On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: The Assumption of Agents

Over the past few weeks I’ve been seeing a lot of posts about and by agents in different forums. For example, the White Glove Program Amazon has started, or a post about “Hybrid” agents. Both were linked to on ThePassiveVoice and you can find them there in the last week of March if you really care.

What struck me clearly is the belief, the solid belief, in these articles and many others, that agents are just here and a part of the new book world. It seems to radiate through every word.

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. And since it has been six months since my last post about this change with agents, I figured it was time again. I cover some old ground and give out some new suggestions for writers in this one.

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, 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.

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. 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. (See my article on the New Slush Pile.)

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, 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?

— 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.

— 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 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.

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 2013.

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 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 2013 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 2013 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.  She was always honest with me and she always worked for me.  But 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 four 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 2013?


(Stop coughing) Not for the stupid reasons stated above. If you even believe any part of those three reasons I just stated, stay away from agents until you learn enough to know who and what you are hiring and why. Otherwise you will end up in a scam situation that will do nothing but cost you in books, bad will, and real money.

Here are the two major reasons to think of hiring an agent in 2013.

1) You have gotten a major offer on your indie published book.

2) You have gotten a major offer on a traditionally submitted book.

Please note I said “major” in both those, and by major I mean in the six figure and up range. Below that, you don’t need an agent, just a good publishing IP lawyer to help you with the contract and negotiations. And at the six figure level, even if you get an agent to help you, still hire an IP publishing lawyer for the negotiations and contracts.

In other words, if you get that large advance, an agent can be a part of a team around you. For lower advances, just hire the IP publishing lawyer. An agent can’t help you.

Hiring An Agent in 2013.

Here is what you do to hire an agent and protect yourself in this new world of publishing.

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 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.

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. 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.

5… Get a background check on them 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.

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. But slowly I have come to one pretty solid path into publishing for new writers in 2013, 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. Keep learning and writing as much as you can.

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 and a top agent for that project only.

(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!

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. Let your lawyer and agent only work on the big deals.

5) Never, ever lose track of one penny of your own money. It must all come to you, you must always sign all checks. If your agent or accountant thinks the money should come to them first, RUN!


As with every article I write about agents in my six-month cycle on this topic, 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.

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. 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 2013.

You can add an agent on your team when you get a large offer for a book. If you find a top agent (which you can only do with a large offer) they will help you and your attorney through some of the aspects of behind-the-scenes publishing that involve promotions, sales, managing editors, heads of sales departments, and so on.

None of that applies for books with no offers or small offers. On those books an agent will take 15% for life of the book and do nothing, because there is NOTHING they can do.

But on large offers, a top agent can be a great part of your team.

But first you (the author) must realize you need to practice your craft, learn how to write great stories, have readers buy your novels. 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.

You don’t need an agent until you learn how to write great books and have a large number of readers wanting your work. Then you can use a top agent to help you with certain aspects of your career.

And by then, you will be mostly past the myth.

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 indie published, there may come a time you hire an agent for the right reasons, as a part of your team.

Until that time comes, keep writing and having fun.


Copyright © 2013 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

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