Monday, June 20, 2011

The Thing About Agents

I've realized of late that I’ve been reading a lot about agents, and about the hunt for them, about submissions, about their all-round necessity in the publishing process. I don’t know when the thought occurred to me, but I had decided a while ago that I’d do without, thank you very much.

How successful has it been for me? Well, not so much, but I’m going with that half-assed approach to seeking publication and hoping that will work well for me. Part of my issue is that I’ve got a manuscript that I’m not entirely sure I believe in that I’ve been sorta shopping around. I won’t get into what I perceive are the story’s flaws here, but I’ll just say that I’ve got other stuff I've written that I like better. The reason I’ve been shopping that story instead of trunking it is that I still really like it (and it's finished, more or less). The execution might be lacking, but then again, I don’t know, maybe it’s genius and the folks who control the publishing world will fawn all over it.

Regardless, I’m not here to talk about that, my subject is Agents, and why I don’t want one. Here is the story of agents, as it has been relayed to me via a few sources, which I’ll try to link to at the end of this short tale.

Once upon a time, if you wanted to be a writer you lived in New York City, so you could walk down the block and have lunch with your editor, hash out issues with your story, discuss your contract, pitch a new book, whatever. But as the business grew, and City living didn’t always agree with every writer, an intermediary was needed. After all, if I wanted to live out of town, did I really need to go talk to my Editor in person about every little detail?

Those early agents really served as contract negotiators, they weren’t yet in the game as pitchmen and slush readers for the publishing houses, they were employed by the writers to represent them to the publisher.

A few enterprising individuals started offering more services for their clients, since they were already there, hanging out with editors anyway, why not pitch that next book – heck, they could help manage your money, right? It worked out for everyone. Well, as publisher’s got bigger (i.e., corporate), and real estate more expensive. Publishers were trying to cut costs as agents were finding their own rent too expensive to continue like they were, all those assistant publishers that were reading slush were out of jobs and individual agents were teaming up to form agencies, since they had the ear of the editor anyway, why not pitch the story of an unknown author too?

Publishers found their new slush readers, which they no longer had to pay for, and agents found it helped them out because they were attracting more authors, everyone wins again.

Of course, at some point in all that, agents quit working for the authors and began working for the agency – and in a backhanded sort of way, the publishers. I’ve heard several stories of wonderful, ethical, and caring agents that were forced to do things that were not in the author’s best interest because it might damage their relationship with the editor, or publisher, which of course wouldn't have mattered at one time because the agent worked for the author, but since they were going to be pitching the same publisher or editor some new novel ideas in the future it didn’t make sense to burn bridges over one measly little book contract.

Anyway, I can’t swear to the accuracy of the narrative I wove above, but I didn’t make it up out of whole cloth either. Read the Business Rusch, Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing, Laura Resnick… or better yet…

Please, someone tell me you’ve been listening to Adventures in Sci fi publishing. It is a podcast started several years ago about a guy who was desperately trying to break into the industry as a writer, over the years the podcast has changed some, but the original vision, figuring out how to get published, is still at its heart. You must listen to the latest episode (linked here) where Kathryn Rusch advised new authors not to seek representation – and about how publishers are much friendlier now to non-represented authors than they have been in a very long time.

For now at least, I’m sold. I’m not querying agents. Those insider stories I hear are chilling. Publishing is big business, and one that’s changing so rapidly that following a model to publication that’s only a couple of years old might not be right way to do it now. 



Anonymous said...

That's pretty convincing! I'm not at the stage yet where I have thought about querying, but when I am, maybe I'll think twice.

Rogue Mutt said...

Now agents are trying to become publishers too just to confuse things even more. It's probably better if you can go through that process of finding a good agent, hooking on with big publisher, selling lots of books. But how many times does that really happen? You have a better chance finding Bigfoot inside of a UFO.

Danette said...

*gasp* You've spoken blasphemy. At least from what I have gathered from the writing blogosphere.

Andrew said...

Well, I think, you know I agree with you. What you used to would call an agent is probably now more like a personal assistant. Without the knowledge of contracts. Of course, everything I've been reading says to go straight to the publisher and hire a contract lawyer to do your contract negotiating. It's a one time fee as opposed to a percentage of your book.

Or, you know, self publish.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I didn't query agents and it worked for me. You're right, writers don't hire agents, they pick writers.

Briane P said...

Here's the thing: agents have personal relationships with editors and publishers and can get your book past the slush pile (if you get past the agent's slush pile). They can also serve to negotiate things you might not even think about, like ancillary rights and foreign rights, and marketing movies and the like. They also will do a lot of the querying and marketing for you, so your job as an author is to write and sign books and smile, and their job is to do the stuff you don't want to do.

That's why I have an office manager: so I can sue people all day, and she can figure out how to deduct 7.65% from my law clerks' paycheck to pay social security. I don't have to know how to do that, and I don't have to waste my time doing that.

Can you sell your book without an agent? Sure. Can you hire a contract lawyer to go over things? Sure. Will that person screw things up? As a sports-lover of sorts, I'd remind people of Ricky Williams being drafted by the Saints, and getting a contract that was unique, and by "unique" I mean "terrible for him."

I've said before, though, that querying an agent is different than querying a publisher or simply selling your book. You're selling to an agent, and many people (me) when they query agents simply say "Here's an agent, I'll query him." But that agent may not be good or may not be good for you, or both.

There's no right or wrong answer; instead, you have to ask what your goals are. If your goal is to just get that first book in print, going with a small publisher (or indie publishing) and an agent-less existence might do it. If you want to be Stephanie Meyers or George R. R. Martin, you probably need an agent. If you want to be John Grisham and sell your movie rights before you even finish the book, you'd better have an agent (or a contact.)

So all those people purporting to give advice should step back and say, first "What is it you really want to do?" Ask yourself that: "What do I really want to do?" and then decide how to do that, but make your goals SPECIFIC. Not "be a writer." You're already that. "Be a writer and get paid for it" is better. "Be a writer who gets paid enough to live in Hawaii" is even better. And so on.

Once you know your goal, you can aim for it directly. In my case, my goal was simply "get to write some stuff," combined with "I don't want to spend a lot of time editing and dealing with literary types" combined with "I'd like to make at least some money." And with that I pretty much stopped querying agents, focused on blogging, wrote whatever the heck I liked, and I have a lot of fun with it.

Of course, I'm also not living in Hawaii yet, so it's not all guns and roses.

Rusty Webb said...

Madeline - Well, I think making sure you know the cons, as well as the pro's can help make the best decision. But it's hard to find anyone willing to talk about the cons. I just thought I would throw out a little and see if any of it stuck

Rogue - If you can find a super-agent, the kind that James Patterson or Stephen King might use then I'm sure your right. But bringing up plot points about episodes of the Six Million Dollar Man aren't necessary. Although it is awesome.

Danette - I know, I hope you read a few of the links I provided though, very enlightening stuff.

Alex - thanks, I appreciate the support.

Briane - I can't really rebut your points from anything in my personal experience, all I can do is share what I read and pass it along. I will say however, that the points you made above have been made, and discussed at length elsewhere (which I did link to), those that have eschewed agents have pointed out that they might not be as connected as we're led to believe. I'm sure some of those super agents I mentioned when responding to Rogue might, but that's such a small percentage that they may as well not exist.

The vast majority are more likely to have the ear of a few editors, but again, no where near as many as we might think. It took me weeks to get through all the information that I linked to above. If you haven't already, take some time (days, not hours) and go through them. In the end you might still disagree, but you'll at least understand the arguments better.

Thanks a ton everyone.

Rusty Webb said...

Andrew - sorry I missed you in my above comment. Weird. That's what I've been reading too. I can't recall where I saw it, but I came across a spreadsheet recently that had every book sold to a major publisher going back for a couple of years. Something close to half the books sold were direct from writers.

Of those, many were first time sells, if I had to guess it would appear that folks are selling their books to the publisher, then going and getting an agent, which seems ass backwards to me. I mean, that's the main reason to have an agent.

Oh well, I'll just chalk that up to one of those things I'm just not meant to understand.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Rusty, don't know if you saw my post yesterday, but build you up big time for Monday. It's all ready to go - just be sure to stop by a couple times. You know my Army will leave many comments!

KarenG said...

You have it right on. Especially this:

Publishers found their new slush readers, which they no longer had to pay for

Tonja said...

I haven't published anything yet, but I think of agents the way I would think of a wedding planner. If you don't want the stress of managing all of the extreme details, you get someone to do it for you. The problem is once you choose them you may well have more stress if they suck and you don't realize it until it's too late. Found you from your guest blog on Alex's blog.

Rusty Webb said...

Karen - Agreed, pretty sad though.

Tonja - thanks for stopping by, if I could get an agent that was like a wedding planner I would be cool with it. But I don't think that is worth getting a significant percentage of my income forever to have someone read my fan mail for me - unless I'm J.K Rowling or Stephen King - I think their real worth should be in getting my books sold and negotiating a better deal once said book is sold.

My suspicion is that only a very small minority have the ability to really give me something that I couldn't do myself. I would love to have an agent at some point, but from my point of view it would be because I'm too successful to manage things on my own.

Danette said...

Hi Rusty, Came back to see how the conversation went. I thought you might be interested in the series of posts I did on my blog that went in the same vein-- not on agents as much as on selling your book (building your brand). The response I got was very chilling. Most of the writers were intent on going the agent route (i.e. Stephanie Meyers is the dream!) and then I guess they think they'll be best sellers in no time. Some of them got almost angry and I may have lost a follower or two! It was wild! I hope they're prepared for a rough road but I am with you. No agent and if I have to rough it out later and do my own advertising, then so be it!