Thursday, March 6, 2014

All Hail the Agents

Much has been written in recent years, about the evolving role of literary agents. Some would say that the brave new world of self-publishing has made them obsolete. Others insist that they’re just a den of dinosaurs, struggling to stay relevant and steal fees from unsuspecting authors, in a world that has passed them by. No doubt the current environment brings new challenges for the business, but I daresay that the reports of our demise are quite premature.

First, as to the rise of self-pub: Surely we’ve all heard the success stories of self-published books that went on to greatness; The Shack and Fifty Shades come immediately to mind. But why do you suppose it is that these stories garner so much ink in the popular media? The answer, of course, is that they’re so rare. For every gonzo hit that you hear about, there are tens of thousands that barely left the gate.

When I meet self-pub authors (OK, some prefer the title “indie”), I ask about their experience. They initially felt empowered by a process that allowed them to bypass the usual gatekeepers, but after a year or two they’re heartbroken because the book went nowhere. All in all, about 95% of “indie” books never sell 100 copies. Smashwords recently reported that they paid $20 million in royalties for 2013. I did the math: That’s an average of $72.44 to each author. Yeah.

Second, as to an agent’s role: I’ve had a few strange conversations with writers who were less than impressed with my portfolio. They look over the titles on my website, and research each one. They observe that some of those publishers don’t require agented submissions. Apparently I did nothing that the author couldn’t have done on her own, and it’s dishonest for me to collect a commission for it.

Oh, is that what you think an agent is for?

If they would only stick around for an answer (and very few ever do), I would tell them that I almost always start my submissions process with the Big Five and their many imprints. And when I do, I always score a few reads.


At that point my influence means very little, because I'm no longer in the room. It's just you and the editor (or an intern reader), and either your story is good enough or it isn't. Either your writing makes the grade or it doesn't. I brought you to the dance, but now it's up to you to deliver. I can't save you from yourself.

But even with the best writing and editing, not every book is a good fit for Macmillan or Random House. It may be that your story would compete directly with one of their existing big-name authors. Or they have already reached their yearly quota for debut authors, or for mysteries. Or you work in an obscure niche they don’t handle. Hence, your agent’s experience or competence is not the issue. (Incidentally, these are useful actionable insights the publisher might tell me, but probably won’t tell you.)

Major-house restrictions notwithstanding, you might actually be better off with a smaller publisher that specializes in your genre. Sometimes they make better offers, because they’re eager to invest in new authors. Higher advances, targeted marketing, better discount for author purchases. Altogether a much better deal than you might get from the majors, even if they didn’t require you to work with an agent. But would you have known about this opportunity on your own? Probably not.

In the past few months, I’ve been approached by editors who offered me deals out of the blue. (Yes, they came to me.) Another invited me to re-submit projects that his company previously rejected. Last week an editor told me that he needs to sign a few more romances in the next couple of months; do I have any? This is information that you will never see in any public announcement anywhere. Agents get this juicy intel all the time, and one of them could be the perfect opportunity for you. If you don’t have an agent, you’ll never know.

Why do publishers often prefer to work with agents? Statistically, when they solicit direct submissions, they know that it will only invite a flood of lousy stories from amateur writers who won’t follow instructions. But an agented submission has already been screened and vetted by someone they know and trust, someone who knows the rules and will make their job easier. 

Often, even the most gifted writers have little or no understanding of the business. They might display raw talent, but they'll need coaching and editing before their work is ready for prime-time. They might need to write up a proposal, or construct a marketing plan, before any publisher will even bother to read the first word. A competent agent, one who shares your vision, can help with these important matters early on. He already knows the editor (including her private phone number), so he can cut in line for you ahead of the unsolicited slush pile.

I have a friend who has published over 100 books. With his record, he has no problem finding publishers willing to read his work and make generous offers. But because he's so busy, and (by his own account) forgetful, he chooses to work with an agent who can handle the nagging details and keep him on schedule.

The normal contract from Penguin (and its dozens of imprints) runs about 20 pages. Your agent has seen their boilerplate before, so he knows what to expect and how to sweeten it for you. Do you know what your royalty should be? Escalation? Advance? Reserve? Marketing? Timeline? What happens when they sell your surplus copies below cost? Should you grant certain rights, and hold on to others? Do you know how to negotiate these terms to your advantage, or how hard to fight for each? For almost all writers I meet, the answer is no. They don’t even know the vocabulary, so as to understand what they’ve been offered. This doesn’t make them stupid, it just means that they have a steep learning curve ahead.

Surely, as in any profession, there's a broad range of skill and competence out there. Not every writer needs an agent, and not every agent is right for you. But that's a very different discussion for another day. So yes, I do believe that agents are still relevant. Writers need to be taught, not just in the craft but also in the business. Publishers appreciate having a go-between to lubricate the process, and they willingly extra for it. And at the end of the day, we turn out better books. 

Everybody wins.



  1. Yes. Agreed. I wouldn't do this job without an agent, just as I wouldn't do my own electrical work. I want to free my time up to write. :)

  2. As my agent, I value Steve's work with my publisher to push for certain concessions. The answer isn't always yes, but I wouldn't know what to ask for. I also look forward to more career advice and the sale of my next novel.

  3. My first novel, self-published, retaining my copyright is hitting the market soon. I was able to secure a "blurb" from an author who has twelve books out there. He has been traditionally published for all twelve. He is going to self publish his next one. I however want an agent. How do I get one, any advice?

  4. Jean, I highly recommend that you attend writers' conferences that have agents on their faculty. This is by far the easiest way to get their attention, and bypass the normal submissions process.

  5. So, how best to submit our work to you?

    1. It's all on my website. Nancy.

    2. don't know how i missed it...very explict....thanks.