LJN Dawson on the Great Agent Debate

LJN Dawson runs Authorweb, offering services for self-publishers, such as marketing and technical consulting.  Check out her blog and free newsletter, The Big Picture, “Covering trends in digital content delivery – to both retail and library markets – The Big Picture provides insight, news, analysis, and community in a fast-moving sector.”

Recently, in a post on her blog Militant Writer, Mary Waters very effectively laid the blame for “the great unpublished” at the feet of literary agents, who “do not, in fact, have any interest in literature. They are only interested in jackpots.”

Mary makes some great points: that agent’s fees come off the top of the initial advance, so blockbusters get them bigger paychecks; that publishers’ advances are more easily recouped with said blockbusters; that authors find themselves having to market their book to agents in a way that nearly obviates the need for the agent in the first place: “The upshot is that fine fiction writers who are crappy copy-writers attempt to write fast-paced pitches about their own serious novels that will make those novels sound as much as possible like commercial drivel.”

And it’s so true that literary agenting is far less literary and far more agenting than it ever has been.

I don’t think you can solely blame the agents for wrecking everything, however. Plenty of publishers are plenty complicit in what’s going on, and many agents are simply responding to the demands of the larger publishing houses.

The larger, more commercial houses are not all that interested in anything other than staying in business. The “flimsy bits of vampire literature, fantasy, romance, detective stories and the kind of first-draft bubble gum that used to be called chick-lit but is now shuffled in with other women’s writing in order to give it heft—although as far as you can see, neither the quality nor the subject matter has improved—which you are required to somehow turn into publishable books” – these books are what they want to publish. The agents are not running the game here. Not by a long shot.

At this stage in publishing, editors are largely brand managers. Perhaps they did begin their careers with a genuine love of literature. Perhaps they still possess a genuine love of literature. But the lion’s share of book editors out there today are not being paid for their love of literature. They can practice that on their own time – the large publishing houses are in business to produce books people buy.

Regardless, blaming either editors or agents is not going to get anything done. That system is broken, or at least horribly hamstrung by conventions so entrenched there’s no getting past them. Big publishing is what it is. If you’ve got a genuinely good book, there is a way around it.

Self-publishing is not vanity publishing. Well, okay – some self-publishing is vanity publishing, but given the state of publishing now, it’s also a legitimate option to getting your writing out there for people to read. Which is what authors want, yes? Does it have to have a HarperCollins colophon on it to make it more legitimate? And what are you giving up for that colophon?

Self-publishing certainly pays more in royalties. And if you self-publish in ebook format, you reap an even bigger percentage of those royalties! Yes, you do your own marketing – but the truth is, most large publishers tell their authors that they should do marketing work as well: set up a Facebook page, set up a web page and a blog, watch their listings on Amazon and chime in with corrections, get friends to write customer reviews…if you’re already doing all of that, what is the publisher doing for you? Getting the book past the buyers at Borders?

Well, if Borders collapses, as it threatens to, that’s not going to be a service that publishers can provide either. (see the bit about big publishing being broken/hamstrung, above)

Increasingly, self-publishing is looking like the most effective way to get your words into the hands of people who want to read them. Howard Fast, Tom Peters, Jack Canfield all discovered this. So did Wayne Dyer, who literally drove around the country with stacks of books in his car (sleeping in that car) to give away to booksellers. Overvaluing the big publishers’ imprimaturs undervalues your own message as an author. Just get the book out to readers. That’s what publishing is really all about.

  • Thanks a lot for this post. You write: “if you’re already doing all of that, what is the publisher doing for you? Getting the book past the buyers at Borders?” I would have to say: yes, that is exactly what a publisher can do. And I run this place. Otherwise you’re faced with an experience like this:


    I think after Borders collapses and the new paradigm takes full effect, then self-publishing will be a much more valuable option, but right now my argument is taking it from the opposite approach: if you have to market your book anyway, at least do it with the chance of getting better distribution and the potential for more reviewers to take the book seriously. Rather than having to do everything yourself.

    I say this, but at the same time I’m not even going through the query process with agents (after one query to my current agent). I just don’t think agents and editors are adventurous enough to wait six months or more of querying time to find out – again – that they’re not willing to take a chance. There is at least satisfaction in possibly furthering the cause of self-publishing and maybe even setting a precedent that a book can be successful outside the system. That’s my ideal and my hope.

  • You’re preaching to the choir, but sing it , sister! There is a lot of fear out there about this. What is we have a better business model over time than the big guys? I just made similar comments on a LinkedIn publishing blog. The place this should be sent is Publishers Weekly.
    But would they publish it?

  • Randall Radic

    I love this! Mary Waters has hit it right on the head. Great post!!!