue. Go figure.

  10. “If the publishers are gone who is the agent going to sell too? No one.”

    Or, maybe, I don’t know, bookstores?

    OMG. Why are no agents asking writers what they really want and need?

    As an indie author, I can get online myself. I can find my own cover art, editors, formatters, but there’s one thing I can’t have without selling my soul by giving up my indie status and if big publishing bites the bullet, maybe you agents could actually get it for me…and oh would I pay through the nose for that.

    I think if I were an agent I’d be looking at the conundrum of bookstores and readers wanting choice but still the exp of purchasing paper books while interacting w great staff and the one thing indie authors can’t have–print distribution.

    Bookstores still need paper books, because readers still enjoy paper books. They still want them, and many still enjoy the experience of rifling through them, etc. before buying them.

    But e-books sales are showing us bookreaders are also scooping up books, inexpensive books, that bookstores can’t necessarily get their hands on the way they do books from the Big Guys–books readers are choosing because they suddenly now have access, unlimited access, to a whole new world of books, inexp books, and not those forced on them by some buyer at B &N.

    All those untapped sales for best-selling indie authors. It makes me want to cry.

    The main advantage to traditional publishers right now is they can get a writer in a bookstore. I’ll even argue the only advantage. What would happen if that wall was broken down?

    Forget project managing or opening publishing arms or marketing services, agents. You want my commission? Get me in freaking bookstores without my having to sign w a traditional publisher. (oh, and sell my foreign and audio and film rights too, pls.)

    Joe Konrath touched on some of that on a post about Indie bookstores. Selling CHOICE. Wish I could find it. But the point is–readers have shown they want something badly. Think Hocking. And they’re not able get it in bookstores unless that author signs w a big pub. They can only find it on ereaders til then.

    Just imagine.

    • Steve – That’s an interesting thought – agents transitioning into commissioned sales reps to bookstores for authors.

      If agents won’t do it, I’m sure there are plenty of unemployed former publishing sales reps who might pursue that opportunity.

      • Except the bookstores are rapidly vanishing, too. Why start a new enterprise in a dying field? Why not invent the NEXT field?

        Agents don’t ask writers what writers want because they don’t want to know the truth. They had incredible, nearly absolute power for nearly two decades and it’s slipping away beneath their feet. Better to take this last opportunity to wield their “legitimacy” and tie down some unfortunate writers for the long haul.

    • Dean Wesley Smith had a very interesting post about how a self published author could get books into bookstores (I believe focused on independent bookstores). Part of his Think Like a Publisher series. Unfortunately his website is blocked by the internet filter here, so can’t provide a link.

      From his very convincing explanation, seems very doable.


  11. http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/05/indie-bookstores-boycott-konrath.html

    Found it. Their offer in #4. I’d give an agent a commission for dealing w that if bookstores took me up on it as a writer. And that’s just one possible idea.

    Indie authors #1 need-meet it, we’d pay.

  12. I just read a new post from Dean Wesley Smith in which he advises authors to run, not walk, away from agents.


    He makes another good point that an IP lawyer can achieve much of what an indie author might need in representation down the road, without demanding a percentage forever.

  13. A lot of great thoughts here. As an author, I understand that we have more power than ever, so maybe it’s OUR responsibility to give this industry focus and reinvent it. Like Scott Nicholson said–invent the next field.

    I like what Sarah said: there’s a mint to be made from us introverted writers who just want to write and leave the promotion to other people. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit here, in the form of agents and publishers who need career adjustment and authors who need book promotion and distribution.

    So, can we authors band together with agents and publishers to course correct an industry in flux, one that would be mutually beneficial for all involved?

    Is that at all possible?

    • Katie – Millions of people have been re-tooling in this economy. There’s no reason publishing folks and agents cant join the crowd once they realize the time to do so is right now.

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