Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. Agents
The myth is simply: YOU MUST HAVE AN AGENT TO SELL A BOOK
To be clear, I like agents and have no desire to bring them harm. But the myths these days about agents are so thick and have become so ugly to new writers, I figured I had better tackle at least one of them next. And yes, there are more than one.
And in the last 20 years, the biggest myth that has blown up into a damaging myth is that you need an agent to sell a book.
This is, of course, complete hogwash, but I have no doubt some of you reading this are already resisting this idea. You want someone to do the dirty work for you, to do the research, to just “take care of you.” Yeah, that’s going to happen.
So to explain this myth clearly, I need to back up just a touch and run through some history to get to why this myth even exists and then move on into how to fight it.
Basic history. Book agents came over from theater and movies from 1900-1950. They were used by writers to help with the contracts, to get the books into movie and early television (in New York) and overseas, and to go get the coffee. They were simply a lower level employee used by writers to do some of the busy work.
It never occurred to most writers to have an agent sell a book for them. Writers worked directly with the editors, and the idea that anyone needed to be in the middle of that was just thought of as silly. Both the writers and the editors and publishers on the other side never stood for it back in those early agent times.
But then, as the industry got bigger through the baby-boom years, fewer writers lived near New York and thus mailing manuscripts to editors started to become the norm. Editors and writers still worked together, and the agent did the deal, negotiating the contract, helping with contacts overseas and in Hollywood. But up until the early 1990s, book deals between editors and writers were often done across a dinner table with a handshake, with the agent left to deal with the details later.
In fact, about twenty of my early novel deals were done over dinner clear up into the early 1990’s.
Also in those days, in the big New York publishers, there were rooms and rooms full of what is called “slush.”
Now the term “slush pile” came from the early days of publishing. An editor usually sat at his desk and writers brought him work. But when the editor was gone and the office door closed, the writer still wanted to leave the manuscript, so they tossed it through the small window over the door. The top of the door is called a transom, so thus the term “over the transom” came into being.
When the editor returned to the office and pushed open the door, the manuscripts on the floor would be pushed into a pile which looked a lot like a pile of dirty New York snow. Thus the term “slush pile” came about.
In the early 1980s, publishers had tried to slow down the growing wave of manuscripts coming at them by putting requirements that no manuscript be sent unless it was solicited. A simple thing to ignore, and it stopped only the really stupid new writers. Huge rooms of book manuscripts filled New York buildings and many, many assistant editors were hired to dig through the slush to find the gems among all the trash. And many, many major writers you read today came out of those slush piles.
Then in the 1990s lots of things happened in publishing, not the least of which was a complete distribution system collapse. Publishers had to cut back, larger presses ate smaller ones, and at the same time New York real estate prices went up and up and up. Publishers could no longer afford the huge rooms full of slush, or the assistant editors to wade through it all.
At this point in time, agents were doing more and more for writers, and the top writers had very powerful agents, simply because the agents worked for the top writers. (Agents always get their power from their clients. They have no power on their own.)
And also, writers became more of an unknown to publishers, a vast sea of people with a computer and a stamp who thought they could write and should be rich even though they had never spent any time practicing their craft or even learning how to spell. Very few of these new writers ever thought of going to a writer’s conference and actually meeting an editor, so editors became somewhat fearful of the nutballs out there.
Something had to be done to stop this massive wave coming at the money-worried publishers and overworked editors. So someone, somewhere came up with the idea “Let the agents handle it.”
So onto the guidelines went the simple line. “No unagented manuscripts accepted.”
Thus, for the last ten years or more, agents have been getting buried with the vast amount of slush. Older agents went into hiding, knowing their job wasn’t to read slush, and new scam agents popped up everywhere, taking advantage of this new guideline from publishers by milking the writer of their money and crushing their dreams.
Let’s step back for a second and look at the relationship of agent/editor/writer/publisher.
First: A writer sells a publisher a manuscript and there is a contract between the publisher and writer. In simple business terms, the writer produces a product and goes into a partnership with a publisher to produce and distribute the product.
Second: The editor works for the publisher. Paid by the publisher, represents the publisher’s needs.
Third: The agent works for the writer, represents the writer’s needs. Nothing more.
Agents are hired to do certain chores a writer needs done, to help in negotiating contracts, to be a pit bull with late payments, to have connections with Hollywood and maybe overseas, although that job is falling away as well. They are the business contact between the publisher and the writer on business items, leaving the editor and writer to work on the craft side.
So suddenly, because of the situation, the publishers are demanding that a writer hire an employee before they will look at their product.
Let me look at why this system is about to fail and fail big.
First off, it forces agents by the nature of the requirement to be the gatekeeper for all the bad stuff publishers don’t want. That’s not their job. When I hire an agent, I don’t hire a slush reader doing someone else’s work, I hire someone who negotiates contracts for me and has good contacts. I don’t want MY employee reading slush.
It allows young agents to think they are the boss at times over writers. Of course, no longterm writers think this, and no respected, longer term agent thinks it either, but beginning writers and early professionals fall into this trap, and even go so far as to rewrite a book on demand of their agent.
Excuse me?? If the agent could write, they would be, instead of taking 15% of what a writer makes for writing. Yet beginning writers and young professionals who don’t understand how the business really works fall into this ugly rewriting trap all the time. Agents are your employee, they don’t tell you what to do, you tell them. Duh.
This guideline also helps young agents believe they have a lot more power than they really do, and it makes new writers buy into that belief. I have heard new writer after new writer get excited about “getting an agent” and the agent is 26 years old, a former editor who got laid off, and has hung out a shingle. The new agent wouldn’t know how to negotiate a contract if their life depended on it, let alone have any contacts except for maybe a few people in the place they were fired. But as a former editor, they think they know what makes a book better, so they think their job is to have new writers rewrite. And thus years are wasted and no one makes any money.
Point right here: Anyone can be an agent. There are no rules, no regulations, no training. The old joke is “What does it take to become a book agent? Stationery.”
Yet new writers put their entire business, their entire dreams, their entire hope for a future on someone who only needed stationary to get started. See how silly this all is? And sad.
Also understand that agents are not regulated at all. We all have watched in the financial world how well unregulated people do with money, yet new writers, without research, hire an agent and give them control over all their income. If you don’t think the Madoff types don’t also live in the agent world, you are sadly kidding yourself.
Another reason this system is showing major cracks and about to fail is that editors are not getting the new and innovative books they are looking for. They are not seeing the new talent, the new dangerous voices, because the agents and the system itself are blocking these voices. Often these new voices fall into the rewriting trap shoved on them by a new agent in the business and if the editors see anything, they see the watered-down manuscript that fits into the next vampire/Da Vinci Code want-to-be.
Writer after writer after writer I have met are getting discouraged and when I ask how many editors have rejected their book they say “None. But I sent it to 30 or 40 agents before giving up on it.”
No editor had a chance to buy the book.
Makes me want to cry for all the good books lost in this last decade.
So, a few basics here that are standards of this industry and you can infer what you want from these standards to help your own writing and your own fight against this myth.
1… An agent is your employee and makes 15% of what you earn, nothing more. Their job is not to sell books or help you rewrite it. You are the writer. Trust your own voice and talent. If your employee won’t do as you ask, fire them and find another employee.
2… Money always flows to the writer except for education and research. Never hire an agent, or a book doctor, or any other scam artist and send them money. Money only flows to the writer. Period.
3… Editors need new books. They have to fill a list every month. Just in case your book is the next “big book” they have to look at your pitch or query or pages. If they don’t look and you become the next Dan Brown, they will be fired. Remember, they work for corporations, their job is to find good books, fill lists, make their publisher money, not dismiss a book out of hand because there is no employee on the letterhead.
4… A form rejection these days says simply “We do not take unagented submissions.” It means exactly what every other form rejection in the history of publishing has meant: Nothing. It means that the manuscript, for one reason or another, didn’t fit their line. Maybe your manuscript sucked, or maybe it was brilliant but didn’t fit. (More than likely you haven’t learned how to do a good query letter or decent proposal and no one got to your book to see how good it really was.)
5… Most agents you can get as an unpublished writer is not an agent you are going to want once you actually sell a book. This statement alone kills more writer careers than anything I have watched over the decades.
6… Books sell themselves. Agents can’t force an editor to buy a book. The book has to be good enough and fit the line before it will sell. Nothing more. Having an agent will not give you a magic way in. Actually, it often won’t help you at all find the right publisher, because the agent may have ideas where the book fits and never try a publisher that might be just looking for a book like yours to start something new.
7… Editors never know what they want to buy until they see it. An agent who tells you he or she knows exactly what an editor wants is just full of crap.
8… Agents who blog regularly (Other than a very occasional education blog or guest blog) are dangerous, since they clearly have enough time to not work for their clients. It usually means they are selling very little. Caution!! Think it through. If you had a business and your employee was blogging all the time about your business, would you as an employer stand for that? Not hardly.
Hint: Top agents are hard to find, their agencies have static web sites, and you won’t be able to get one until you have an offer from a major publisher in your hand. Then you simply call them to hire them to help you with the contract and such. (Oh, my, have I stuck my foot into it there. Here come the angry e-mails.)
9…What a publisher is publishing is frighteningly easy to figure out these days by either simply walking into a bookstore and looking at the shelves or going to the publisher’s web site and looking at their book lists. That’s not counting all the writer resources there are these days.
10… Lower level and new agents (meaning someone you can get without a book offer from a publisher) simply mail your book like a writer would mail their own book. It goes into the same piles as everything else the editor gets, including your manuscript that you talked to the editor about at a writer’s conference. But there is something you don’t know. Bad agents are often hated by publishers and editors and anything from that agent is automatically rejected. Also, sure, I agree that sometimes agents have contacts, but often they have made enemies as well, thus cutting off some places you could get to with your manuscript on your own. In other words, if you are letting your agent try to sell your work, sometimes having an agent can be a lot, lot worse than having no agent at all. The chance of this goes up the younger the agent.
11… Young agents don’t know contracts and how to negotiate a contract, which is the main reason you hire an agent. A short time back, I was reading a contract from a student of mine who had gone and gotten a young agent, even though he sold the book himself and could have gotten a top agent when he had the offer in hand. Everything, and I do mean everything, the agent added into the contract hurt the writer and helped the publisher. The young agent was new and a former editor. I have a hunch the young agent forgot which side of the fence he/she was working on. More than likely just didn’t know. Happens all the time I’m afraid. Nothing much I could say to the writer since the deal was already done. The writer had made the decision on the agent that got him a very bad contract.
So, in closing, I would like to state my credits. I have been selling books regularly since 1992 (one in 1988), I have sold almost 100 novels, not quite, but almost. I have been represented by three of publishing’s top agents, one for 17 years. I am friends with all three of them and would call each of them if I had a project I knew fit their interests that I had sold.
I have three years of law school and know contracts, especially publishing contracts, and am an expert on copyright law. However, with only a few exceptions (all work-for-hire that couldn’t be changed) I had an agent represent me for all of my books.
But all that said, I have sold every one of my books myself. None of my agents have ever sold a book for me.
Am I any different than any of you? Nope. I just don’t believe in the myth that an agent has to sell a book. And because of that, I’m still here, publishing regularly, and making a living with my fiction.
Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them and putting them up here. And if you cant afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, workshops, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.