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You Must Have an Agent . . . or Not

8 July 2012

A comment to a post on The Agent as Publisher by regular visitor and longtime professional author, Laura Resnick:

“I don’t see much future for the profession ”

I am very sadly forced to disagree with you. At least for the foreseeable future. I was at a con last weekend, my first in about two years I think, and I found that the myth that “you have to have a literary agent” was alive and well and being proclaimed loudly, often, and emphatically again and again and again on the writer panels there.

I was assigned to a panel about agents on the final day, which was (IIRC) the first time I discussed the subject all weekend. And when I contradicted the assumption that you have to have an agent, explained that my sales record and income have typically been better WITHOUT agents than WITH during my 20+ years as a full-time, self-supporting writer, and that my sales frequency, advances, and income all improved significantly after I permanently shed agents from my business model six years ago…

The reaction was as if I had suddenly grown an extra head. And not in a good way.

As long as writers keep telling each other and everyone else that you HAVE TO HAVE AN AGENT, the majority of writers aspiring writers are going to keep beleiving it.

In the past year or two, I have been VERY pleased and relieved to see that my position is finally no longer the seemingly unique and isolated anomaly that it has largely been since I shed agents form my business model 5-6 years ago and starting talking about it.

These days, I know more and more writers who are working without agents–including, yep, writing for large traditional publishers. A couple of longtime, well-networked pros I recently had dinner with were talking about how many longtime career writers they know who are now thinking about shedding their agents–because they’re increasingly finding that their agents cost too much money while doing too little of the work. Some writers making first sales on their own are increasingly wondering, well, now that I’ve broken in and started selling… why should I go hire someone who’ll take 15% of the money to do what I’m already doing? (Whereas selling to a publisher has long been seen as an “opportunity” to get an agent, many of whom hate heavy lifting and will therefore only consider clients who are ALREADY selling books.) Other writers are self-publishing, where having an agent isn’t just an unnecessary expense, and small presses, where agents have never been considered necessary (and which many agents have long been unwilling or reluctant to deal with).

So things are certainly improving. But the myth that you MUST have an agent is nonetheless alive and well–and, as I discovered last weekend, still repeated loudly, emphatically, and often.

Additionally, a longtime pro I know who recently decided to stop working with agents, having grown tired (as did I) of mostly selling his own books and then being required to donate 15% of those deals to the agent anyhow (even when the writer’s self-generated sale is with a project the agent had declined to send out)… Recently got a rejection from an editor at a major house declining to read the MS because it’s unagented.

As I said to the writer… that’s an editor who’s too stupid to work with, so be glad you found out now, BEFORE the editor had a chance to damage your career with inept in-house management of the book. This is a bestselling writer with dozens of book sales… but the editor won’t even LOOK at the MS… because the writer is too sensible to pay someone 15% of the income just to FWD the paperwork after sale. That’s an editor who’s clearly terrible at the job–the job being to look for, acquire, and publish “books thatreaders will buy,” not to look for, acquire, and publish “books that were sent to the editor by a literary agent.”

But, again, as long as their are editors THAT in inept (in that particular way), as well as writers running around insisting loudly and in public that it’s “impossible” to sell a book or to get a good contract without an agent, etc… This industry will continue to be flooded with literary agents–including mediocre, inept, unethical, and incompetent ones.

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25 Comments to “You Must Have an Agent . . . or Not”

  1. One very nasty evil cynical part of me says….

    You know, the crazy culture of “common wisdom” among unpublished writers is actually just another one of those quest obstacles that the fates lay down to force the hero to prove his worthiness.

    It’s to keep the riff raff out – but the riff raff, in this case, are those who haven’t learned enough to stop listening to those people.

    I have to think of it in those Darwinian terms because if I didn’t, I’d be sobbing over the tragedy of it all.

  2. Fascinating take on the position, Laura. But be careful with that advice. Agents are salespeople. You are a salesperson. You don’t need an agent. I’ve been in sales (technology) for 30 years and I’ve learned: it is not a hard job but oddly, few people can do it well. I’ve seen countless well-intentioned engineers figure they can do sales only to flame out fast.

    I believe writing is very much the same. Not all writers can sell. You are one who can sell yourself. And you write in a smaller niche than others. As you’ve noticed, it’s not a hard job — for those who can do it.

    For those who do not walk up to strangers at a party and say, “Hi, I’m Seeley; I write books.” There is nothing wrong with getting an agent.

    (Definitely right about the editor who refuses an un-agented author. What century is that editor living in?)

    Peace, Seeley

    • But this type of sales isn’t the same thing. You’re sending a query or synopsis out. You have to do that anyway to get an agent. Sell to an agent. Why not just cut to the chase and sell to the one who can buy it to begin with?

      You’re not going to be doing something you aren’t already required to do anyway.

    • I still think agents are a busted flush. It just takes time for some things to change, because people don’t like change and they also don’t like to think too hard.

      It’s easy to parrot, ‘you must have an agent’, if you have been saying and hearing it for decades. It’s certainly a lot easier than trying to work out how to do _without_ and agent.

      I’m not really sure that a sales person is worth 15% of my earnings for the rest of my life. And I’m not sure that agents are particularly effective sales people either.

      They were once, but then they were given gate-keeping duties. This made them fat and lazy. Writers had to go through them to get to publishers and publishers had to wait for agents to bring projects to them rather than go out and find their own.

      It also allowed publishers to cut back on developmental editing by pushing all that work onto the agents too. Which means that the Agent’s taste (and ability to see dollar signs) became the de facto taste of the industry.

      It all made good bottom-line sense to the accountants, but it made the whole publishing trade inflexible, to the point where they could not respond to changes in the marketplace.

      Agents cannot survive in their present form. There might be a case for a sales person, but agents sell to publishers not readers and that link is broken. There might be a case for a business manager, but agents are completely unregulated so trusting them with your money is optimistic at best. They might be a case for a contract negotiator, but — from what I’ve read on this blog and others — a IP lawyer will do a better job for less money.

      Therefore, Agents as 15% of earnings jack-of-all-trades are a busted flush. It’s just that some people can’ t see the cards yet because their eyes are still full of sand.

      IMHO

      • And while publisher contracts are so awful, an agent for a new author… is a hostage. Even if they are the bestest, most honest, most excellent sales-person and nurturing editor type person EVAR [sic], they are still paid only when you get paid, which means that if they set up a sale, and the contract is kinda sucky in a few places…

        If you walk away, your SUPER BESTEST FRIEND ain’t gonna get paid.

        • I thought the whole value of an agent is to get you that better contract. That they more than earn their 15% by increasing the value of the contract. If they don’t bring that, then what is the value.

          • Agents have always advertised themselves as contract negotiators for the authors, but the fact that they’re paid by the publisher before you are means they can’t be tough in negotiations. There are a few clauses editors expect agents to push back on, gently, but many, many more that most agents will assure you are non-negotiable. Fact is, if you have a negotiator whose payday isn’t publisher-provided, and if you’re willing to walk away from a bad deal (and that’s the vast majority of contracts you’ll be offered), everything’s negotiable.

          • The theory is certainly that they get you a better contract. In practice, unless you are good enough as a wee new little author to get multiple publishers bidding?

            The agent would rather have SOME money than NO money, which means the agent is either handicapped (if they would otherwise be hard-nosed and fight for the best contract), and/or a hostage (if you like the agent), or else they’re no longer your agent — they’re in the pay of the publisher.

          • Agents have always been basically freelance talent scouts. They, supposedly, match you up with a deal. This is as true of real estate agents as talent agents or literary agents.

            Their job is not to take risks for you, or soil their working relationships for you. As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite. If what they are selling is their influence and connections, they have to protect that reputation they have with publishers and such. And that means they decidedly do NOT negotiate better deals for anyone but their top clients, whose deals more or less negotiate themselves anyway.

            Agents were never a big part of publishing, until publishers decided to make them so. It was a way of outsourcing editorial work. Tell writers that they must have an agent, and let the agents sort out the slush pile.

            It works out great for the publishers — they basically have an unpaid employee, who is utterly dependent on them for income, but that income comes out of the writer’s pocket.

            • Actually, it works out terribly for the publishers. Before the slush was outsourced to agents, writers had to submit to one publisher at a time and wait for a rejection before moving on to the next. (Some writers did simultaneous submissions; if detected, they tended to be blacklisted in a hurry.) Agents, however, can hit every house in the business with the same manuscript.

              Result: while the total number of MSS. submitted to publishers has gone down — marginally — now every single house in a given genre receives pretty much the same slush. In effect, the agents-only policy turned slush into spam.

    • The problem is that Agents AREN’T sales people. That’s what people want to believe, and that’s the myth they build around themselves, but the only selling they do is sell themselves to writers.

      There is an old truism in Hollywood — not even a joke — that the primary job of an agent is to steal the best clients of other agents.

  3. So how does one sell a manuscript to the Big Six w/o an agent? It is simply knowing and networking with editors and publishers? Something else?

    • Just think of ebooks as the minor leagues, Abel. The Big Six have their eyes on the movers and shakers. That’s how Amanda Hocking got a contract.

      And yeah, networking is, as always, a great way to get sold. My first story out of Clarion was sold because Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight loved it so much they told Kris Rusch she had to read it. She did, and bought it. Mind you, it was a good story, but I don’t know if I’d have thought to send it to Pulphouse. I just wrote it as a spoof on a speech that Kate did (The Ten Elements of High Fantasy).

    • It’s always been possible to submit directly to an editor. “No unsolicited submissions” has been their way of keeping out the riff-raff (or the credulous), but it’s never been a hard and fast rule.

  4. I think the system stinks.

    • Ma’am, having been down about every dead end that exists in it, I know the system stinks. I’d have given up writing if a different system hadn’t come along. Frankly, I hope the old system gets flushed entirely. If publishers still exist ten years from now, I want them to change their entire way of doing business with writers.

  5. I have to wonder if said stupid editor (won’t consider unagented subs) is getting any kickbacks from agents whose subs he does consider.

    • Indirectly:

      Agents do the work of reading the slush pile, and if they play ball nice with the editors — not only finding salable books, but also “handling” uppity authors and negotiating deals which favor the publisher — they get favored status in submissions.

      Who needs kickbacks when someone is doing your freaking job for you?

  6. Newbie authors who really really really want to go the traditional route pretty much have to have agents. Please note that I didn’t say this was a smart business decision since I believe the indie route is very viable(and growing more so everyday), but if an unknown wants to get into one of the “Big Six,” an agent is a must. Wish that wasn’t the case, but as long as I’m wishing, I’d kind of like to have a pony too.

    My personal view is that agenting is going the same way as traditional publishing – it’ll diminish, but it’ll never completely disappear. However, it’s going to take a lot more people like Laura to break the prevailing mindset that YOU HAVE TO HAVE AN AGENT OR YOU’LL DIE!!!!!

    Until writers get past this themselves, they’ll continue to give up 15% to smoeone who didn’t write the book. Maybe acceptable when a newbie wants to break in, but not so much once you’ve gotten past the gate and have proven you can sell.

    • Though a newbie author who is fortunate enough to write SF of a certain sort can look at Baen — and I think still DAW? — and their slushpile-without-agent-requirements.

  7. When publishers say they will only take unagented work, they are passing the role of reading the slush pile to the agents and the cost of reading that pile to us, the authors who they publish (not the ones that get rejected). So we pay 15% of our income to save them money.

    • There are economic reasons the publishers have pushed that cost to the hopefuls. They are staggering under M&A debt from decades of consolidation in happier times, which I outlined in Whither the Big 6?.

      Is it right? No. Is it real? Yes. Do we have to deal with it? Either we pay agents to represent us, or we hire a phalanx of editors and artists and publicists, etc to make our work the best.

      In my opinion, hiring the artists & editors is a one time expense. Hiring the agent & Big 6 Pub is an eternal expense for a few days work. No brainer…

      Your thoughts?

      Peace, Seeley

  8. Agents are an anachronism. As publishing continues to evolve and reinvent itself, they become less and less relevant to the mix.

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