On Agents and Editors

The interview with Nathan Bransford @ Alan Rinzler’s blog has a couple of very fascinating comments. The first is a comment from someone who goes by AE, without a link to a homepage:

The statement about agents becoming the tastemakers is hopeful, at best, and obviously smeared in self interest. No agent wants to accept their demise. What is more likely is that editors will simply band together and form a brand of their own and through this brand the electronic works will be siphoned and accordingly, stamped with approval.

This is inevitable because the publishing houses will disappear as books go electronic and POD replaces standard publishing. Books will go to stores in small batches, Book stores will be more like specialty, luxury shops where the products will be loaded with ’special features’ like DVDs are now.

The likely fate of the agent is similar to the writer: competition will become extreme as their position as gatekeeper will diminish by orders of magnitude until they are really just not required at all. Writer’s will be divided between those that understand how to build a platform and those that don’t. In fact, agents would be wise to transition now into publicity as the world will be swamped with electronic titles and only advertising will cull the crowd of them.

Agenting is openly a game of defense and soon this will be redundant. Electronic book format will create a situation where only the cream rises to the top (market driven) and editors will simply scoop it off. What’s more is that the breakdown of the big houses will leave editors with new opportunities to involve themselves in the culture of books in the way that small presses have attempted to do. But it will work, the editor will emerge as the co-star to the novel in that they brand the book, they determine it’s access to the huge sales streams and their opinions and contributions will become as important, publicly, as the writer. From there, writer/editor teams will replace entirely the agent as the editor will be working for the largest possible profit viz the actual market.

Nathan Bransford responds:

You write, “What is more likely is that editors will simply band together and form a brand of their own and through this brand the electronic works will be siphoned and accordingly, stamped with approval.”

What makes you think editors are going to do this instead of agents, or that this would represent a better deal for writers?

Agents might not be particularly popular among the unagented, but our approval ratings are far, far higher for those who do have agents and who have successfully published. Our interests are aligned with the authors, whereas editors have to answer first to their publishers — it’s not in an editor’s interest to give an author the best deal possible. You need an agent to get the best deal. I don’t doubt that there will be small presses who do precisely what you outline, but authors will always need agents to negotiate on their behalf with whatever companies are distributing content.

Again: we are on the side of the authors. As long as authors are around, agents will be too. If we didn’t earn our commission we simply wouldn’t be around right now. Who is going to submit an author’s work to film studios for a movie adaptaion? Negotiate contracts? Work out distribution deals? Get a better deal for an author when their work takes off? Serve as business/creative managers? Sure, authors can do this on their own, but a) who has that kind of time, and b) you’re not going to do better than someone who has this kind of expertise.

I feel like a lot of times people let their frustrations with agents result in some misguided hopes for our demise. Just remember, we’re on the author’s side. Hoping that we disappear so that authors can face the Amazons and publishers of the future on their own is not particularly constructive.

I just can’t agree with this statement: “Our interests are aligned with the authors, whereas editors have to answer first to their publishers.” Ideally, yes, but too often it seems like agents are aligned with the demands of publishers. I remember sending out my Hollywood novel to an agent early on. He replied, “Oh, a novel just sold about the magazine industry, so that’s what publishers are looking for now.” This is insane – a fanatical devotion to the current market.  It’s not uncommon.  There may be many good agents out there with their author’s futures at heart, but this marketing-obsessed dynamic is held by agents as much as editors.  The reason I’m looking to self-publishing now is to avoid this very maddening system – the idea that the opinions of a handful of people is the full barometer of a book’s worth.

I speak from a position who’s had a number of high-profile agents – I’m not a person who’s been rejected countless times, so now I’m bitter. They’ve had better success selling my stuff overseas (Hachette Litteratures in France, Canongate in the U.K.) But in the States I have seen a lot of evidence of agents being fully culpable in how the industry is driven by marketing. That doesn’t mean that agents are useless, as AE implies. Agents and traditional publishers are great if they’re driven by better instincts.

There’s no better way to get a book into the hands of readers than having mainstream distribution. Though I wrote that sales don’t matter, traditional publishing is – for the most part – preferable to hustling to sell a book yourself. Yes, there are people who argue that profits are better with self-publishing, but by and large, you don’t make a great profit if you’re selling 200 books. However, as a fallback plan, self-publishing makes perfect sense, which is why I take issue with anyone who says you shouldn’t do it, or agents who say it’s a deathnail.  No, the old system is the deathnail of self-expression – and really does seem to be spoken by people who cling to being the gatekeepers.

  • Thanks for your comments, but I’m not sure how an agent saying “I don’t think I can sell this” is acting contrary to an author’s interests if they genuinely don’t believe they can sell it. It’s not an agent’s job to tell an author the sky is red. If an agent believes based on market conditions that they can’t sell the author’s book in good faith, it doesn’t mean they care any less about the author or have stopped believing in the author’s talent. It might just mean they think the author would be better served writing something different.

    And yeah, the agent might be wrong, just like editors might be wrong. But it doesn’t mean the agent is necessarily acting in bad faith. We are operating in the marketplace we were given, and like it or not it’s a marketplace of best guesses. It’s hard to sell a book. Things will hopefully change, but I don’t think blaming agents or suggesting that we’re not on the side of our clients is fair.

  • I get what you’re saying, but I think agents do bear some culpability for the industry’s emphasis on marketing – like an agent thinking about what was marketable last week to determine what should sell today. Not basing it on the quality of the writing whatsoever. That sets a bad tone and bad precedent. Editors might set the market by what they buy, but it also seems like a two-way street.

    And by the way, the “gatekeepers” comment wasn’t directed at you, but more at Janet Reid who had a blog post today that cast everyone who publishes with iUniverse or AuthorHouse with the same broad stroke, which had more than a whiff of snobbery. You’ve been open to self-publishers.

  • Randall Radic

    Agents are middlemen, which means they are deal makers. Good. Writers need deals made for them, because as NB said, most writers don’t have the time or the expertise to do it for themselves. But that being said, I don’t like agents. Why? Because they tell me that they work for me — which they do. But because I can’t get a deal without my agent, we have somehow changed places, and now I work for him. He tells me what to write and what will sell and that I should spend my time writing for the market, but he never seems to be able to precisely define that market for me. He can only tell me what the market doesn’t want, never what it does want. Nor does he update me — I simply “hope” he’s shopping my manuscript. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. There’s no communication. This is a healthy relationship? Reminds me more of one of my failed marriages.

  • I’ve done a lot of sales work as “day jobs” and understand what that’s like, especially on direct commission. But this is the very flaw in the agenting process. It makes them play it safe and chase the market they already know exists. For most, innovation is a waste of time and there is a lot of industry group think about what will and won’t sell. It’s the reason that there is so much crap in bookstores that looks like last year’s best-seller.

    The real problem is that the big publishers, to save time and money, have delegated the entire selection process to the agents. There is no more “over the transom”. No more “slush pile”. You go this way, or you don’t get read. The net result of that is the growing number of “self-published” books that get picked up by mainstream publishers. If not here, then abroad. I’ve just started offering foreign rights on “The Shenandoah Spy” and the film right have always been in play. (It’s like Chess. You have to look at the whole board.)

    When all of those sales happen, it will likely be without the help of an agent, because I’m an adult with business background and I don’t really need them to make a sale. I don’t really want to do business with people who presume to tell me how to write, if they bother to respond to my letters and e-mails at all. Too many of them are like the agent who told Tony Hillerman he’s have to “get rid of all that Indian stuff” if he wanted to sell anything.

    Agency requires nothing more than some contacts and a knowledge of contract law. That last can be acquired at any community college. Making your book a competitive product in the marketplace will bring the contacts — and the contracts.

  • Francis-

    Tony Hillerman was repped for years and years by Curtis Brown, the agency I work for, so obviously he found some value in agents. Obviously not all are good, but a good one is immensely valuable.

  • Randall Radic

    This is a very interesting discussion. I like it! And I think it’s very fascinating that most of the comments — so far — are negative toward agents. Is that because the individuals making the comments don’t have agents, or is it because most agents deserve the negativity? Too bad there are no comments from ‘agented’ authors. I have an agent, and he’s a nice guy, who’s honest and hard-working. He doesn’t irk me, but ‘agents’ do. I’ve had four now. Number one was a shyster. Number two was a shyster. And number three wanted to tell me not only what to write, but how to write. She became agitated when I didn’t want to fit the mold of HOW to write. So I told her I didn’t think it was going to work out. It wasn’t personal, as they say, just business. And writing is a business. And I guess that’s why we have agents. But agents do “tend to chase the market they know” as Francis said.

  • I have nothing against agents. I hope that’s not what I’ve conveyed. They can be a great professional advocate and the best way to get a book deal. To say otherwise would be totally naive. But I think agents have contributed to the marketing obsession of the entire industry. And this obsession is why self-publishing is increasingly necessary and a valid route to take. Ideally, self-publishing can bypass the agenting process by taking a book directly to actual readers. I say ideally because it’s very hard to reach a lot of readers as a self-publisher, so self-publishing is not going to replace the agenting process any time soon. Nor should it, maybe, because a good agent can be very useful, just like a good editor.

  • Randall Radic

    Editor is, of course, correct. But agents still task me.

  • Oh, I’ve had agents in the past. One was a chase the market guy who rejected every idea I presented that didn’t fit his vision of the market. A true gatekeeper, that one. Acted like I was working for him. He actually fired me! Or so he thought. All he did was beat me to the punch in ending ur relationship. I had another give one of my ideas to another writer with a bigger reputation to make a deal. That did result in a book –which flopped because of poor execution. So that idea is now a proven failure in the marketplace. Fortunately, I never run out of ideas. I do run out of patience with that kind of behavior. When I need representation now, I call in one of my lawyers.

    I haven’t even tried agents lately because I’m 64 years old and can’t wait for them to get around to getting back to me. Ever notice that the ones who want exclusive access to your work generally don’t have time to even formally turn it down. You can waste your life waiting for people to reply to your “Three Chapters and an outline”. No, I just got fed up. My time is better spent producing a superior product. If an agent wants to read my book, well copies are available everywhere. Enjoy.

    I’m all for going directly to the reader. But we self-publishers have to remember that we don’t have the mass marketing resources of Big Media and that market penetration will take a lot longer time to realize. Years, not weeks.

    We also have a lot of blind prejudice to overcome against self-publishing. To do that we have to get everyone to produce quality merchandise that exceeds that available from the mainstream. Seeing how things are going right now, that isn’t that hard. It just takes time and effort.

    Curtis Brown is indeed a fine agency. I’ve done business with them back when I was buying film rights and trying to make spec film deals. But they are not interested in new , untried writers, or at least they weren’t interested in this one. The whole business is so subjective and dependent on things that have nothing to do with the quality of the work that I see no point in wasting time with proposals and partial submissions. I want someone to read the whole work or not at all.

    Ernest Hemingway never had an agent. At least I never saw mention of one that book of letters Carlos Baker put together, and there was lots of business correspondence there, mostly with Maxwell Perkins.

  • On J. Reid’s blog today: “I’m in this for money, not love.” I think I’m onto something.


  • I am an agented writer who believes wholeheartedly that finding the right agent can make all the difference. That said, it was my second agent that made the deal (my first didn’t work out). I agree with those who say that having a bad agent is worse than no agent at all. And sometimes it takes time to find the right match.
    But I shopped my book(s) myself for five years. I sat waiting, month after month, for a publisher to get back with me. I was strung along by one publisher for more than a year (one who forbade simultaneous submissions). The editor loved my book, she was just trying to get her boss to read it, yadayada. Since then, I’ve spoken to three other people who have told me that this is this publisher’s business plan–to keep authors on the line, just in case. Once I signed with an agent, she said, “Make a decision” and the publisher declined.
    After that, my book went to auction. I ended up getting 6x the original advance offer.
    I am now with my third agent (I’m not really hard to get along with) and have sold six novels, all through one agency (two different agents). I am very very happy.
    Agents shouldn’t take on books they don’t think they can sell. That serves no one.

  • I’ll speak up as an author with an agent. I’m a brand new author actually, having just sold my first book. When I began searching for an agent to represent me, I was baffled by the seemingly Byzantine rules and guidelines required just to get them to read a simple query letter. I spent a lot of time ghosting different blogs and discussion boards. When I decided to put myself out there, I followed those rules, and the response was great. Within a couple weeks I found the agent for me. However, I was still a little unsure why I even needed this guy.

    Fast forward to a couple months later and I wouldn’t trade my agent for all the coffee in Sumatra. Not only does he handle the burden of the business side for me (not because I can’t, but simply because I have better things to do), but he helps guide me. When I have an idea, we discuss it’s viability on the market, whether it’s a commercial project or not. Because, let’s face it, writing books IS about making some money. I’d like to quit my day job and write full time. Anyone who says they’re doing it solely for the art is lying at least a little. So if the market is flooded with books about vampires and decide to write my vampire novel, my agent is honest enough to tell me what my chances of selling it are. And since I have more ideas than I know what to do with, I can shelve it for a time when vampire books are needed in the market. My agent doesn’t chase trends though. He makes sure that when he tells me what my books chances on the market are, that he also impresses upon me that if I want to write it, then I should write it. He never stifles my creativity. He never comes to me and tells me that zombies are hot and I should write a zombie book. He make suggestions about my writing style but never demands I change anything, even though I’ve found that his suggestions have made me a much better writer.

    Agents won’t go away. At least I hope they won’t. Right now, they’re helping filter out books that aren’t ready for prime time. There’s demotivator poster that says: Not everyone gets to be an astronaut when they grow up. The same applies to writers. There has to be someone out there making sure we’re publishing quality books that can also make money.

    And when Nathan says that Agents are for the writers, he’s dead right. Agents want us to be successful, they need us to be successful. Their livelihoods depend on it just as much as ours. Agents don’t work for writers and writers don’t work for agents. Instead, it’s a partnership and should be treated as such. Agents try to keep quality high. Unfortunately when everyone who wants to can publish a book, how is the general public going to find the good ones?

  • Thanks for the comment. The problem is I think this is too idealistic: “Right now, they’re helping filter out books that aren’t ready for prime time….There has to be someone out there making sure we’re publishing quality books that can also make money.” I have no problem with making money, selling a lot of books: that’s the idea. Agents are ignoring plenty of “quality books” that aren’t immediately marketable, but most certainly deserve attention. And now the publishing industry complains that book sales are down.

    I liken the publishing industry to the mortgage crisis: people who looked for quick profit over long-term sustainability, and that system collapsed. The publishing industry looked for marketable books based on what’s currently selling without enough regard for writers’ long-term careers. And the old trickle down system where publishers would publish big sellers so they could afford to publish new, untested work was no longer being done. It’s greed, plain and simple, the thing that’s crippled the entire economy. Agents played into this game because they had to, but I think they’re partly to blame for the commercialization of the publishing industry.

  • I have to respectfully disagree. I don’t believe I’m the one being idealistic. “Agents are ignoring plenty of “quality books” that aren’t immediately marketable, but most certainly deserve attention.” This idea is idealistic. If it’s not immediately marketable, then the translation is that it’s not going to sell. It would be a wonderful world where artists could create simply for art’s sake and not have to worry about paying to keep the electric on, but that’s not the world we live in. But that doesn’t mean all publishers and agents are unwilling to take chances on books with only limited appeal. My book, for example, is written toward (I don’t say ‘written for’ because I didn’t write it with any specific market in mind) a smaller portion of the market. My agent knew it wasn’t likely to make loads of money, and my editor knew, when she bought it, that it wasn’t going to be the next Harry Potter. What they both saw in me was the potential for a long career in writing. In me they saw a style and a humor and an ability that could be nurtured over the long-haul. So they took a chance. Next year we’ll see if it pans out.

    So I think to suggest that agents are ignoring plenty of quality books is both too idealistic and a little over-exaggerated. Are publishers, and thus agents, taking fewer chances on less marketable books? Yes. But that’s because they’re in the business of selling books. They can’t afford to take on loads of authors who need to be nurtured. But it also doesn’t mean they aren’t taking any chances. If a book is good, really good, and an author perseveres, his book will find a home.

    I firmly believe that agents and editors serve an extremely useful function, and that eliminating them would lower the overall quality of the work on the market.

  • I share Shaun’s sentiments, and I think there’s a lot more idealism among agents than you might expect. I spend a ton of time working on small reprints for authors like Lawrence and Gerald Durrell, and works of literary fiction that probably have a limited market. This isn’t a path to riches, but I love these works, I want them to be out there, and so I do it. It’s not about the money.

    The publishing business in general is not really a place for mercenaries (except for a notable few). There are easier ways to make money. We’re here because we love it. I know Janet Reid had a post about how she’s in it for the money, but that was a joke about a specific example, and well-in-keeping with her sense of humor, and she devotes hours and hours of her time to helping the unpublished, which she does altruistically. I think it was discussed on this site out of context.

    I also think people are really overestimating agents’ collective ability to drive the market. I don’t see how that’s possible. We can only sell what publishers want to buy. We are on the supply side, not on the selection side. I can’t force anyone to publish anything. No agent can.

    Wish I could though!

  • Randall Radic

    Very interesting discussion. It sounds like if one can hook up with the right agent, it’s worth it.

  • Being an unpubbed writer, I see, have seen, and look for information on this topic fairly often. I’ve come to the conclusion that, as the market stands, the only reason I would self publish is just for the fun of seeing my book in print. The vast majority of self pubbed authors sell less than 100 copies. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for this. Some didn’t do it to make money, others tried to and failed. I’m no marketing genius. Marketing a book is also a full time job, and I’d prefer to be writing. The e-world of publishing is a rather chaotic beast right now from what I can see. It’s evolving quicker than most people can keep up with it. Trying to make sense of where to go, what to do, and how to do it is an overwhelming task for most writers. Agents and editors don’t really get much credit. People are quick to slam them when they do things we don’t like, but in general they do these jobs because they love books. That’s it. All of the perks are related to books, because the hours, pay, and all the other shit they have to deal with to do work they love sure doesn’t make the job worth it. There are bad agents and editors out there to be sure, just like in any market. Funny how they always get held up as an example for all to see as to why the industry sucks. Do they seem to sell the same type of thing over and over again? Yep. People keep buying them, and you can’t say it’s merely because that is what is available. Publishers have to go where the money is to a certain extent or they can’t stay in business. Going where the market is also allows them to make money to cover publishing stuff they love. Most of the people in this business are in it for the right reasons. Could they work more at raising social consciousness when it comes to what our culture reads? Sure, but it has to be balanced with making money to stay in business. You can’t vilify publishers for that. There’s a lot of factors out of the Publisher’s control that guides what they do.

    The agents and editors roles may likely change with the changes happening in publishing right now. I however, am not convinced either is on their way out or that self publishing and/or epublishing is going to bring about their eventual demise. I think that cream rising to the top argument won’t play out in reality. Writers will still go to the people who have the ability to get their books out to the greatest audience, and publishers/editors/agents are going to be the ones who do that. The industry is just shifting to a different venue in my opinion. Sure we have greater freedom to do things with our writing that have never been available before, but that doesn’t mean our writing will be read any more than it was before. There will be the exceptions, those people who get lucky and have the timing, money, and wherewithall to score big with a self pubbed book, but the traditional publishing powers will still make things happen, and the vast majority of writers will still need the tradtional people to get published. Writers aren’t going to go to school to learn contractual law so they can agent their own stuff. Not going to happen. We want to write, and I will continue to pursue those professionals who know the industry and how to manipulate it far better than I. So, kudos to those good agents and editors out there like Nathan and Janet and all the others who love books and work their butt off to know how best to work this industry, whatever form the future holds for it.

  • I self published , not because of rejections based on my material, but because nobody would read it. Now it’s out and I have all these five star reviews. And it sells. I expect, in time,that a publisher either alone or through an agent will come with an offer. I did turn down one of those publishing deals with royalties and no advance from one publisher. Their contract was interesting – copied from some big publisher, and with everything for them and nothing for me beyond a few promises, plus they wanted changes that would have, IMO, damaged the integrity of the narrative. I’m a great believer in the “Droit Morale; the moral right of authors to control their work. And I don’t write books for children.

    As I said elsewhere, I’m about to offer rights in other nations. Film rights are in play. Normally a first time author has to cut in their publisher on that bounty with a 50-50 split. It would be useful to have an agent take that on because it would save time that I could devote to writing the next book, but it is not absolutely necessary. And I’m not interested in debating these issues. Any agent who does not understand what the word agency means; that they are working for me and not the other way around, is not someone I will hire. I’m open to offers, but not actively seeking them. I have enough to do as it is.

  • tcscrib

    Really great discussion. I’m still working on my first novel, but when I finish it’s going to be heading to Market via Agent Avenue. Should it be possible for authors to be able to present directly to the publishers? Sure. But do agents serve and should they continue to serve an incredibly important role in our industry (“serve” being the operative word–since I do believe that it’s a service/partnership)? Absolutely.

    Francis, et al., of course I could go to community college and learn contract law. But I don’t want to! I want to write. I want to work on getting my first and next books into the hands of the reader. I want to have a support system that also works as an informed buffer between me and the rest of the world that is out for what it can get out of me, not what it can get with me. I want someone who’s on my side and will help me see things that I might be too close to my work to notice. Enter: The Agent. (Well, more specifically, “Enter: The Right Agent.”) Notice all the “I’s” in this paragraph? Yep. I’m pretty sure you’d have to say the job the right agent performs has the author in mind.

    In short, self publish all you want. I truly wish you success. Every great book that makes it into the public’s hands only whets the appetite for more. But don’t make us give up the boon of the Agent simply because you think its a bane.

    p.s. Editor, “Deathnail”? Really? … What a terrible word. It’s either a “death knell” or “a nail in the coffin,” no matter what Urban Dictionary says!

  • Tescrib: Knowledge is power. I was originally a business major, and I got As in Business Law. I found the knowledge extremely handy when I was writing for trade and business magazines. And I find dumb stuff in fiction all the time that reflects a basic lack of knowledge on a lot of topics, business included.

    If I could find an agent who wanted to be simply an agent and not a collaborator or a faux publisher, I might well hire him or her simply to save time. Anything that takes up my time and keeps me from writing is a detriment. But these folks all seem tremendously impressed with their own power because you have to go through them to get to a a regular publisher. They represent a convenience and a cost-savings for publishers, who have become prisoners of their own marketing departments and their risk-adverse MBAs. But some of what they put out into the general conversation is very damaging to authors. The idea that Barnes &Noble dictates book lengths, for instance. (I disproved that one myself last year simply by asking B&N about it.) Under law an agent is the servant of the principal. Agents now come at you like you’re the one looking for a job. You’re not. You’re looking to hire them to perform a service. Now here’s the thing; if they can’t even respond to a letter or e-mail in a timely manner, how effective are they going to be dealing with business on the other end?

    And what is with these ridiculous demands that an author write to a certain length? Where does that come from?

    The support system you speak of is broken and has been for a long time. It is now a barrier to publication, not an aid. You can surmount this barrier by rolling your own. We are in very good comapny as self-publishers; Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, and more recently a teenager named Chris Palolini.

    Let me be frank here about another problem. Age. Young agents want to represent young authors that they can relate to. They are too lazy to try and understand narratives outside their experience. Anyone over 50 is at a disadvantage finding an agent simply because they see their parents and have problems just talking to us. It is far easier to pass on the unfamiliar than to understand that these novels do have an audience; one hungry for new material. Most novels are now sold on brand name and even people with huge sales records and reputations have problems when they get off the reservation. Ask John Grisham what happens when he turns in anything other than a legal thriller.

    Here is what self-publishing really does: It establishes you in the marketplace. You retain all your rights. You can sell a mass market edition, or film and television rights or foreign rights off of the reviews you get, That’s the end game. Your first edition may be a loss leader. Most are, even with big publishers. I’ve said it before: if you just want your name on a book, then it’s easy to do now and not that expensive. If you want to be successful, then it’s a lot more complicated and requires a lot of effort.

    Finally, having been a writer for more than 40 years, I had to ask myself why I needed the permission of others, like agents and editors, to communicate with my audience. I decided I didn’t.

  • More power to you, Francis. No agent is trying to stop you from self-publishing. I don’t know why you sneer at agents so much if you consider us so dispensable, and honestly I find some of your assertions pretty insulting.

    But hey, you can do your job and we’ll do ours. We have to follow the market, and the publishing market wants books of certain length and type, because those are the types of books that people buy in enough quantity to support the publishing business.

    You aren’t bound by those constraints if you self-publish. Enjoy that, and maybe consider that it’s possible to live and let live without demeaning a whole profession performing a valuable service.

  • Francis: Unfortunately what you’re choosing not to see is that agents are NOT your servants. No one DESERVES to be represented. When you sign with an agent, the agent doesn’t work for you and you don’t work for the agent. It is a mutually beneficial partnership. They can choose to make suggestions that could help you be more successful and you can choose to ignore them. You can choose to work with them and they can choose not to work with you. Writing a novel does not give a person the right to expect that an agent or a publisher is going to fall over themselves to get to you. Writing a novel is difficult, writing a good novel even harder, writing a novel enough people want to buy to make it financially feasible to publish is about as difficult as winning the lottery. As it should be. Writing is both an art and a skill. Much like making music, some people should just play in their spare time. Or put it on YouTube. And that doesn’t demean their talent. I sing awesome at karaoke, but that doesn’t mean I should be making CD’s.

    The worst part of it is that you make assertions that are just plain wrong. Like that a publisher would retain a 50-50 split on movie rights. Now, that’s not to say that a publisher might not TRY to get those kinds of splits, but a good agent who knows his business will make sure that those kinds of things don’t happen.

    Finally, if you want to self-publish, do so. No one will stop you. If you want to go it without an agent, please, by all means do so. You’ve made it clear that there’s nothing that can be said to change your mind. But be careful that your comments don’t come off as someone who is bitter that they couldn’t break into publishing and is thus rebelling against the system. Maybe the system is broken, maybe there are wonderful books out there not being published due, but flooding the market with substandard books is simply not the answer to that problem. Criticize if you need to, but don’t ridicule. It’s just not very classy.

  • I’ll let Francis answer the criticisms himself, but this is how I see it: the market right now is letting plenty of bad books get published – in the name of marketing. Are there good books being published? Absolutely. And your YA book sounds very interesting. But there’s a lot less nurturing happening of writers who show promise. I think of Seinfeld – the first years of that show were pretty pathetically bad, but it was given a platform and went on to become what it did. A writer’s best work may be three novels down the line, but many writers aren’t given the opportunity to be financially supported and then write stronger work, which would then help sell those earlier novels.

    And this is why self-publishing makes sense, because at least a writer will be getting the word out there. I’m of the opinion that self-publishing is a last resort, not a first resort. Maybe sometime, when bookstores don’t exist anymore and everything’s POD, then self-publishing will be great for all, but I want a book deal, distribution, and some $ to fund writing my next book. Agents make that happen. But to say that a book’s sales figures show that the book was ready for prime time doesn’t really fly because there’s a vast amount of crap that sells very well – whether it’s books, music, or movies – and sales figures just shouldn’t be the main determining factor to prove that a book was successful.

  • Editor: You’ll get no disagreement from me. The only thing I question is why you believe that an author need to be published into order to get to his best work? I can only use myself as an example so here goes. I’ve been writing since I could write. I’ve written SO much, 99% of which I recognize is not publishable. When I started writing books, REALLY writing books, I wrote three in one year. Two were all right. The third was the one that got picked up. And even after being picked up, it’s undergone serious revisions. Revisions I initially had reservations about but have come to really love. It took writing the first two books to get to the level of the third. Self-publishing would not have helped that. In fact, it probably would have hindered it. I would have put me personally (and I’m not insinuating it would do this to everyone) under the delusion that my books were better than they were.

    And I also question the need you state to be financially supported while they write stronger work. I maintain a full time job and a social life. Many writers I know who are published do the same. For the longest time I told myself that I’d get to the business of writing when I could have a cabin in the woods and plenty of free time. That’s just not the way it works.

    Hey, this is a really great discussion though! I have a lot of respect for all the differing views I’ve read here.

  • I actually was discussing this the other day. I wrote two novels before the novel that was released as my first novel (by Soft Skull Press). It’s probably better that I didn’t know about self-publishing, because the first novel was just training – ripping off Richard Yates. The second novel, though, did have an agent (Elaine Markson). From that point onward though, I think I’m a decent enough writer to have been given a chance with a traditional publisher. I have another novel that’s on a shelf – also represented (different agent, Jonathon Lazear).

    Even getting a minor advance would be a major boon financially. If I could, say, take off three months from my full-time freelance writing work to concentrate on writing fiction, that would be like heaven. Art can benefit from funding. Sure you can always find the time to write, but think about the Beatles Sgt. Pepper – that wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t given mountains of money to go into the studio. Money’s important. Advances aside, the best way to build up a readership is with brick and mortar bookstore distribution and mainstream press – also important, getting read. These types of success are good for the creative process.

    I don’t suck – I think I’m an interesting writer, but sort of hard to categorize. The novel I self-published, North of Sunset, was described by editors as both too commercial and too literary. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not even going to submit the novel I’m finishing to my current agent because I’ve been jaded – too many terrible notes, too much time waiting for someone else to decide my future. So I’m just going to release it myself. I’ve been called insane for doing this, but I’m tired of playing within the system and I think it’s a great development that writers can take matters into their own hands, even if it’s ultimately harder to sell books – and it’s something that should be supported.

    That’s my story.

  • Well, this is interesting. I go to a lot of science fiction conventions, where the received wisdom put out is that self-publishing will ruin your career. There is a very pejorative attitude in that community, promoted by people who have a bias based on their own interest.

    In legal terms, the agent is a “servant”. And that applieds across the board, to people like real estate brokers (I was one for about five years. It’s how I worked my way through graduate school and I had to pass a very tough test on the law of agency to get my brokers license.) An agent is NOT a collaborator. The 50-50 split clause is boilerplate in stand publishing contracts and even Stephen King signed one. (This is in his autobiography.) I seek a lot of feedback and advice when putting together a book, but the final decisions are mine and I once changed publishers on a my non-fiction book because the first one caved under pressure from someone in the book who threatened a lawsuit. There was no merit to the suit, but defending it would cost them money.

    As for day jobs, I’ve had more than my share supporting my writing. I have over a thousand magazine articles in print. That equates to ten to fifteen novels and plays I will never have time to write. Please don’t presume to lecture me about hard choices or the tradeoffs needed to pay the bills.

    And as for insults, none are intended. No one can insult you without your permission, so I must have hit a nerve. Nathan, aren’t you the agent who is looking for writers who will take a royalty and no advance? Why would I do that and give up a piece of my other rights in the bargain?

    For some years now, publishers have been pushing their costs back on authors. You are now required to be your own editor (or hire same, as I do) and your own publicist (which I have done for others, so why not for myself?) but if I have to take on all of that expense and effort, why not go the extra step and just publish the damn book myself? It’s not that much more money and I retain all of my rights. That means I’ll make more money in the long run. And this is a business, not a hobby.
    As for revisions, “The Shenandoah Spy” took ten years to research and write and parts of it went through 15 drafts. It’s pretty seamless, so you won’t be able to tell.

    I do believe in giving back of “paying forward” to other writers, so I contribute here.

  • Francis, you’re mistaken on a lot of aspects of the business. Anyone who would sign away 50% of their film rights to a publisher either does not have an agent or has a bad one. “Editors don’t edit anymore” is one of the oldest myths out there, and it’s just as wrong now as it ever was.

    And yeah, I’d be open to working out distribution deals with no advance but a split on revenue. You can try and do this yourself, but good luck getting into bookstores. An agent can work out a better deal than an author on their own.

    But hey, I’m not particularly interested in working with someone who thinks of me as a “servant.” I work for my clients and I’m responsible to them, but I’m not polishing their boots.

  • Francis: I think I’m talking to a wall. I wish you the best.

    Editor: I agree that money would make it easier. I’d love to have enough never to have to work again. It’s the dream, right 🙂 But I wonder, do you think you’ll spend more time trying to promote and sell your self-published book than you would just trying to write another? I’m curious. Either way, I wish you a lot of luck. Somewhere between a system where anyone with a computer can publish a book, and the system of publishers and agents making all the decisions is the ideal. I believe a marriage of the POD system and the publishing industry will really help. If publishers only need to print the books that sell and bookstores can order them as needed, then a lot of overhead can be trimmed and they can maybe take more chances than they did before. Until then I think my best chance of being able to support myself as a writer is to work within the system, flawed as it may be, and try my hardest to make it work for me.

  • Shaun, you’ve got a point that I’m setting myself up to devote a lot of time to marketing that could be devoted to writing, but I don’t hate the marketing process, and at least I’m in more control of my own fate. I’m just curious where I can take this and I think self-publishing is an important development that will be used by more writers and will stop being thought of as books that “couldn’t make the grade” – i.e. are bad. Also, given the subject of my novel, having the book spread virally makes some sense. I’m going to offer it as a free download and see where that goes as well. Might be a mistake, might be the best thing I’ve ever done, we’ll see.

  • Nathan: Read the article here about the Do It Yourself Book Tour. I’m in stores with this book. 152 Hastings Entertainment stores in the Southwest carry the book on the shelf. It’s a start. I’m also in a lot of independent stores because the book can be and is ordered from Ingram and Baker & Taylor. We also sell direct with our virtual book signing program at our web site and table events like Civil War Roundtables. And Amazon.com, where it first ran as a serial on Amazon Shorts, sells a few copies now and then.

    Guess what? When I had my Virtual Reality book out in the 90s, from a big publisher, I pretty much had to do all of this kind of thing myself. Not just publicity but selling into the brick and mortar spaces. I had one bookstore chain in Chicago refuse to stock it because that publisher had a very bad reputation in terms of supporting book signings and publicity. They knew that their efforts were not going to be supported with that book, the way competing books were, and they told me as much.

    And if publishers don’t want half the film rights, why is that language in every contract I’ve seen and why do agents assure me that it is standard practice and a deal breaker if you don’t agree? Not that it matters. If no agent will even read the book, then I’m left pretty much on my own. My choices are to do nothing or to try anyway. I’d rather try.

    Did I mention that the book is still selling, despite the lousy economy ,and that I just got another check from my distributor?

    As for editors not editing, well, I find typos in about every new big publisher book I buy now. Obvious ones caused by an over reliance on spell checkers. For something priced at $27, I expect better.

  • Shaun: The current big publisher business model is to make a big fuss for a short time about a new book while jamming the stores with as many copies as they will take and taking half of them back at full credit to be remaindered or pulped. Think about the waste here! Not just paper and other materials, but the oil products consumed in transportation. You are quite right, POD is more efficent and a lot of small publishers already use it to avoid overstocks. Remainder copies are sold as salvage and then compete with subsequent editions of the same book without returning profits to the original publisher or royalties to the authors. Obviously not the best way to sell books. Amazon.com is much more efficient.

    Except for one thing: People like to kick the tires. Before they actually decide to buy a book they want to look at the cover, read the blurbs on the back, read a few pages inside and then buy it. Research shows if they actually handle it, they are more likely than not to buy it. And I’ve seen this myself at book signings and other events. Get them to pick it up and you’ll make the sale, especially if you’re signing it for them. This is why the brick and mortar stores are still 90 percent of the market. The prejudice against self-publishing is a barrier, but one that falls the first time a self-published book is sold.

    But little wonder that all of the chains are losing money except for the airport stores. Have you tried to get waited on in one of them? Or get someone to answer a question. Seen any hand selling at one? Or seen any book upfront that was not a remainder or on the latest best-seller list? Where’s the adventure? The hope of discovering something new and interesting?

  • I think there’s good and bad on both sides of the fence here. Sure there are problems with mainstream publishing. There are inexperienced or just plain bad agents and editors out there, but most of them know what they’re doing and are actually quite good at it. There are publishing houses out there that burn the bottom line as hard as they can, and there are others that try very hard to nurture authors because most of the people who work in the industry are in it because they love books, and are stuck in the inenviable position of trying to find good stuff that they won’t lose money on. Sometimes they know they’ll lose money on something initially because they see potential. I think you are generalizing some bad experiences to the publishing industry as a whole, but that’s just my observation based upon your comments here. Publishing is in transition, and having a difficult time of things. Self-publishing is certainly a viable option for some. It seems to have worked for you, which is great, because most of the time, it doesn’t. Most writers don’t have the patience, money, motivation, understanding, and/or skill to make self publishing work. This assumes of course they have the talent to actually write a good book, which most do not as well. Everyone seems more than happy to dump on the publishing industry because they produce ‘crap’ or leave so much good writing in the dust. It’s true, they do it a lot. They also put out an awful lot of really good reading material for us. Trying to find it is not an easy task. This industry is based to a greater degree on guessing, timing, and luck. Always will be. Self pubbing will never be an easy task or a feasible one for the vast majority of writers. The amount of knowledge and time required to make it work just isn’t there for them. I will be pursuing an agent. I will make sure I find a decent one, because it’s important to build a good partnership there. I will do limited self promotion if and when I get published, as limited time and resources allows. Even as a last resort option, I won’t likely ever pursue self-publishing. I want people to read my work, but my motivation for such will never be high enough for the self-publishing realm. Faults aside, traditional publishing is still the most viable and worthwhile option in my opinion for most serious writers.

  • Sort of another topic, but I would make an argument that self-publishing is sometimes for writers who care more about writing and publishing. Other writers will try to go the traditional route exclusively because they’re more interested in selling books than they are in writing and publishing by any means necessary. It’s the mainstream or nothing. Which is why it’s weird that self-publishing has gotten such a bad reputation. Bad writing aside (of which there’s a lot) there’s also a segment of self-publishers who love books, love writing, and need to be in print. In my experience, the self-published writers who are the most obsessed with marketing are also those who are the best writers (N. Frank Daniels, Kristen Tsetsi) – they know they’ve got something to say and they want to get it out there however possible. That’s anything but unserious.

  • “…traditional publishing is still the most viable and worthwhile option in my opinion for most serious writers.”

    I’m not sure I understand how being a “serious writer” has anything to do with the distribution of that writing.

  • I can see your point about those with the strong desire to be in print. And I didn’t mean to say that some of the writers who self publish aren’t serious or that only serious writers pursue the traditional avenues. I just meant that of all the serious writers out there, traditional publishing offers a more viable option because of the inherent difficulties present in self-publishing. Most don’t have what it takes to make that route successful, no matter how good their book is. At some point, if I can’t make any inroads to the traditional publishers with my current novels, they’ll end up on my website for free. It has nothing to do with selling books versus being published. I don’t have a need to be in print. I’ve got no message or deep insight to impart. I like telling a good story. I like the process of creating. I would certainly like it if I could get enough people to buy my stories to make a comfortable living off of writing. For me, traditional publishing is that avenue because I know that I don’t have the time, resources, energy, or knowhow to successfully self-publish. Self publishing has gotten a bad rap in my opinion because it has the perception of being a way for writers to circumvent all of the problems they see with tradtional publishing, and it’s not. Very few writers go into self-publishing with anywhere close to the ability to be successful at it. It’s a hard way to go even if you do. Kudos to those who can make it. Sadly there are a lot of folks out there looking to take advantage of these people looking for a way around the ‘usual’ way of doing things. Too many writers are unfamiliar with publishing and think that just writing something good is all it really takes. Anyway, a lot of factors are involved, and I’ve compeletely rambled away from the start of this which was to say that I did not mean to exclude self published writers from the realm of serious writers, but I do take issue with the statement that self pubbed folks may be more interested in publishing than selling books. Anyone who is trying to get their book into print wants to sell books. Unless you have something monumental to get out there, like a cure for cancer or something, it might be a bit conceited to think we write anything people ‘need’ to read.

  • Kristen, I meant only that most who seriously pursue writing do not have the time, resources, motivation, money, knowledge, etc. to make self-publishing successful, therefore traditional avenues are more viable ways for them to pursue publication.

  • Randall Radic

    I’m re-reading The Black Swan and, based on my re-reading, have decided that agents think they can predict what will sell and what will not (perhaps justifiably so), but they can’t predict the impact of the higly improbably — The Black Swan.
    So if you can land a good agent, go with it. If not, self-publish. Either way you can only count on randomness. Thus, in the end, it’s all a toss of the dice. Many authors have agents and they remain unknown. Others hit the bestseller lists.

    If you agent tells you he or she knows what he or she is doing, sit down and laugh yourself silly. In the end, it all comes down to luck or randomness or God or the Fates, whatever you want to call it. Me, I’ll stick with my agent until I can sell it myself. Ha, ha, ha.

  • Well, that’s the point Randall. Without an agent you can’t get your material read by a conventional publisher. Except maybe in science fiction and romances. The prejudice against self publishing is so strong that most publications will not review such books, but that matters less and less as book review sections diminish and disappear. Having been a book reviewer I can tell you that about forty times more books are sent than there is space to review anyway. The only solution here is developing dogged persistence to get your book noticed. Casting your fates to the wind and hoping for luck or the mandate of heaven is simply letting other people push you around and decide for you whether or not you have an audience. People who self-publish have a shot of success. Those who are waiting for an agent to get back to them…well, it could happen. But the odds are like winning the lotto.

  • There is a great deal of timing, luck, and randomness in publishing, It’s kind of hard to avoid given the subjectiveness of it all. And Francis is right about persistence in self-publiishing. The vast majority of those who self publish sell less than 100 books, and most of those are under 50. You have to be aggressive (in a good way of course). You have to understand marketing. You need some amount of financial resorces. You need connections. You certainly need persistence, and a healthy dose of timing and luck. Most writers, good or otherwise just don’t have this. Publishers are inundated enough with people pursuing the usual routes to publishing that they can’t afford to be considering self published books, unless they sell well enough to get on their radar. Self-publishing may get a bad rap, which is probably undeserving in some regards. It’s not bad in and of itself. It’s just that most writers don’t have an adequate grasp of what it takes to even have a remote chance of success, and there are a fair number of folks out there looking to take advantage of that lack. Sure you can control your own fate when you self pub, but I still never recommend it to anyone. It’s just not viable for the reasons above. I’m more likely to recommend they put it out there for free and keep writing.

  • Hmmn, “put it out for free” is a form of self-publishing.

  • “Free” is not free. It’s marketing. I have a free podcast floating around the Web now called “Belle Boyd and the Confederate Secret Service” which is based on the background for “The Shenandoah Spy”. 37 minutes long and of some interest to the nice folks at the Civil War Roundtables. It is the talk I gave last November at their West Coast Conference, which my partner recorded and then we edited. Bit of a learning curve there and we’ll do more. It’s free as a good will gesture to create “buzz” and interest for the book among an core audience that resists historical fiction and prefers “fact”. (Most Civil War sources are so compromised that “fact” is often close to fiction.)

    My “free” podcast is marketing for my book. You’ll probably enjoy it anyway. There will be some others shortly; readings from the book itself. This is the Debbie Fields theory of marketing, so called because the key to her success was to walk down the mall where she had her first Mrs Field’s Cookie store and give away the cookies that would have to go in the trash anyway of they weren’t sold that day. I got the idea from the horror writer Scott Sigler, who, on a panel at a WesterCon a few years ago, told how his podcasts of his novels had produced enough hits that he got not one, but two book contracts as a direct result. It was a clever and novel method at the time and one worth emulating, although I’m not likely to put up the whole thing. Debbie Fields gave away some cookies, not the whole bakery. I’m also dealing with a completely different demographic of readers. Civil War buffs tend to be a lot older than horror fans, more settled and conservative. Not as likely to be podcast consumers. I also want to whet peoples’ appetites for the forthcoming audiobook version without killing that sub-market.

    The bottom line here is that my experiences with agents have not been positive ones. I have come to regard them as part of the problem, not the solution. Currently, because of cost cutting and a failure to “think outside the box” where new fiction is concerned, they all seem to be stuck in a huge rut that makes them shy away from anything that doesn’t look like something that has already been successful. I have lots of company. When a novelist like Carolyn Buchanan (God’s Thunderbolt) can not even get her material read because “no one is doing Westerns now” then we have a deep and systemic problem that threatens the very future of American literature. Agents have managed to convince publishers that they can save them time and aggravation dealing with “amateurs” and have gotten a straglehold on the submission process. That , in turn, has made them arrogant. They forget themselves and demand things no intelligent writer can agree to. These are industry insiders who have a very distorted world view anyway and seem to think that the world ends at the TriBurrough Bridge. They can’t get their heads out of New York. And the same is true of the big bookstore chains based there. It’s all very cozy. And moribund.

    Which makes many writers look for an alternative path. Jana Oliver, who led the “Vanity Publishing” panel at the 2008 WorldCon in Denver, refused to deal with these gatekeepers and simply published her first three books herself. There are many other examples. Self publishing can lead to mainstream success. It is an alternative path to the mainstream. Not guaranteed, of course. Most self-published books fail. So do most of the ones conventionally published. There are no guarantees either way.

    The current economic crisis has caused some big publishers to stop accepting submissions at all. That’s going to lead to a gaping hole in the new product pipeline in about a year. Unless, of course, these publishers start looking around for quality self-published books to adopt. They will come to us. At that time, if you have little confidence in your own ability to read a contract or negotiate a fair deal for yourself, you may need an agent, but you’ll be better off with a lawyer who works in the creative arts area.

  • Francis, I don’t think that an agent is just a robot that negotiates contracts. In an ideal world – an agent is like a second editor. A professional and personal advocate who has your career at heart and doesn’t see writers as a walking dollar sign. In an ideal world.

    I also think it should be mentioned that as a niche writer – Civil War fiction – you could have an easier time self-publishing, because there’s less competition than if you published something under the generic term “literary fiction.” There’s also less of a stigma for niche fiction writers, just as there’s less of a stigma for self-published non-fiction.

  • Henry: I don’t accept artificial genre categories, except as a marketing tool. I tell stories. I agree with your vision of the ideal agent, but that’s not the reality in the current market. Editing and marketing should be separated by a thick wall. As for so called “literary” fiction, I’m a graduate of the school, The Iowa Writers Workshop, that produces a lot of them, but Joe Haldeman, the science fiction writer, was a classmate of mine and James Crumbly was there a few years before me. Jane Smiley, whose work I admire greatly, was two years after me. Her best book is “Horse Heaven” where all the primary characters are racehorses. “Literary” is just another genre.

    Historical fiction is an area where self-publishing is accepted, however. The Historical Novel Society does review a lot of self published books online. Without any noticeable prejudice. But I didn’t select the story of Belle Boyd to publish first for that reason. I simply though it was a great story that needed to be told. I discovered it when I wrote her short biography for the Encylopaedia Britannica in the early 1980s.

    The new book I am serializing on Smashwords.com., “Robot Dreams”, is a “novel of the near future”. It’s about a bunch of homicide cops in the future. It’s also about robots, androids and virtual realities.
    Just where do we put that one?

    And I have another which is set in El Paso in 1875, in which a couple of Pinkerton detectives encounter space aliens. That one is full of nasty surprises.

    And you wonder why I don’t talk to agents any more. I don’t want their heads to explode. Messy.

  • Randall Radic

    This discussion is fantastic! I LOVE reading about all the self-publishers who just won’t give up. Their ideas are superb and their reckless initiative is awesome. Agents will be passe if self-publishers keep doing what they’re doing. Because publishers will pick up on it and come begging for them to sign contracts. Amen!

  • Randall, I think you’re being overly optimistic about the future of publishing, but the changes coming to the industry are certainly opening up avenues to publish that haven’t really existed before. The thing is, traditional publishing isn’t going to go away because of it, at least not in my opinion. They will figure out how to best operate within the new paradigm and once again be the primary operators, the main tunnel through which publication will flow. The ability to self publish is certainly going to be easier. The ability to be successful at it won’t. There will still be the same problem of readers wading through all the dreck to find those gems; the same problem traditional publishing has. Readers want convenience. They don’t want to have to spend a lot of time hunting down reading material, and corporate publishing is going to have control of that convenience factor because it takes money and they’re the ones who have it. The professionals, the ones with the savvy and know-how to work within the system, whatever form the future holds for it, will be the ones that the vast majority of writers need to access. Francis is right I believe, regarding niche areas of the market that are more accessible to self-publishing. Special markets will provide opportunity, but I believe the mainstream market as it were, will always be controlled by those with the money. This is something of a generalization obviously. Some folks will prove an exception, just like they do now, but this shouldn’t be mistaken to be the new wave of publishing. As I stated earlier, I don’t believe most writers have the knowledge, persistance, resources, networking, etc. that is required to have a chance to make it as a self-published author. The traditional system works, albeit even with its flaws. There are good agents/editors/publishers out there who work for the benefit of many authors. Just like any business, there are bad apples, those who don’t really know what they’re doing or who work for their own benefit and not the authors, but that too is the exception rather than the norm. I wish all writers luck in whatever avenues they pursue. It’s very hard no matter how they go about it, and will continue to be so no matter how the industry may change.

  • Nathan: Let’s look at the term :servant” again. I do not mean this in a demeaning way. It’s a legal term defining responsibility between the parties of an agency contract of any kind and I’m surprised that you do what you do and don’t know this. You might want to check out that Business Law course. But bottom line, your clients do not work for you. You work for them.

    Too many agents think they are working for publishers, but it is the authors, rather than the publishers, who pay them. Now this seems pretty simple to me, but having to go to the same customers over and over seems to blur the lines for many agents. Like the one who stole my book idea and sold it on behalf of another author with a greater track record. Also a client, and it closed the deal. A commission was earned. But the other author took it for the money and executed it poorly and the book failed. Poetic justice, you might say. I fired that agent, of course.

    And my non-fiction book deal was one I got without an agent. It was offered to me at a trade show by an editor who knew my work and my reputation. It was a best seller.

  • Francis: I hate to be the person who points out, once again, that you are incorrect in your assertion that agents are employed by or serve authors. A servant is one who is in the direct service of another person. An agent is NOT in the direct service of the writer. They are in service of themselves. I would argue that if writers paid agents set sums or hourly rates (like we do lawyers) then your claim might have more merit. However, agents work on commission. If they don’t make a sale, they don’t earn any money. While it is in their best interest to make certain writers are successful, they are working for their own self-interest. Since they are not employed by writers, but representing writers, they have the ability to decline representation, the ability to decline to do anything they don’t want to do (which is something a servant can not do), and the right to at least give writers their opinions.

    I, for one, prefer the current system that makes agents more partner than servant, because it provides more of an incentive for an agent to help me make the best decisions with regards to my book and my career. When I give my manuscript to my agent to read, he gives me his honest feedback. He tells me what he believes works, what doesn’t work, what he thinks I should change, and what he thinks should be cut. His advice has little to do with his own ego and much more to do with making my book the best it can be (because doing so increases my earning potential and thus HIS earning potential). However, I have the right to decline any and all of his advice. See, what you fail to understand is that a good agent/writer relationship is symbiotic. Each works for the good of the whole. I want to produce the best books I can, not only for me, but for my agent as well. The harder I work for him, the harder he’s going to work for me, and so on.

    I think the main truth to all of your comments is simply that you have had bad experiences with bad agents. I feel for you on that account because I’ve heard that a bad agent is worse than no agent. But making broad generalization simply doesn’t help. Neither does repeated claims of treachery and stealing. Ideas can’t be stolen. Ideas are free, they’re for everyone. A hundred people can write a book about a boy wizard or the civil war. It’s not about who has the idea but about who tells the best story. If the agent suggested your idea to another writer, the best thing you could have done was to still write the best book you could.

    I still honestly believe my words fall on deaf ears. And I know I can’t convince you that a good agent is worth his weight in gold, but I simply don’t want anyone else reading to get this idea that agents are writer’s slaves and should do everything we tell them to. And by the way, here’s the legal definition of a servant. You don’t need a law degree, just Google. (I think Agents would fall under the mantle of Independent contractor).

    servant n. an employee of an employer, technically one who works for a master. A servant is distinguished from an”independent contractor” who operates his/her own business even though spending much time on the work of a particular person or entity. The servant has established hours or piece work, is under the direction of the employer even as to details, cannot work for competitors, and acts for the benefit of the employer rather than for himself/herself. A servant (employee) must have workmen’s compensation insurance and social security coverage, pay income tax deductions, and may benefit from various Federal and state labor laws.

  • I am a noob writer – unagented and unpublished thus far.

    But I see the process as fair and have found immense value in what agents have to teach an author. I don’t think agents can be out of business, infact they are the ones doing most of the work. Sifting through the dirt pile and accepting the right ones and rejecting the wrong ones sounds like a tough job. Judging books based on queries in a creative field could not be easy.

    Most of the advice agents give is also great – has certainly helped me mature as a writer and also become more realistic.

    I wish the agents stay long term and frankly they will regardless of it. You think editors are going to want that dirty job back again – ha!

  • Shaun: Where do you get this information? Seriously. I am talking about what the law says, not what agents say. I had a similar kind of job in Graduate School. I was a real estate broker, which is a job very like that of a literary agent You work on straight commission selling a property for a client. In fact copyright law and real estate law have a lot of similarities both in theory and in practice. You may be an independent contractor, but you won’t make a deal unless the client is totally on board with the offer you bring in. The client owns the property and says yes or no to the offer.

    It really bothers me that you have a problem comprehending this simple concept, which is English Common Law dating back the Eighth Century. Which is why the term “servant” is used in this context.

    Now I will admit that agents “know the territory” but, having sold everything from Christmas Cards, to Real Estate to security guard service I also know the kind of pressures that people working on straight commission suffer. Been there, done that….as a Vice President of Sales and Marketing at one point . The inherent conflicts of interest that occur when you think you are working for the buyer should be obvious for everyone, but they have to be resisted.

    Authors not only own their creations and control them totally (read the Copyright Act) they also enjoy a limited “Droit Morale” or moral right to control them after they are sold. With very limited exceptions, copyrights and parts thereof, can only be conveyed by written contracts. Just like real estate.

    I am always open to advice, but too many agents want to be more than the agenting role permits them to be. “Tastemakers” for instance. I get all sorts of suggestions about how to write and for whom, and not just from agents, and I pretty much ignore them all for a very good reason. I already have more on my creative plate than I am likely to ever have time to complete. You get get enough of this in your professional life and you begin to understand why Edward Weston, the photographer, destroyed all his negatives before he died so no one else could print from them. There was a great outcry over this, but they were his to do with as he pleased…and he felt no one could make a black and white print as well as he could. It was his final act of creative control. And Bravo, Edward, say I.

    Agents who want to take creative control should set their butts in a chair and write a few million words. They should not offer themselves as all knowing fonts of wisdom about what is and isn’t publishable. At best they are making an educated guess. And the current sorry state of publishing tell us they often guess wrong.

  • Francis: It was nice discussing this with you, but it’s clear that you’re not really looking for a discussion. My information came from both my personal experience and from a law dictionary. You blasted Nathan for not knowing the legal definition of a servant and then when I gave you the legal definition of a servant, you try to question my ability to comprehend simple concepts. Also if you’re going to attempt to use an eighth century definition of servant, then you should really check your facts. Etymologically speaking, the word Servant comes from the Old French “Servir” which literally translates into “wait upon.”

    You assertion that agents need to butt out of the creative aspect of your book and just do what you tell them to do is NOT based on any kind of legal definition as you propose. Instead, it’s built upon a prejudice. The simple fact here is that you dislike agents, likely due to an agent relationship gone wrong, thus you feel the need to superimpose your own fears and dislike onto the industry as a whole and make judgements and statements that reality simply proves not to be true in all cases. I can’t refute the circumstances that made you feel this way, but I can point out examples where your statements don’t apply. That’s sort of the fun of a debate, isn’t it? You say agents are controlling monsters who should just do as they’re told. I say that agents are helpful, partners whose own self-interest is exactly WHY I want their help.

    At the end of the day, Francis, I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. I have a fantastic agent who has done really well by me and exhibits none of the characteristics you seem to loathe, and you’ll never go near an agent again. Have a great day!

  • It does seem we’ve burned this discussion out, going in circles now as it were. I will say this. There are probably some ways agents act as ‘servants’ so to speak. Their role goes beyond this however. They aren’t ‘tastemakers’ in my opinion. It’s their job to know what publishers are looking for. They aren’t fonts of wisdom, though they are professionals who generally know the ins and outs of the industry, and it’s their job to pass that information along to the writer. They generally work within a limited range of genres. Their connections are made and information gleaned within this range. Good ones will tell you they have to love your work in order to represent it, which is certainly a subjective opinion to some degree. They pass on stuff they know is publishable all the time because they know there are other agents out there who will feel more passion for the author’s work. There’s too much stuff coming through the pipeline all of the time for them to do otherwise. The suggest changes to the author’s writing not because they think they can write better than the author (though many have a very good grasp on what makes a good story and know when they fall short in certain ways) but because they know what editors are looking for and what their tastes are and what the market wants. They don’t dictate any of this, they just understand it and it’s their job to make sure the writer does too. It’s up to the writer what to do with it. Sure there are agents out there who think they know more than they do or try to exercise more control than they should or don’t have the authors best interests at heart, but again, those are the exceptions rather than the rule. Most agents don’t get wealthy off of this job. They do it because they really love books and love trying to get them into print. You are making them out to be far more mercenery than they really are, Francis. It’s been an interesting conversation here. The debate between traditional versus the new ways of publishing will continue no doubt. Technology is rapidly and irrevocably changing that. It’s going to be an interesting next few years in the publishing world.

  • Also, I forgot to make the point that the comparison of the Literary Agent to the Real Estate Agent fails of so many levels. For starters, unless your job is to build houses for your RE Agent to sell, then there’s simply no comparison. A Lit. Agent is usually not there just to sell the one book you wrote. Why not? Because for most writers, that first book isn’t going to be it. Most writers take many books to build a fan base, thus a good agent is going to want to be with them for the long haul. So you’re right, a RE Agent isn’t going to want to be as involved. They’re not going to care who buys your house, only that it sells for the most money, or what kind of house that you buy next, because even if you sell it in five or ten years, they haven’t got a stake in it.

    However, even a RE Agent is going to come into the home you want to sell and make suggestions. They’ll suggest that you might need a fresh coat of paint, maybe some new cabinets and appliances. They’re going to tell you, based on their knowledge of the market, what fair value is, whether there’s even a market FOR it. Just because you have a house to sell, even a great house, if there’s no market for it, it’s not a guaranteed sale. Because a RE Agent works on straight commission, it’s their responsibility to themselves and to their client to make suggestions that will make the house more attractive to buyers. As the seller, you can certainly decide against following the RE Agent’s advice, but why would you? Thinking you know better than your RE Agent is hubris, plain and simple. They know the market, they’re working in the market, and the reason they get straight commission is because what’s good for them IS good for you. A Literary Agent’s job is much more complicated, but whether you push the analogy or not, it still fails.

    There now, I think this dead horse has been beaten.

  • (Sigh). Let me reiterated here. I’m not against agents per se. They can be useful. But, while many of them are former editors and publishing people, they are not writers and they are not automatically the people you want to collaborate with, if you want to collaborate at all. That’s like getting married on a first date. You can do it, but generally it’s not a great idea.

    We have a situation here where agents rule. They control the flow of future product to the publishers and they sell this position as a convenience for the publishers, who are their customers, not their clients. Their clients are the authors the represent. They are the people they are working for and selling for, not the publishers. If they don’t believe that they can intelligently represent those authors, for whatever reason, I agree they shouldn’t do it. And I would never advise anyone to try and sell anything that they don’t believe in. That’s simply soul-destroying and cynical.

    There are all kinds of people who want to be published authors, and most of them have not done the heavy lifting that will get them there. Agents who presume to tell authors what they should write and how they should write go the head of that list. Yeah, there’s a lot of material out there. I get requests myself all the time to look at other people’s work for publication and/or collaboration. I refuse them all because I can’t find time enough to get all of my own material into satisfactory shape. There is a logjam of material everywhere, powered by people’s desires rather than their abilities and part of the impact is to generate short-cut thinking. We won’t look at anything with a Western theme, for instance, because no one is buying Westerns. Well, if you have a good story, and write well, people will read it regardless of genre. What an agent provides is access. They are sales people and speaking as one myself, you don’t really want to delegate the future of literature to them.

    Agents who want to exert control on or through the authors they represent are part of the problem, not the solution. They create a lot of noise and misinformation that becomes accepted as “truth”. I have seen some ridiculous ideas put forth as received wisdom and writers conferences’ assertions on the required length of a first novel, for instance, that are ot supported by either facts or experience. At best, it’s a guess and and an attempt to formulate things which cannot be formulated or predicted.

    This is ego and an unseemly desire for power rather effective representation. IMO an agent with another agenda, such as being one who defines the culture, is doing all agents everywhere a disservice and not providing the kind of representation that authors everywhere need.

    Publishers have made a grave mistake in using agents as a a filter on new material because the conflicts of interest here are so obvious. No one can ethically represent both sides of the same deal and assure fair treatment for everyone. If an agent sees himself or herself as working for the publisher and not for the author, why should the author trust anything said about the whether or not these are the best terms attainable? If the agent needs the publisher’s goodwill to make a living, how can they even pretend to work for the author’s best interests; which they are required by law to do. There are agencies, usually big ones, which do represent their clients properly. They use auctions and other techniques to get a better price. They also return phone calls and answer questions.

    In nature, if you create a barrier, nature will find means to surmount it. Self-publishing is just such a means. It may fail. It probably will fail, but at least the attempt has been made.

  • “Agents who want to exert control on or through the authors they represent are part of the problem, not the solution.”

    It’s called feedback, and most authors want it. You apparently think you can write your book without it, which is fine, but you sure have a twisted idea of what it entails.

    I also love this idea that agents are banding together and collectively shielding publishers from a large, presumably undiscovered slice of the unpublished book world. It takes a lot of time to maintain such a vast conspiracy, but hey, we’re diabolical like that!

    If there’s any reason to look forward to a world where everyone can self-publish it’s so authors will finally disabuse themselves of the idea that it’s agents, collectively, who are holding them back. They’ll miss us when they can’t kick us around anymore!

  • Here is a quote from the Wikepedia article on agency:


    The Agent’s primary fiduciary duty is to be loyal to the Principal. This involves duties:

    * not to accept any new obligations that are inconsistent with the duties owed to the Principal. Agents can represent the interests of more than one Principal, conflicting or potentially conflicting, only on the basis of full and timely disclosure or where the different agencies are based on a limited form of authority to prevent a situation where the Agent’s loyalty to any one of the multiple Principals is compromised. For this purpose, express clauses in the agreement signed by each Principal with the Agent may identify specific types or categories of activities that will not breach the duty of loyalty and so long as these exceptions are not unreasonable, they will bind the Principals.
    * not to make a private profit or unjustly enrich himself from the agency relationship.

    In return, the Principal must make a full disclosure of all information relevant to the transactions so that the Agent is able to negotiate effectively and pay the Agent either the commission or fee as agreed, or a reasonable fee if none was agreed. If the Agent reasonably incurs expenses, he or she is also entitled to reimbursement.

    Okay, Nathan, let’s go over this again. Feedback is something I regularly seek and accept, but , in the end, it’s just an opinion and since I get multiple inputs I have to process it all and make final decisions myself. In the end I am responsible for the quality of my product. I admit that I like self-publishing because I have final say.

    And the current situation is not the result of any conscious conspiracy but some well-embedded memes. Like the idea that self-publishing one book will ruin your career for all time. Not if you produce a product which can compete in the marketplace. Nothing succeeds like success, eh?

    That paragraph above is about loyalty. Who are you working for when you make a deal? Would you, for instance defend an author of a non-fiction book who was threatened with a lawsuit from someone mentioned in the book. The lawsuit is without merit since truth, in the absence of malice, is always a defense against a charge of libel. Would you stand with your client or advise him to keep the publisher happy by deleting that chapter, even though it damaged the overall narrative and made the book, well, less than it should be for the reader? Would you tell your client to alter the book so you could get your commission? Where would your loyalty lie?

    Most writers need and benefit from having an agent, is of the agent is actually working for them. The current state of the industry places that in doubt. No one can serve two masters. There;s an old Comedia del arte play about that. The protagonist gets beaten up by both of them. Repeatedly.
    In one case, he is beaten by one for letting the other one beat him because his principle says that only he has the right to beat him. And this is a comedy, remember. The error here is his trying to work for both of them at the same time. (I’ve avoided using the word “servant” here because it seems to be such a hot button.)

    It’s very simple Nathan. You want to represent people and do good in the world, then pick a side and stick to it.

    As for publishers missing out, just read the reviews here and elsewhere of self-published books and ask yourself if you could have sold that to a publisher. They all get good reviews and have an audience. Call me naive, but I always thought the publishing industry was about selling books.

    I’d really rather not do this myself, and of it, because it really, really cuts into my writing time. But it’s this or nothing. So, I’ll just have to do the best I can.

    So far, so good.

  • Hello, Dead Horse, my old friend. I’ve come to beat you again.

    Seriously though: Wikipedia?

    Okay, here’s the best I can do. I wrote a book. My agent agreed to rep it. He was really excited. He gave me some tweaks that he thought would help. I used some, tossed some. He never pressured me either way. We put the book out there. The response was good. They loved my writing but there was just something missing. This went on until an editor asked if I’d be willing to make major revisions. I was resistant. I took the meeting and heard what the changes were. It took me a while to make my decision. Now, on the one had, making the changes would have most likely brought us a deal. Not making the changes would have caused that editor to walk away. Our choices by that time were limited. There were still some small houses to consider, but nothing that was going to be really great financially. While I was making the decision, my agent helped me weigh the pros and cons. At no time did he pressure me to make the changes. He told me that if I felt that the changes weren’t for the best, that we should walk. He made sure I knew that if I decided not to make changes, that he would stand behind me 100 percent.

    I did make those revisions, and they made my book 1000 times better. At no time was my agent serving two masters. My agent gave me good council. I know now that he wanted me to make the changes because he really felt like the editor and I would be a good fit, and we are, but he kept those feelings to himself until I had made a decision. I have no question where my agent’s loyalty is. Neither, I would wager, does anyone who has a good agent.

  • Shaun:

    He did this to help you make a better product? Not because a publisher promised him a sale if he did? Fine. He’s working for you, then.

    As previously stated, no objection here to good agents. Those who are part of the author’s team. Lots of objections who want changes because they think (but don’t really know) that it will make for an easier sale because that’s what has been bought before. Large objections to agents who have a wonderful idea they want you to write for them. On spec.

    By the way, did the book sell?

  • Francis: Both my agent and I were unsure whether the revisions would make my book better. It took me actually sitting down and writing a few chapters and then really digging into an outline to realize that the editor’s suggestions actually did make the book better. If my agent had just been out for the money or out for himself, he would have advised I make the changes and moved on, but he didn’t. Me had cases for both making the changes and not making the changes and left the decision up to me.

    And now I think we can come all the way back to the concept that started this whole discussion. I think that agents should make suggestions simply because they do see what’s selling and they do know what the trends are. For example, I gave my agent a suggestion about a book I was considering working on. He told me that recently the market had been flooded with books of a similar idea. He said if I felt strongly enough about it, to write it, but let me know it would be a tough sell. I have more ideas then I know what to do with, so I moved on. And I don’t think agents are trying to influence what sells above and beyond just trying to sell books they feel strongly about. Every agent blog I read (Jennifer Jackson, Kristen Nelson, etc) has at least one story of a client they took on who wrote a book they absolutely adore that just wouldn’t sell or took one, two, or even three years to sell. I think that, yes, agents want to take on things that will sell…they have families to feed. And what’s selling is dictated by the market and by luck. But, and this is important, almost every agent I’ve spoken to, read about, who is thought highly of, will tell you that loving a project is most important of all.

    And, yes, the book did sell.

  • My experience has been similar to yours, Shaun. From a financial standpoint, my agent’s interests and mine coincide. He doesn’t make money until i make money. If he makes a suggestion, it’s not a power play, and I don’t view it as such. I don’t take every suggestion made by my agent or editor, but you can bet that I review them very, very carefully. i know we all have the same goal: to produce a book that will sell. If I say no, i articulate why, and they are okay with that.

    Agents did not pressure or coerce publishers into agent-only submissions policy. The publishers made that decision themselves, in order to reduce their slush piles. Someone (anyone know who?) likened being an editor or agent to trying to drink out of a fire hose. You have to drink, because you need water to survive. But the volume is incredible and constantly increasing. Computers and email make it easy to spam editors and agents, to submit widely without doing the homework that would target submissions properly. Publishers use agents to screen out the totally inappropriate submissions. Now agents are drinking from the fire hose and looking for ways to cut back their volume as well.

    It’s hard to take criticism and feedback. Did I want to do the major rewrite on my last novel that my editor asked for? No. But I did it, and the book was much better for it. Those who don’t want feedback from editors and agents, rest easy. They will be more than happy to leave you be. They have more than enough to do as it is.

  • “If there’s any reason to look forward to a world where everyone can self-publish it’s so authors will finally disabuse themselves of the idea that it’s agents, collectively, who are holding them back.”


    I would have to agree that some self-published authors probably do want someone to blame for their lack of publishing success and that agents are an easy target, but how would you explain, with the experience you have, a book that repeatedly gets exceptional reviews by independent literary critics, is called “difficult to put down” by most readers, and has yet to be accepted by an agent? If readers and reviewers love it, if it is timely and unique, if it is relevant – if it is all of these things, and called those things not by the author but by critics and readers – what more does an agent need?


  • Kristen-

    There’s no way for me to answer that without knowing about the specific work in question. But there are lots and lots of reasons why that may be:

    – It might be a niche book that would be loved by a specific audience but might not have a broad enough reach for an agent to take it on (niche books tend to get $1,000 advances at best, and agents aren’t making a living off of $150 for the hours of work it takes to sell one of these projects).
    – It might be experimental or hyper-literary, thus having a niche audience
    – The “independent literary critics” might be wrong
    – It might just not have found the right agent match yet
    – It might have fallen into the self-publishing semi-success conundrum: it’s done well enough that an agent/editor might feel that it’s reached and saturated it’s natural audience, but not so well that they feel it would catch fire with broader distribution
    – The agents are wrong.
    – You might just be unlucky.

  • Uh. Parts of “The Shenandoah Spy” went through 15 drafts as the research continued and I came up with better ways to enhance character and plot without becoming a prisoner to my research. So lack of effort was not the problem. The problem was all the agents who refused to even read the book because it was Civil War, or about a young woman they though was a myth (she wasn’t) or because they didn’t think any of the people in publishing they talked to would buy it. The research started in 1998 and the serious writing in 2002. The final version was published in 2008. This is a typical development path for a serious literary novel, which this is.

    I just got tired of waiting, is all. I’m 64. I’ve been a professional writer since I was 21. I don’t need the permission or approval of others to get a book out. And I have the money needed to do it right. Self publishing looked like a better investment than the stock market. And it was.

    I look at it this way; if agents wants to try and sell rights for me now that it is a done deal with multiple positive reviews, well they know where to find the book and where to reach me. As long as it is clear they are working for me and me alone. I pay for results. That’s just good business.

    And it works. Jana Oliver didn’t even try and submit to agents. She published her first three books herself and let them come to her. Doing this is not hard. Certainly not as hard as writing a good novel in the first place. Selling is easy. Writing is hard.

  • The main issue I have with your comments, F.H., is that you seem to imply that the process will be the same for everyone as it has been for you. Like saying, “Selling is easy. Writing is hard.” Some people might have the exact opposite experience, and if this is the case, they should hold out until they’re traditionally published. They’ll still have to market, but won’t have to take 100% of the weight. You have more of a salesman’s mind, having worked as one – for some it might feel like learning the language of another planet.

  • Thanks, Nathan. Appreciate it.

  • Henry:

    You might be right. Most writers have never done a sales job, and some have been taught to despise sales people as inherently dishonest individuals. But, end of the day, everybody sells, even those who think they don’t. Here’s the thing: I don’t much like the process myself and do marketing instead. There has to be a need. That helps focus my efforts.

    Sales is not a language, but a sub culture. As self-publishers we have to understand how it works to succeed. This whole thing started about agents and my objection to most is that they fail to sell for their clients and tailor their efforts to satisfying what they imagine the publishers will easily buy. That kills innovation. It begets too many “me too” stories in the market and that crowds out a lot of very worthy books. If these guys are going to appoint themselves gatekeepers and cultural mavens, then they should at least be open to new material.

  • Francis, I don’t understand why you think agents are out there ‘imagining’ what publishers want to buy. There is no imagining involved. They actually communicate and discuss what’s selling, not selling, developing trends, etc. all of the time. Part of an agent’s job is to keep on top of this. They spend a fair amount of itme and money making sure they have a solid feel for what the publishers they sell to want. They also spend time trying to sell ‘new voices’ as it were, whom they find personally passionate about and think the market will support. If there’s any imagining going on, it is likely here, when they come across a writer who is doing something they find exciting. Of course, a lot of writers are going to get frustrated because they aren’t being chosen as this ‘exciting’ writer, because they believe they have a kick butt, marketable book. Problem of course, way too many writers for the shelf space. So, of course people take the alternative routes, but agents aren’t the problem. They aren’t lording over the gates to publishingland based on their imaginings. It’s based on fact, research, and continual communication with the publishers. Most actually do a pretty good job of it too. Fact is though, the route to publishing is very difficult no matter what road you travel, and being a good writer is only the first step. You know this as well as any I’m sure, but I think your problems with the agenting profession are misguided by unfortunately poor experiences with them. Most I’ve come across are smart, savvy people who love books and love nothing more than seeing people get published.

  • Jim, you say: “They aren’t lording over the gates to publishingland based on their imaginings. It’s based on fact, research, and continual communication with the publishers.”

    So what you’re saying is “They’re lording over the gates…based on continual communication with publishers.” No, it’s not an abstract process, but this is why I feel agents are fully culpable in the industry’s marketing obsession. “They also spend time trying to sell ‘new voices’ as it were, whom they…think the market will support.” You know how narrow that is? New voices tend to write things that are more challenging to market. What should happen is publishers create a brand around a particular writer – so people buy books by the writer, whatever he/she writes, not because one book is particularly marketable. That’s how it is for a writer like Philip Roth, or a new writer like John Wray. But that can only happen if publishers take greater chances on writers who may not be overwhelmingly marketable in the short term, but have a long-term future.

  • I think we can all agree that it is a frustrating process for all parties. It took me four years to find an agent. I sent out many targeted queries to agents that I knew represented the kind of project I was shopping. Most declined to read. At the same time, I was shopping my project myself to publishers who would accept direct submissions and constantly revising my work as i received feedback and learned more and more about craft.

    On my last round, I sent out 25 agent queries (again, targeted, always targeted), received two positive responses, and signed with one.

    Do I think that many worthy books never get published? Absolutely. But I think most people in publishing are people of good will. Agents? If we paid them up front to rep our work it would be different. They could take a chance on something and still pay the mortgage. But they have to take on projects they think they can sell. Editors know this, which is why even open houses are quicker to read something from an agent. Even so, agents can put a tremendous amount of work into something that never sells. Editors and agents are not the bad guys (with a few exceptions, as in any business).

    Depending on the book and the author, self-publishing can be a way to go, especially if the author has a platform or access to a niche market and knows exactly what he/she is getting into. Otherwise, we have to deal with traditional publishing, heartbreaking as it is.

  • Henry-

    What you are calling books that are “marketable” boils down to simply books that an agent can place with a publisher. Of course we focus on books that are marketable. It’s our job. How am I going to make a living trying to represent books I don’t think I can sell or that won’t sell when it hits bookstores?

    Now, I think what you mean is that authors and publishers should take a chance on writers they believe in and hope the public gradually catches on over the course of many books. I agree with that, and sometimes this works out. But you can blame (in part) bookstore chains for this disappearance. With few exceptions they base their orders strictly on what the last book sold. It’s incredibly hard to get them to stock and promote an author whose first book didn’t sell. They never seem to consider that a third book could be the ones to take off.

    We’re all doing the best we can. But there are too many books out there and not enough readers.

  • Nathan, I agree with what you say – and I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make a living. Regarding chain bookstores – great point to add to the discussion, they’re part of the problem. Corporate bookstores killed the little bookstore and many writers’ chances. They deserve to fail, like AIG. And perhaps we’ve reached the end of an era where these corporations have so much power, and money trumps sustainability. It’s really no different than investing – you invest in some sure-footed stocks and some riskier stocks that may take longer to make money – you diversify. If we’re going to narrow this down to profit motive, the current system is actually a bad investment strategy. But we’re coming out of a time with the worst investment strategies in human history. So, hopefully, we’re going to move on now and things will change.

    The more bookselling goes online the better. A book looks the same on Amazon (generally) if it’s released by Random House or Lulu. It levels the playing field and ensures equal access for every book. For those who say bookstores are great – I agree but bookstores kind of don’t make sense when there are so many more books than can fit on the shelves. It creates this marketing dynamic – even among indies that are struggling to sell books even more than the corporate chains.

  • And to take it full full circle, we need better readers. Celebrity books don’t just land on the bestseller lists themselves. There are people buying them. The margins of the publishing industry barely keeps up with inflation and population growth. In some sense, when you take a full picture of the industry, the only way the industry will grow is if people read more books. All of the angst about which books are published misses the essential problem that people just don’t read enough.

  • Yeah, I kind of didn’t want to go there – but did in an email I wrote about this thread. Readers may be the worst tastemakers of all.