On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Special Chapter…A Top Agent Answers

Yesterday  I got a nice note from Joshua Bilmes about these chapters.

As I have said before, I knew some top agents were reading these chapters and I hoped that a few of them would take the lead in some changes that need to happen. I did not know Joshua was one of the agents stopping by.

Now, understand, I am not saying everyone should run to Joshua here, so please don’t take his courage to speak out on these topics as a sign you can all flood him with submissions. I’m sure Joshua has a full list and finds new clients in his own fashion.

But I can say this: In all my years of being in publishing, I haven’t heard a cross word about Joshua, and I know he’s one of the old style top agents working who really believes in taking care of his clients. And I have always enjoyed Joshua’s company personally over the last two decades.

Okay, that said, now go read the post on Joshua’s blog about these chapters, then come back. Read it first before going any farther.


Okay, let me talk about a few of Joshua’s comments one at a time, again thanking him for the nice comments about these chapters and also his fairness and thought. I will try to do the same and only allow the same in the comments section. No horror stories in this discussion, just discussion, all right, gang?

Now, granted, in some of these Cows posts I felt a little angry about some story or some event that happened to a friend, and also Laura and I would be pretty harsh in the comments at times talking about agents in general and forgetting to exclude the good ones. But let me be clear right here, there are top, honest agents like Joshua, who are great people and do some writers great jobs. Not all top agents are good for everyone, and not all top agents are honest. But a large number of agents are like Joshua, a top agent who is honest and hardworking.

And also, remember, both Laura and I have said over and over that the agent model is a fine model if you understand what you are walking into and handle it as a boss and with saneness of business practice. And we have been clear that every writer is different. We just want writers to take control of their own careers. So keep that in mind, even though at times when looking back over these agent chapters, there may seem to be slanted anti-agent. They are not, just anti-stupid-practice.

Now to some of Joshua’s great points.

1) Joshua said: “One of the posts talks about the “hundreds and hundreds” of scam literary agents. Which would be almost all of them.”

Well, no, not really. At one point a year-or-so ago I tried to do a rough count of the number of agents I could just find names for from all the agents inside William Morris all the way down to the single agent agencies and I stopped counting when I hit 500. And I didn’t begin to find them all. (And come to think about it, I forgot to look in the back of the Writer’s Digest magazine, the place where many scams hang out.)

At one writer’s conference I attended, there were 32 agents on the guest list. So I have a hard time believing that one-sixth of all agents were at that one conference that weekend. Not likely. I would wager that RWA has a tally of just romance agents that number in the hundreds and hundreds. So I stand by my statement that there could be a couple hundred scam agents out there. Easily. There are a huge number of writers.

2) Joshua said: “But perhaps as important, the posts often have enough of a kernel of real truth which is good and valuable and important for people to know, that I don’t think anyone should just dismiss what Dean has to say out of hand.”

Thanks, that is very much appreciated coming from a top agent such as Joshua. And he pointed out a number of places he agree with basic concepts of what I was talking about. Again appreciated. And also he said nice comments about the workshops and Kris and Pulphouse. I’m just glad some people remember Pulphouse. (grin)

3) Joshua said: “And for all the good points Dean makes, his underlying dislike of literary agents blinds him to the fact that the community of arts and letters and culture is as a whole a better place for writers where more writers make more money than they would otherwise.”

I agree with the second part about how writing is a wonderful place and the culture is a wonderful place. I agree completely.

I just disagree that I have an underlying dislike of agents. I actually don’t (even though at times I’m sure it sounded that way with me trying too hard to shout out a point). I have had three top agents in my career, all did me a great job. I had zero issue.

However, having that good experience has given me the ability to sit back without emotion and watch the practices of agents in dealing with hundreds of other writers around me, including my wife and many young professionals who have come through our workshops. And it is that observation that got me going on the practices of the bad agents. And the new breed of agents coming in who think they are the boss and control writers.

Laura Resnick on the other hand has had only few good experiences with agents, so we made a great tag team at times. And I’m sure we sounded strident at times, but honestly, we both hope to just inform writers so that they can make decisions, whatever that decision may be.

Now, granted, for me, there are some practices about the agents in general I have come to hate, such as the practice of handling all the money and paperwork before the writer sees it. If that one practice alone was somehow changed, (which I understand it will never be and the reasons why) most scam agents would vanish. And that would help even more the community of the arts that I love so much, and clearly, Joshua does as well.

So my strident attitude about a few practices made it seem like I dislike agents in general. I don’t, not in the slightest, at least the top ones, the honest ones such as Joshua. I loathe with a passion anyone who will take advantage of a young writer’s dreams to make money. And the lower scum agents and book doctors do just that. And a few of those scum have well-know agencies that draw in and cater to the young writers.

4) Joshua said: “Would the world be better if we all did our own appliance repairs, hemming, and taxes? Of course not. And the world wouldn’t be better for writers without literary agents. Most authors I know just aren’t, at heart, Dean Wesley Smith.”

Oh, trust me, I would never want anyone to have my career. I think Kris just shuddered at the idea that there would be more than one of me. She has enough trouble with just me. (grin)

And trust me, I do understand that most writers need a ton of help. It is why we teach the workshops Joshua mentioned. And thus why I have never said that agents should be shut out of the process. I have told writers to do one of three things: Get help from an agent, a literary lawyer, or do it yourself. Very few writers, as Joshua said, will have the ability to do it themselves, especially early on in a career.

I do worry about the agent model in the coming changes in publishing, but that’s another topic.

5) Joshua said: “They (many writers) don’t have his skill and talent and passion for adding so much of the agent skill set to their own repertoire. They want to write and let somebody else handle the negotiations and the paperwork and keep track of the markets here and abroad and the many other tasks that fall to competent literary agents, and in the totality of things authors are better for having a good agent do the agenting, while they do the writing. Dean is strongly DIY on this topic, thus he writes with a negative undercurrent so fierce that it drowns what could be a more constructive message.”

Well, frighteningly enough, I’m going to agree with this point. To a degree. I have been forcefully advocating a belief system that states “The writer must learn the business they are going to work in.” So yes, I have pushed the Do It Yourself mentality maybe too far at times. Granted.

But sadly, those of us who have been around for twenty years and more are the writers who learned the business, and over the years I’ve watched hundreds of writers, many of them my friends, drop away because they didn’t want to learn it. I’m not saying that writers need to be me, or Laura, or Nora Roberts, or James Patterson, or any of the other writers who know this business. You can have a fine ten-book (or so) career with someone taking care of you. Happens all the time. But if you plan on a long career, you have better start learning everything you can, including the agent’s job, from day one. You don’t have to do the agent’s job, just know what they are doing so you can understand and be in control of your own work. That is my belief system, I freely admit.

Joshua is famous for taking top care of his writers in thousands of ways. It’s what makes him such a top agent, actually, because does exactly as he describes.

But my rebuttal has two points to it.

#1) How do writers, who don’t want to learn, who just want to write and not learn the business where their money is coming from, find a top agent like Joshua and how do they tell apart an agent like Joshua and a scam agent in the Bernie Madoff mode without learning? Seems that luck for them has to play a huge part, and I believe in being prepared because luck favors the prepared.

#2) What happens to all the clients who are being taken care of by an agent when the agent gets hurt or retires or leaves and those writers are left with no real understanding of the business and no one to take care of them? I have seen that happen far too many times already to writers, even before this current business climate of publishing. And what normally happens is that the writer’s careers are done.

So on this one point I’m going to have to take issue. I believe that if I go to an auto mechanic, sure I don’t expect to know what they are doing down to the detail. But if I own and run the garage the auto mechanic works in, I damned well better know what my employee is doing. That’s just common business sense. And that’s my belief system. Writers own the work and hire the agent.

What Joshua is describing is someone who wants to have a business, but knows nothing about it and has no time or desire to learn it, so hires others to run and make decisions about the business. Sure, writing is an art, but when the art is done and created, the writer needs to become a business person.

Anyone who expects to make hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions over a career, and not learn and understand the business they are in is just asking for problems (in my opinion).

So I’m not letting writers off the hook on that one. If your goal is to be the top in your field, then I disagree with Joshua. A writer should expect to have to do the learning. And fine, hire good help, but learn the business and have no expectation that you will be taken care of your entire life.

I just thank heavens my doctor doesn’t think that way. (grin) Or the guy who owns the garage where I take my car.

Again, I want to thank Joshua Bilmes for the great comments and for giving another side of this. And I agree, I think it would be wonderful as time allows to have great discussions about some of these points. I hope Joshua and I can do that. I would love to keep learning from him.

Thanks, Joshua!

(Again, folks, comments are welcome, but keep them civil and no agent horror stories in this one. Discussion time now.)