Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Very Tempted…

To Say I Told You So…

But that would be petty. (Grin)

Yes, this is a post about book agents.

You see, for the last decade or more I have been trying my best to talk sense into normally very intelligent people when it comes to agents. But the myth is so powerful that really smart people do the stupidest things when the word “agent” is mentioned in publishing.

Example… Writers allow agents to tell them how to write a novel, even though the agent has never written a novel in their life. Yet writers will rewrite and rewrite to try to please some agent, spending years of time.

Example… Writers will sign an agency contract giving the agent control and 15% of the copyright for the life of the copyright anything they have represented and/or sold for the writer. (Similar to giving someone who mows your lawn 15% of the ownership of your home. Just as stupid, but don’t tell writers that. Thankfully, a person who mows lawns doesn’t call themselves a book agent.)

Example… A writer signs a contract with a publisher that allows an agent to take all the money from the contract AND ALL THE PAPERWORK from the contract. (Normally smart writers in real world would never do such a stupid thing, yet when it comes to book agents, they do exactly that under the guise of “common practice.”)

And I have been warning and warning and warning people about what might happen, what does happen, and what Kris and I have experienced happening with book agents over the years.

So today my email blew up with all kinds of people telling me about this crime that happened in New York. (Thank you, everyone, for sending me the information.)

In summary, what happened was that an accountant for a very major book agency in New York stole over 3.4 million from writers, and the number may go much, much higher.

This was going on for years and years. Why could this go on for years and years???? Because, oh, let me think, the writer signed a contract giving all the money and all the paperwork to the agent. In other words, the writers didn’t even know they were owed all the money.

(Sometimes, I am embarrassed to call myself a writer because of stupidity like this case.)

The solution is simple. In the contract, simply have the money split. 15% to the agent, 85% to the writer, directly from the publisher, with two sets of identical paperwork. If your agent won’t do this, RUN SCREAMING. And then have them audited at once.

So now this major agency and all the writers who were too stupid to even know they were owed money are facing an even larger problem, if that is possible.

What could be worse??? Simple. It is highly unlikely that the agency will be able to pay back the vast sums of money this person took and spent over almost a decade. So very likely the agency will have to declare bankruptcy.

Oh, oh…. Those agency contracts the dumber-than-posts writers signed might very well be assets of the bankruptcy. And can be sold. Oh, oh…

And it gets worse and worse and worse from there.

Folks, this kind of thing happens all the time in agencies. Small and large cases of it. Kris and I got ripped off more times than I want to try to count by agents and agencies and overseas agents before we finally got rid of them all and started making a ton more money for some reason.

But I have said that now for over a decade, maybe longer. But the myth of agents and following the herd of stupidity is strong. It turns normally very smart people into drooling idiots with a simple business card with the word “agent” embossed on it.

Agents are a wart on the butt of publishing. They are not regulated in any way and anyone can call themselves an agent without a lick of training.

You don’t need them and if you let them take care of your money, you get what you deserve I’m afraid.

I feel honestly sorry for the writers caught up in this one agency mess. They have no brains and now they must scream. (Sorry, Harlan…)

Or something like that.

Screw it… I’m going to say it.

I told you so.




  • Rikki Mongoose

    Maybe it’s good that here, in Russia, we have no big agents and agencies.

    BTW, i remember a post (or was it in a youtube lecture?) you talked about decision to write a first novel when uou were working in a bookstore. But i can’t fins it. Have you posted it, or it’s a false memory?

    • dwsmith

      I wasn’t really working in the bookstore, I owned it. (Grin) And yup, sitting there in the store, it one day dawned on me that if all those people with names on all those books could do it, I could do it as well. Sort of a well-duh moment.

  • Kate Pavelle

    Experiential learning. If it takes 9 positive interactions with a business to ameliorate one negative one, then it probably holds that it takes one major negative one to wipe out the prior positive ones. This accountant gave your argument social proof, Dean. Your and Kris’s blogs are great and I drew a lot of real-life information from them that helped me in business dealings, but there is nothing like seeing this happen to people whose names you know just to drive it home even harder. I feel bad for the writers who are trapped, but I count myself lucky to be a new writer, because that could’ve been me. I think I dodged the bullet on this one.

    • dwsmith

      I wish Kris and I had dogged theses bullets. We know we got ripped off a lot by agents and their sub-agents and their accountants, but we have no exact amount. And that’s not even counting the roadblocks the agents put up to deals because they were “too small” to deal with. When we finally fired our agents and threatened to audit one of them, we discovered suddenly that we were getting a lot more offers for translation rights and movie options and a lot more money started appearing. Impossible for us to say much more than we already have for the last decade or so, which is what makes this one very public case so clear. Sadly, most writers will ignore this case because “It can’t happen to them.” And also, Dean and Kris are different. What do we know? The myths are that powerful.

  • Marsha

    I am so thankful that the only agent I sent my first book to turned me down. And doubly thankful that I found you and Kris shortly after and learned what a near miss I’d had. I’ve tried to pass this important piece of wisdom on and have been told to get my head out of my ass, that REAL writers all have agents. I no longer say anything when a writer tells me how excited they are to have finally bagged one. Thank you Dean and Kris for opening my eyes.

  • Janine

    Great timing for this post!

    Many in my group of writers were talking query this, agent that the past few days, and briefly wondered “I’m doing this right by skipping these steps and going indie right?” Don’t worry, I squashed that thought when I remembered that while going indie, I get 100% of the profits and less barriers for readers to access my stories.

    Anyway, I get this icky feeling when hearing some of this “get an agent” talk in writing circles. There’s the vibe that the writers are working for the agents, not the other way around. Agents have all the control and the writers are at the mercy at the demands of the agents. Rewrite that novel! Do this, do that! In a way, feels more like a job interview where you find someone to work for. Maybe it’s not always been like this, but in 2018 and the last few years prior to this, it does.

    I’m severely tempted to post the story to my posse, but I fear a severe backlash from the “get an agent” crowd if I do. This myth is so embedded into a lot of people that they waste years in the “query trenches” dealing with hundreds of rejections just to get “hired” to work for an agent.

    • dwsmith

      Janine, don’t post it and just let them go. In ten years you will be wondering what ever happened to almost all of them, sadly. Myths do that to writers.

  • Isabo Kelly

    What really struck me about that story was that it took a writer looking after their own money (and actually knowing what money was due because they were apparently paying attention to their business) to call attention to the embezzlement. The larger agency never caught on. All those writers and the people running potentially lucrative estates never noticed. For years. It only took one person paying attention to uncover things but that takes people paying attention to their money.

    • Teri Babcock

      I’d like to think that this will stimulate some writers and estate managers to check their own numbers, but I doubt it. At most, they’ll call their agent who will assure them that it was one bad apple, and that their own office goes above and beyond with their standards, accountability and professionalism.
      I think a lot of writers just don’t want to know.
      But if, say, the top 200 NYT best-selling authors all, in the same year, had their agency’s audited, that would shift things. It would scare the hell out of the big agents, and change the culture around that being a thing you can do as an author.

      • dwsmith

        You are dreaming, Teri. (Grin) Never met a top writer who didn’t trust and swear by their agent. Even the agents ripping them off left and right.

  • D J Mills

    Yes, you talked about unneeded and unqualified agents for years in your myth articles. And a lot of writers did not believe you, so I think you have the right to say “I told you so!”

    But, for some writers, the honour of saying “I have an agent” is a smug way to say their writing style & plots are better than Indie author stories. When I am told a writer has an agent, I think “what are the agent’s qualifications” and “how expensive is the agent’s lifestyle” then work out the risk factors (always high) so I just nod and change the subject or walk away.

    Or the other smug comments like “who is your publisher?” or “how much money do you make from your books?” or the best one of all, “are you selling any books?”

    At least, as an indie, I know the answers those questions. The poor writers using that agency can only answer the publisher question. 🙂

    • dwsmith

      Frighteningly enough, these days if some writer announces proudly that they have an agent, most writers feel sorry for them. Wow, how that has changed in the last ten years.

  • Robert J. McCarter

    It’s like they think an agent is like the idealized version from Romancing the Stone, a combination of your coach, collaborator, and best friend.

    Just like many thinks Amazon has you best interest in mind with Kindle Select.

    It’s business, which is a game that must be played defensively.

  • Cynthia Lee

    I hate it when I discover a new writer that I like/love and later, (after seeking them out on social media) I realize with a sinking feeling that they have literary agents and are traditionally published. I worry about them getting royally screwed. I worry that they will stop writing completely.


    • dwsmith

      Oh, they will, one way or another, Cynthia. Nature of traditional publishing. Even long-term writers have major war stories about getting screwed. They never talk about how they survived it. But they did, somehow, which is why they are long-term writers.