Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing,  On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing: #4… You Need an Agent to Sell a Book

This series of posts will turn into a book called Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing later this fall with an introduction. And then it will be followed by a book called Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing.

But first I wanted to put each myth or “Sacred Cow” up here again as I promised.

This fourth Sacred Cow article (topic) was published here in 2009. Wow, has the world changed since 2009. Indie publishing was only a glimmer then and traditional publishing was turning ugly, so ugly that at that point, I was about ready to walk away completely and go back to playing poker for a living.

I pretty much tossed most of that original article and wrote this again from scratch. Things changed that much.

Some myths are very, very deep and based in old publishing and I’m afraid this agent myth is one of them. This one caused the most anger the first time I wrote it and now in this updated and redrafted version, I’m sure it will have its detractors. (I love that kind of understatement.)

The key is to just step back and think it through, decide what path, what method, is right for you. Very easy for me to say, very hard for all of us to do.


In the world that now has indie publishing as a viable path, that myth is just flat silly.  But alas, the myth is very real and a foundation belief for a lot of writers who only want to go to traditional publishing.

To be clear, I like agents as people (for the most part) and have no desire to bring them harm. Most of them are decent people who love books. But there are a few out there who think nothing of taking a writer’s money. However, most do try their best in a very tough new world.

The problem is that their place in the profession is going away quickly. I used to call agents the “wart on the butt of publishing” since they have no real job in the process of writing and publishing a book. But now that “wart” is about to come off completely.

But even with the place of agents in publishing fading fast, 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. And the myth is holding on and killing many great dreams of writers.

Needing an agent to sell a book in 2013 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” so you can just write. Yeah, that’s going to happen. And in a way it will. They will “take care” of what little money you have and then kick you to the curb.

And even worse, the false myth that you need an agent to sell a book overseas or into translation or into movies has gotten worse since indie publishing started up, trapping many, many writers into thinking they needed to give a part of their work away to some scam agent. That part of this myth is also total hogwash.

All overseas contracts are in the language of the author and very, very simple and direct. Agents are the ones to make them complex and take a part of your money, if not all the money.

And for Hollywood, you need a Hollywood attorney if someone comes calling and is serious. The old joke used to be that the actress was so dumb, she slept with the writer. The joke is now that the actress was so dumb, she slept with the agent. Literary agents in Hollywood are long gone from a value position and lawyers have mostly taken their place, just as it slowly happening in book publishing.

Warning: The biggest place for scams with all agents and agencies is in overseas money. Most authors, even big names, never check money owed them with the overseas publisher as to how much they are supposed to be getting.

So to explain this “Agents Must Sell Books” 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 fiction 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 fiction writers to have an agent sell a book for them except in very unusual circumstances. 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.

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 handle the calls with the contract department later.

In fact, about twenty of my early novel deals were done over dinner up into the mid 1990’s. I basically sold my first novel sitting in a bar, talking with an editor friend while waiting for a meeting with a person who would be my agent for the next seventeen years.

In those days editors had power to make deals as well. That is long gone now.

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 tried to slow down the growing wave of manuscripts coming at them by putting requirements on guidelines 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 used to get their power from their clients. They have no power on their own.)

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.

And trust me, that fear was founded in reality. You ain’t lived as an editor until you’ve had the FBI come and interview you about a writer making threats through the mail. Death threats because of rejections were fairly common, folks. I personally got three or four over the years.

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 of every publisher went the simple line. “No unagented manuscripts accepted.” Even though most editors were still buying from writers without agents, or manuscripts from writers where the agent had not sent it in.

But every new writer believed that guideline, for some reason, without thought or reason or understanding of how publishing worked. Even editors at the time were surprised how well that one simple line worked to turn away the uninformed.

Thus, for the last fifteen 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.

It makes me very, very sad to think of the number of incredible books we have all missed because of this stupid one-sentence guideline.

Who Fights For the Writer?

Let’s step back for a second and look at the relationship of agent/editor/writer/publisher in 2013.

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.

(In indie publishing, you are your own publisher, which makes it very simple.)

Second: The editor works for the publisher. Paid by the publisher, represents the publisher’s needs.

Third: The agent used to work for the writer and fight for and represent the writer’s needs. That’s the belief, but sadly, it is no longer the truth.

Now, even though an agent gets paid by taking a percentage of the writer’s work, the agents actually work for the publishers. Remember, the agents were the ones that accepted the outsourcing of the slush pile by the publishers. The agents can always find new writers these days. The agents can’t find new publishers with (in their belief system) only the big five left.

This new relationship with publishers allows young agents to think they are the boss over writers. Of course, no longterm writer think this, and no respected, longer-term agent thinks it either (but there are only a few of those left anymore). Beginning writers and early professionals fall into this trap, and even go so far as to rewrite a book on demand of their agent.

If you are rewriting a book for an agent, just stop. For heaven’s sake, indie publish the draft you mailed them first and get on with your life.

Agents can’t buy books.

And keep this in mind very, very clearly if you are rewriting for an agent.  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. This has gotten so bad, I try to not even listen when some poor sucker of a writer is telling me happily that they “got” an agent and are rewriting their book. Just turns my stomach.

So in this new world.

— Traditional publishers believe that writers are a dime-a-dozen and the publishers don’t even want to bother with the writer’s manuscripts.

— Editors work for the big corporation, thinking only bottom line.

— Agents work for the publishing houses, vetting slush and trying to keep their five editor-friends happy.

The writer is outnumbered and alone. Three parts of the old process now work for the big corporation. No one (but an attorney, if the writer is smart enough to hire one) is on the writer’s side.

But we have a new secret weapon: We don’t need any of them anymore.

And honestly, that’s driving them nuts.

Who can be an agent?

Can you have a business card printed up for you?  Then you can be an agent. Actually, skip that, you don’t even need a business card.

Anyone can be an agent. Anywhere.

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 stationery to get started.

See how silly this all is? And sad.

And what is even more scary is that writers give these total strangers all the money from their work and the paperwork that goes with that work. And then wonder why they get ripped off.

Here is how it really works when put in real world terms.

You go to a hotel and meet a total stranger. They agree to take months of your work and sell it, then you trust this total stranger after they have sold your work with getting you all the money from your work and all the paperwork for that money. You don’t know the person.

And only in publishing do otherwise sane and smart business people think this sort of thing makes sense.

Literary agents are not regulated at all. We all have watched in the financial world and 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. And they make a fortune, mostly off of big name writers who can’t be bothered to keep track of their own money. Not kidding.

“My Agent Is Good” Myth

Every professional writer I know who has an agent (and has yet to discover the agent is taking their money or stopping deals or not sending in books) thinks their agent is the exception. It’s the “I believe you, Dean, but it doesn’t apply to my agent” syndrome.

The “My Agent is Good” myth is deeper than any of these myths combined. Only when a writers gets screwed or their money taken or they are dumped by their “perfect agent” for asking for something to be done, does the writer finally step back and understand. Sometimes. But sometimes the writer just runs to another agent and starts again. The myth is that deep

If you think your agent works for anyone but themselves and the publishers in 2013, you are really, really deluding yourself.

But, of course, your agent is the exception… right?

And keep this question firmly in mind…

How does my agent pay to live in New York, have an office, have employees, on 15% of book advances that have declined by factors of ten over the last few years?

Answer: They can’t and won’t for long.

So when it comes down to paying their mortgage and buying food vs sending you the money a publisher sent to them on your latest royalty (remember they have all the paperwork), they will pay their own mortgage and buy the food with your money. They will think you won’t notice it being late for a month or so. And then when you don’t notice at all that you didn’t get that royalty statement from Germany (or your US publisher because you are writing and can’t be bothered,) they just “forget” to get around to sending the money to you.

So unless you are talking with every one of your publishers, and know exactly when every penny is coming to you and how much, your “Perfect” agent will stay in business on your back. Sorry. Just reality.

And big agencies are the worst at this, folks. Far worse, because they have accounting departments and the agents in big agencies usually get a base salary.

You get your money stolen, you have no one to blame but yourself. You gave a perfect stranger all the control of your work, your money, and the paperwork with that money. You deserve what you get or don’t get, I’m afraid.


We live in a wonderful new publishing world where agents are just flat useless.

Their place in the industry is fading away and they know it, which is why so many of them have set up publishing arms to “help” their clients out of even more of their rights and money. That’s right, every major agency now has a “publishing arm” to scam their clients by taking 15% for work the writer could easily do themselves and faster and better.

So back to the point of this myth. How do you sell a book to a traditional publishing house without an agent?

Two ways here in 2013, and not one of them involve an agent.

First, indie publish your book and then keep writing. Sure, there is a slight learning curve of covers and blurbs and such, but If your books get traction, traditional publishers will come calling and you will be able to actually negotiate a contract with some clout because they want your book. And you will know what your book is worth.

This happens every day now.

But a warning. If your book is making $3,000 per month for you in indie publishing, you might not want to want to sell it or any book for a $10,000 advance for the life of the contract. (grin)

Second method, mail the book directly to an editor. This has sort of come around to where it was when I started off. You must meet editors and be a nice business person and talk with them directly.

You need to go out and meet some editors at writer’s conferences and conventions. So while all your idiot friends are crowding around the agents, make an appointment with an editor and pitch your book. Know ahead of time what the editor publishes and be nice. Let me stress the be nice and professional part.

If the editor gives you a card and asks you to send the book, you are in the editor’s door and on their desk without an agent. You have become one of their writers.

Oh, wait, one more way…

Third: DO BOTH AT THE SAME TIME.  Why wait around with your book when indie publishing won’t hurt it in anyone’s eyes in New York?

Just a thought.

One final point on this:

In the fall of 2013, new writers are still flooding agents with manuscripts and great books and writers are being lost in this ugliness. This myth will only go away over time, more than likely the next twenty years or so, as writers take back control and start realizing there are more ways to get into traditional publishing than by giving away part of their work.

I’ve sold over a hundred novels to traditional publishers and I sure can’t see myself going back until traditional publishers stop some of their contractual practices, but that’s another article. But if I did go back, I sure wouldn’t use an agent.

Traditional publishing is in a period of major transition. It will survive, but not in a form we would recognize now, or with many of the names that are now in business.

Agents will not survive. At least the non-scam ones.


Copyright © 2013 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Dennis Crow/Dreamstime

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