On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: The Assumption of Agents

After that head-shaking article by Don Maass, and the funny response by Joe and Barry, I decided it was time to update a post I did about a year ago in this series.  So here it is…

Among all new writers these days, the myth is strong that they need an agent and that agents are just here and a part of the new book world. It seems to radiate through every word I hear from writers lost in the myths of starting up as fiction writers.

It’s like you bought a house and someone is living in the basement and you believe without ever a question that you must feed that person, pay their expenses, and let them live in your basement because they were there when you bought the house.


The world has changed, folks. Publishing has changed, and is continuing to change at a very rapid pace. As the Passive Guy often says, we are in disruptive technology right now, and closing your eyes to that won’t make it go away.

But let me start off with a clear image. 99% of all agents are buggy whip manufactures who are trying to convince everyone who buys a car you need a whip to keep the engine going.

Yeah, I’m afraid that in most cases, it really is that silly.

Not only do writers continue to believe you need a whip to start a car, at the same time they give agents all their money and all the paperwork with that money. And never once bother to even check the background of the agent they are giving all their money to. (Be honest, those of you with agents reading this.  Ever run a background or credit check on your agent?)

What has changed since agents were actually needed???

1… e-mail, Skype, and other instant world-wide contact methods direct from writers to publishers. The middle person with all the contacts isn’t needed anymore at all. And often either gets in the way or kills a project.

2… Fiction publishing contracts have become far, far too advanced for a normal English graduate to handle. (Which most agents are.) Very few agents are lawyers, let alone modern IP lawyers, let alone publishing IP lawyers. In this modern world you must have a publishing IP lawyer look over your contract, even if you have an agent. You get what you deserve if you don’t, I’m afraid.

3… Agents have no better access to traditional publishing than you do. None. And sometimes the agent’s track record or previous fights, or an agency problem with a publisher will keep your work out of some editorial offices. So you actually have more access to more editors than most agents. (talked a lo about how to get around and ignore the agent-only guidelines) On top of that, you care about your book more than any agent ever would because it’s your book and they are dealing with fifty or more other writers.

4… Indie publishing means that with very little money and very little learning, you can get your books to readers yourself. Faster and cheaper. And maybe get it noticed by a traditional publisher at the same time. (For example, Kris and I have a lot of books under option to Hollywood right now, and not a one of those options would have happened with an agent in the way. Not one.)

5… Most agents now work indirectly for publishers and the idea that agents work for writers is something left in the last century. There are exceptions to this rule, still, but not many, sadly. Now agents do everything in their power to take a lifetime percentage of an author’s work and many have set up their own publishing companies in the guise of helping their clients who could do the same thing for a ton less than a lifetime 15%.

So, you now have better access to editors for selling books, better access to overseas publishers and Hollywood, no need for agents on contracts and negotiations, and a way to get your books directly to readers when you decide that’s a good way to go with a project.

So why do you need an agent????

Yeah, I know, I know, logical questions like that will not help convince a writer buried in the myth of needing an agent.

So what wakes a writer up to this myth? Over the years I have seen writers snap out of the myth when some of the following events happen to them.

— The writer loses a half-dozen or more novels to bad contracts the agent told him to sign.

— An agent does not report money owed to the writer and the writer discovers it. (This is scary common because writers don’t get the paperwork ahead of the agent.)

— The writer is completely scammed by an agent and the writer discovers it.

— The writer has a major project and can’t get in touch with his agent. Or agent drops the ball on a major project and the writer discovers it.

Writers who can survive those normal agent things and hundred of others and get to book twenty usually do so without an agent in tow. For them the agent myth is dead. Or they know how to control their agent and they sell their own books and only use the agent for tasks like fetching drinks or chasing money.

Remember, I sold over 100 novels to traditional publishers. I SOLD THEM ALL. In the old world. My agent of the time never sold a one. Not one.

Here is what I read all the time about why writers, both young and more experienced, feel they need an agent in the modern world of publishing in 2014.

I need an agent because…

1)   “I need someone to take care of me. I don’t want to learn all that business and indie publishing stuff. I only want to write.”

International publishing is a business. Not bothering to learn your own business and staying up with modern trends in your own business is a flat silly reason to think you need an agent. If you have an agent and don’t know MORE about what you are doing than your agent, you are doomed. In fact, if you actually believe this, Bernie Madoff’s address is public record and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind taking on a new client or two in his new position if you just sent him some money.

Writers who do have agents and know a ton about the business use the agent correctly, as a hired employee. But thinking you need an agent to take care of you is stepping on the road to pain and loss in this business.

2) “I need an agent to negotiate contracts for me.”

I’ve talked a lot about this, as has Kris and other writers on other blogs around the country. Traditional book contracts have gone way past agents in the last five years. Even if you have an agent, hire an publishing IP attorney to look the contract over and negotiate it for you and your agent.

Agent or no agent, if you sign a traditional book publishing contract in 2014 without a publishing IP attorney telling you clearly what you are signing, you will get what you deserve.

3) “I need an agent because it’s the only way to get into traditional publishing.”

Seriously?? If you still believe this, you are wearing bellbottoms and dancing Disco under spinning light balls. Holy smokes, wake up and come into 2014 publishing.

I had agents for all but the first four years of my writing and the last ten years. I had the same agent for 17 years in that middle period and respect her and think she did me a fantastic job during that period.  She was always honest with me and she always worked for me. But as I said above, of the 100-plus books I have sold into traditional publishing, NO AGENT SOLD ONE. I sold them all.

And that was before the indie publishing revolution of the last five years that opened up roads for writers to even get around the games of the submission process in New York and have publishers come to you.

Are there reasons to have an agent in 2014?

Nope. Not a one. (I have changed that slightly from back a year or so ago. I see no reason in 2014 to have one. They will only get in your way. Some more events that happened with friends convinced me my early 2013 opinion of limited use of an agent was flat wrong.)

Hiring An Agent in 2014.

So you are going to ignore every word I say because the myth is so powerful, you feel you want to test an agent. Here are some pointers I would ignore at your own peril.

1… Only hire an agent if you have a very large offer on the table. (Before the offer, agents will only get in the way, make you think you need to rewrite and destroy your book, and you have no power to deal with them. So why bother?)

2… Never sign an agency agreement. If they demand an agreement, have your attorney draw one up. You are hiring them, remember. If they balk at that, they want to scam you. RUN!!!

3… Never allow them to touch one penny of your money before you do. Split all payments at the publisher and get your own paperwork on those payments. Publisher’s don’t mind. There are no exceptions to this rule, especially overseas publishers. Modern world, folks. (If an agent balks at this, RUN!!! The only reason an agent would balk at this is that they are planning on scamming you.)

4… Make sure that you can fire the agent on 30 days notice. And make sure you are only working with that agent on a per-project basis. Period. Make that very clear to the agent and even go so far as to have them sign an agreement to that fact. And make sure that only payment split is in your contract with the publisher. Take out all rights grabs by agents.

5… Get a background check on the agent to discover if they have arrests and fraud charges in their backgrounds. (Wouldn’t you do this for most employees?) Remember, agents have no rules, no governing body, no license to obtain, nothing that protects you. So protect yourself. Duh…

6… If an agent balks at any of this, or tries to pull the “business standard” line, walk away. Remember, you are the one with the large offer on the table. And remember they must work for you.

My Advice to New Writers

Now, in all these articles over the years, I have given a great deal of advice, some of it now dated by the changes happening quickly. I flat admit that. But slowly I have come to one pretty solid path into publishing for new writers in 2014, and so now I can flat state my advice.

1) Write like crazy and learn as much as you can about craft. (This never stops or ends.)

2) Indie publish everything you write. Learn the publishing business with every new project. Learn how to do your own covers and get your books into print. Keep your expenses low. Don’t limit your sales by only going to one store. Keep learning and writing as much as you can. (Again, never stops or ends.)

3) When a traditional publisher approaches you with an offer, if the offer is big enough (meaning near or above six figures) put a team together to help you. Hire an accountant first to figure your net sales loss if you go with a traditional publisher. If you still feel that going with a traditional publisher is worth the loss in sales, hire an IP publishing lawyer to deal with the contract. You work directly with the editor.

(If the offer is too small, meaning under sixty or seventy thousand dollars, say thanks, but no thanks and keep on track with your own publishing.)

If an agent approaches you first, before a publisher, RUN!!!!!!!  Unless they are willing to pay you up front in a shopping agreement.

A shopping agreement is standard in Hollywood. For New York publishing it would simply state that the agent will give you say $1,000.00 for the right for six months to shop your book to New York. The agreement can be renewed for another $1,000.00 for another six month period. If they can’t sell your book, you keep it and the money. No rights change hands. One page agreement.

If an agent really, really thought they could make a lot of money off your book, paying you $1,000 up front for the right to shop it is a pretty fair “put your money where your mouth is” test, don’t you think? If an agent won’t pay you up front, they don’t really believe in your book, do they?

Standard shopping agreement. Kris and I have had lots of them on our fiction in Hollywood. (Yeah, I know, you all give your books free to people to try to make money on your work. That’s why you get scammed, folks.)

4) Continue to indie publish, continue to learn craft, continue to learn business, even after the big offer. Don’t let your agent into any of the indie side. If you have enough money, add a cover designer and a person to do the listing onto your publishing team, working for your publishing company.

5) Never, ever lose track of one penny of your own money. Sign all your own checks. All money must come to you first. If your agent or accountant thinks the money should come to them first, FIRE THEM.


As with every article I have written about agents over the last five years, not a person out there will pay attention until they are hurt in one fashion by the choice of hiring an agent. Then I will get a letter saying they wished they had listened. I get a lot of those letters, sadly.

But yet I continue to pound this drum, hoping I can help at least one of you think a little clearer when the myth drives you toward an agent. (Even Joe Konrath, one of the more progressive thinkers in indie publishing still grasps onto this old straw. And he has his reasons he says. I see no reason, so we don’t agree there.)

The more we go into this modern, new world of publishing, the tighter agents are trying to hold on to their mostly worthless jobs. More scams are popping up, more agents become publishers, and so on. They are trying to grab parts of your work because they have nothing else. And writers let them. This agent myth is powerful.

And when fear sets in for a new writer, fear of the great unknown of a large industry, this agent myth really grabs hold.

But it is a myth.

There is no assumption that you need an agent.

There is no fact that you need an agent to make a living in this business. Don’t let that assumption that you need an agent push you into bad decisions when it is a false assumption.

Follow the advice I gave above on how to come into this business in 2014. Write your own work, be true to your own art.

You, the writer, must realize you need to practice your craft, learn how to write great stories, have readers buy your novels and stories. This won’t happen in one book or even ten or twenty books. But if that worries you, find another thing to do with your time. If it excites you to write and keep learning and get out ten or twenty novels because that means you get to write them, then you are a writer.

Indie publish your work, get it to readers. And if a big publisher or an overseas publisher or Hollywood comes calling, hire a good IP Lawyer to help you. And as you make more money, put a team together as Joe Konrath has talked about. (Only without an agent.)

Kris and I have a wonderful team around us. Fantastic people working hard because they love books (and we pay them well.)

So focus on the writing and the learning. And do your best to fight the agent myth. Sadly, most of you won’t win that fight and it will cost you your career or at best a lot of your books.

But if you can stay focused on the writing and learning and get the books out to readers, you will get past this myth.

Honest, there is no assumption of agents. And every time you think there is, just imagine a person sitting on the roof of a modern car with a buggy whip, trying to whip the car to start.


Copyright © 2014 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

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