US literary agents question the business model’s viability, but some are missing the bigger picture

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From The New Publishing Standard:

Today, publishing is a different planet. There is so much opportunity. So much potential. So much agents can offer authors, traditionally-published or self-published. And it is the younger, newer generation of agents, that are best poised to take full advantage and take their careers to new levels.

As September ended, the biennial report from the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA) was released, painting a bleak picture of American’s literary agents working long hours and struggling to pay the bills, while worrying for their future, and questioning the viability of the commission model.

I logged the report on my To Do List, where of course it was promptly subsumed in the flood of pre-Frankfurt industry news and reports, and only resurfaced thanks to Porter Anderson over at Publishing Perspectives, who summarised the report during Frankfurt week, to shine the spotlight on the Buchmesse LitAg programme. Anderson took time out to remind us literary agents work hard and are not always appreciated for their pivotal role in bringing authors and publishers together, and looking after author interests.

As an industry professional, there were few surprises in the Association of American Literary Agents report. Those of us who have had dealings with literary agents will know it’s not quite the romantic dream job those outside the industry might imagine.

Ready-to-print future bestsellers rarely arrive on the desk, and those that do, unless from existing clients, go through the slush pile process of being filtered and evaluated, with the AALA reporting some agents handling over 100 submissions a week, often without an assistant.

Separating the wheat from the chaff can be dispiriting, when you know the querying author may have spent years of their life working on a manuscript that they truly believe in, but that sadly isn’t readable past the first few paragraphs. I cannot imagine there are any literary agents who relish the next stage – the rejection email saying thanks, but no thanks.

And then there’s the anguish of rejecting a manuscript that shows promise, but just needs too much work, or a well-written submission that simply doesn’t tick the right boxes for the prevailing market conditions.

All this alongside the lurking fear that the agent might have just rejected what will go on to be the next publishing industry legend. Just ask the many agents who told JK Rowling not to give up the day job.

As an author and one-time editor, being a literary agent is probably the last job I would want to choose in this industry. Although sympathy towards the plight of the literary agents’ struggles as reported by the AALA is tempered by, as always, real life.

There are plenty of jobs out there that pay less, have longer hours, zero job satisfaction, and involve exhausting manual labour. So my gut reaction whenever I see reports emerging like this from any sector of the publishing industry, is to sigh and prepare for a pity-fest of victim-of-a-cruel-world gripes.

The latest Authors Guild report, published the same week as the AALA report, is an example, with Jim Milliot reporting for PW that “Writing Books Remains a Tough Way to Make a Living“, explaining that, “A new Authors Guild survey finds that median book and writing-related income for authors in 2022 was below the poverty level.

That’s an op-ed in its own right. The idea that book authors can somehow be equated with people who stack shelves in supermarkets, make bread or cars or widgets, serve coffee or pizza, or do some other weekly-waged job never fails to amuse me. Back in the UK I spent many years sat in coffee bars all day, slaving hard to keep the baristas busy replenishing my lattes for a pittance weekly wage, while I pecked away at the keyboard between blueberry muffins, writing books that in their time sold almost two million copies, and fifteen years on, still bring in a trickle of revenue. The barista, who worked far harder than I ever did, got paid for the day’s work and then had to do it all over again the next day to get paid again. My work, all those years ago still earns me something, and if I can ever find the time away from school and TNPS, there’s probably a lot more mileage to be had from them. Real life? No thank you.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Of course, there are many ways to be poor. For the large majority of would-be authors who wish to be published by traditional publishers, absent independent means, that path is doomed to failure.

Being poor and young can be a hoot (PG speaks from experience). However, being poor and middle-aged or, worse, poor and old is a different sort of existence altogether (Thankfully, PG doesn’t speak from experience about that sort of life).

PG has helped/tried to help a number of people who have found themselves old or pre-old without enough money to make ends meet. More than a few employers would rather hire young and train than spend more money to get additional experienced employees. While it’s supposed to be illegal, there is more than a little age discrimination that goes on in contemporary US businesses.

Generally, PG advises would-be authors who aren’t able to crash on a friend’s couch each night to not give up their day jobs until they start receiving some actual money in meaningful amounts from their writing.

4 thoughts on “US literary agents question the business model’s viability, but some are missing the bigger picture”

  1. A bit mystified about wanting to abolish the commission model. Does this mean charging a fee to review manuscripts submitted?

    Also, I do wish the article had specified exactly how an agent would be of any help with a self-published author. Perhaps with something to do with foreign rights?

  2. A new Authors Guild survey finds that median book and writing-related income for authors in 2022 was below the poverty level.

    As with all such studies, how was the full sample set constructed?

  3. I must disagree with the OP: Commercial publishing (US, UK, Germany, and on all other evidence the rest of the EU) is not a different planet.

    Mars is a different planet.

    Commercial publishing is an asteroid in a galaxy a long time ago, and far, far away, populated solely by aliens who have no individual independent thought — just a hive mind. Jar-Jar Binks‘s hive mind.

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