Misc,  On Writing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agents Know Markets

Back to agent myths for a moment. There are a lot of them. I did a general Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about how you need an agent to sell a book. If you haven’t read it, go here and read it now.

The myths that surround agents are killing a lot of writer’s careers these days. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t hear stories from at least one writer about how an agent hurt them. Often more than one. The myth that you need an agent to sell a book is an ugly one, the myth that writers work for agents instead of the other way around is really causing problems among younger writers. I have not had a lunch or dinner or meeting with other professional writers in the last few years that hasn’t included agent horror stories.

So, staying on my little trusty pony and running at the windmill one more time, let me talk here about yet another agent myth.

Before I get into the silly myth about agents knowing markets better than writers do, let make a few quick, basic points that need to be clear.

—Agents work for writers.

—Agents can’t buy books, no matter how much they talk about “acquiring” a novel.

–Agents make 15% of what they sell of a writer’s work, never money in any other fashion.

—Agents don’t know enough about writing in any fashion to make a writer rewrite a book. If they did, they would be writing and making 85% instead of 15%.

–95% of modern agents, especially agents you can get as a beginning writer, have no more clout with editors than a beginning writer does. (Yeah, I know, that’s a huge myth all by itself.) The 5% that do have major clout (and can get a manuscript pushed up high in a company), you don’t know their names and couldn’t find them if you tried. In other words, not all agents are equal.

—It takes nothing but stationery to become an agent. No rules, no organization, no school is needed.

So, with those basics in mind, let me talk about AGENTS KNOWING MARKETS. A huge myth.

So often I hear writers, especially young writers say, “Oh, I need to get an agent so I can get this book to the right market.”

I just shudder. There has been few dumber sentences uttered in the English language. Maybe when I said to Kris when we were talking about starting Pulphouse Publishing, “What can it hurt?” was a dumber sentence. But not by a lot.

To understand at a deep level why this is just flat silly, we need to look at a few things about agents.


Seems like a well-duh, until you think about it a little. Humans have likes and dislikes, they make enemies and they make friends, and worse yet, they have opinions and tastes. Every agent I have ever known, without fail, has favorite editors and very firm ideas (often misinformed) about what one editor will buy or won’t buy.

Now, understand, as an editor, I often didn’t know what I was going to buy until I saw it. And Kris when she was editing F&SF would famously go to a convention, say something on a panel about how she hated a certain type of story, and then every time go home and end up buying that type of story within a week. It seemed to never fail. Editors just don’t know what we want until we see it and fall in love with it.

Also, editors are always looking for a corporate way up the ladder, and often edit across book lines if they find a book outside their list that they love.

But agents have firm opinions on what an editor will buy or not buy, and won’t send an editor a book that they believe won’t be right for the editor. Thus your employee is rejecting your book for you without ever giving an editor a chance to read it. Back to the problem with agents having opinions.

Agents have made enemies. Ahh, there’s something you don’t often think or hear about, but it’s very, very real. Back in my editing days, when I would sit around with other editors at conventions, I heard all types of horror stories about how editors would bury things from certain agents, never read them, lose them, and so on. Yeah, editors are human also. Duh.

One agent was so bad to me at Pulphouse, when she called, I would never take her calls and never bothered to read anything she sent. I know, I hurt the writers, but it wasn’t my problem the writers had hired an agent that was hurting their careers. Not my job as editor to take care of stupid writers.

Well, folks, that attitude is pretty common in major publishing. One writer friend of mine had an editor who really wanted to buy the writer’s work, but the writer’s agent and the editor were mad at each other, so the agent never sent the editor anything, even though the writer kept telling the agent to do so. Turned out the writer thought the editor was mad and the editor thought the writer was mad. It wasn’t until a convention and a chance meeting that they discovered that the agent in the middle was the problem. Writer would have sold a ton more books if the writer had just mailed the books directly to the editor.

Still on the topic of Agents are Human, let’s look at tastes for a moment.

An agent thinks they are a super reader of some sort or another. Especially the young agents who had a few years of editing before moving over. That group of agents put their “taste” on a work. This often comes out in phrases like “I couldn’t get behind this book.” Or, “I don’t think this book will sell.” Of course, neither of those opinions has anything to do with their job working for the writer, but in today’s world of agent myths, you hear that all the time from young agents.

They are putting their own personal “taste” on a manuscript. And thus getting in the way of a manuscript selling.

See, the real truth about publishing is that it only takes one. Put that phrase over your marketing desk. IT ONLY TAKES ONE.

One editor to fall in love with your work, to push your work through all the roadblocks in a publishing house, to turn an unlikely book into the next bestseller. But if you have to run everything through the “taste meter” of your employee, you are adding a second level of acceptance to a book that often makes selling just flat impossible. It is hard enough in this business to have one person fall in love with your book, it’s damn near impossible to have two in a row. So by following an agent’s “taste meter” you are dooming a lot of work.

Still on Agents are Human topic. Agents get tired and lose interest. The ranks of bestsellers and classic books are filled with stories of a major book getting rejected thirty, forty, fifty times or more before selling and becoming big. (Back to it only takes one.) But agents after five to eight rejections on a project get tired and just quit on the book.

Why? Well, that leads to point #2 for the answer.


Again, agents develop a set list of editors they like to work with, with houses they think they know, and when a book goes through that list, it’s suddenly hard for them to find new markets. And they won’t send it to any house that…

—they don’t think is good enough for the writer

—has an editor they don’t like

—or had a bad experience with on another client’s book.

Also, they can’t think outside of any box. Science fiction and fantasy agents often would never look at going to a romance house with a book. Luckily, for paranormal romance fans, romance editors have no problem with science fiction and fantasy

Agents have developed a few major markets and editor friends they like to sell to, and when a book doesn’t get picked up in those top eight or ten spots, the agent gives up on it. Yet that same agent would be upset if their client wanted to market it themselves. At that point, they start talking about things like “career planning” and “focus” and things like that to hold back their own employer. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard that in writers’ horror stories. Yow.


I once was talking to an agent who admitted to me at a convention, in front of other writers, that she didn’t have time to read outside of her own clients. Now that should stun you to your toes. It sure did me.

So I asked other agents for a couple years that same question and discovered that many of them read some nonfiction in what little spare time they had, a few read a little inside a special area they liked to represent, but uniformly, they didn’t have time to read outside of their own clients much at all.

They were just too busy.

So my question is this? If an agent is too busy to read what is happening in fiction across the board, how could they really know markets? I flat asked two different agents that question a couple year’s back.

One answered honestly. “I read Publisher’s Weekly reviews, I read the blurbs selling in Publisher’s Marketplace, I glance at back cover copy of books that our agency represents, and when in stores I read back cover copy some.”

Well, I do all that! And a bunch more, including a lot of actual reading of books across many different genres. So by hiring an agent to market my book, I would be hiring them because they know LESS than I do, read less than I do. Oh, my, I don’t think so.

Plus, as I said, agents are busy. I only focus on my own books when looking for markets and watching lines in bookstores and reading the trade magazines. But an agent has upwards of 40 or 50 clients, some even more than that. I have a lot of pen names, granted, but I still have nowhere near as many types of writing to take care of than one agent.

So a major logic question: Who can really discover markets better? Me, focusing only on my own book, or a busy agent who has 50 other clients and never reads much outside of those clients?

If you have problem with that answer, you might as well stop reading these posts. You are doomed.

So the myth is simply I need to get an agent who knows about marketing. Total hogwash. Agents know a dozen or so editors our of the thousands that work in publishing, and they have a lot of writers to work for, and they are too busy to read much.

Truth. You can do it better yourself. Agents have no secret organization that allows them to know market information before you do. Especially in this modern age of computers.

So some tricks on how to get more informed about markets an agent. (Because so many of you right now are feeling panicked about how much time that’s going to take. Right?)


#1…Just follow about fifty or more different major publishers on Twitter and read their release promotion. Make notes of books that sort of match something you are doing.

#2…Follow Publisher’s Marketplace and make notes on books and editors that match what you are doing, and search the data base for addresses.

#3…Follow a lot of writer’s blogs, publisher and editor blogs. (Agent blogs are worthless for the most part. Sorry. And what are they doing blogging instead of working for their employers?)

#4…Read fiction. All the time. And when you read a book that is similar to yours, make note of the publisher and read the author acknowledgments where they thank their editor. Duh. And oh, yeah, look at the copyright page and the spine for the imprint name. Duh.

#5…Talk to your local ID bookstore (not a chain) and ask for their old copies of Publisher’s Weekly, then read the articles, the reviews, and so on, and again make notes. If they don’t have it, go into a superstore and just read it standing in the magazine section. Or if you are rich, subscribe.

#6…Read your genre news magazines. All of them, no matter what genre you are working in. Locus, Mystery Scene, Romantic Times and so on.

#7…Join a writer’s organization, but do not offer to help or be on any panels. Just join and read their newsletters and use their site.

#8…Go to writer’s conferences and genre conventions and talk with editors. Not agents. Meet the editors, be nice, be polite, start making relationships. Remember, it only takes one.

In other words, make it a habit of staying informed. You can’t do it overnight, but after a year of this sort of thing, just five minutes here, five minutes there, you will know a ton more about marketing your own work than any agent will ever know.

Again, when looked at completely, it seems like too much to do. But the truth of the matter is this just takes five minutes here, ten minutes there, a few short sessions on Twitter, an e-mail every day from Publisher’s Marketplace with sales, and so on. Very short amount of time every day, but it adds up very, very quickly.

Remember, you still need to hire an agent when you get an offer to help you negotiate the deal. And once you have a major deal offer, you can use the phone to call an agent and find one and interview them, just as you would interview any other employee.

Say you have an agent, how do you help them market?

#1…Stay informed as if you don’t have an agent.

#2…When you send them a book, make sure you get a list of editors before they mail out the book, and talk about them and why the agent is sending to a certain editor.

#3… Make suggestion of other houses your agent can send to, and other editor’s names.

#4…Get all rejections the moment they come in to the agent and after a couple have the agent get the book back out. Never let the stupid and lazy practice of sending out to five and then waiting until all five come back before sending out to more. Keep it at least five editors at a time. Force your agent to do this as well.

#5…Take responsibility for your career and your work. If your agent doesn’t want to market a book, you do it, or fire the agent. If they give up after ten, you tell them you’ll keep marketing it and call them when there is an offer. You know your books better than any employee does. Always remember that.

Okay, I have jabbed my lance at this problem one more time. I have a hunch that when I finish this Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing book, the biggest general section will be on agents.

Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith.


This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (Confused on that, read the last Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie. If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery. If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean