Having parted company with my agent a few weeks ago, amicably enough, I've been pondering the topic a bit. I don't intend to look for another one. I'm going indie in all possible ways, although that's not to say that I wouldn't be prepared to pay for some help in the future. Just that I might be looking for dedicated editing or IP expertise instead. However, the excellent Passive Guy reposted an extract from this piece by US author Dean Wesley Smith, on his wonderfully informative blog recently, and it gave me one of those Road to Damascus moments, from which there is no turning back.
Essentially, the piece is a reflection on the changing role of the literary agent, and since I've lived through those changes, (the UK is not so very dissimilar from the US in this respect) and know a bit about them but had never quite clarified it all in my own mind, the whole piece gave me serious food for thought.
When you're asked to give talks and workshops these days, the most frequently asked question is usually 'how do I find a literary agent?'
With extreme difficulty, is the answer, but that doesn't deter writers, because received wisdom is that no publisher will look at a submission unless it comes via a literary agent. This is generally true. But what most agents won't tell you is that many if not most submissions will now be rejected out of hand, even with the backing of a literary agent.
What strikes me most forcefully, though, is how afraid we writers are. We are afraid of not getting an agent and we are afraid of not finding a publisher, or losing the agent and publisher we have, no matter how badly we have been treated in the past. We are afraid of saying 'no' to requests to work for commercial organisations for no money, lest we should be thought troublesome when anyone else in this position would be thought businesslike. But most of all, we are afraid of being without an agent in what seem like (and frequently are) shark infested waters. We are afraid that if we send multiple submissions to agencies, we will upset potential agents - and this is true. Some agents can get remarkably (and ridiculously) huffy about this. So we spend (waste) years submitting one application at a time, and waiting and waiting and waiting. If we are lucky enough to secure the services of an agent, we become remarkably humble, are terrified of rocking the boat with even mild complaints about lack of communication or lack of progress, or suggestions as to how we might want our career as a writer to develop. I know all this because I've been there, done that and got several tee-shirts in the art of supplication.
Let's pause for a moment, and think about it. As I write this, I'm waiting for our accountant to come and finalise our annual accounts - myself and my husband are both freelances. To be honest, we probably don't earn enough to pay an accountant, but our books are complicated by the fact that we do so many different things, and we've been with this small company for years. We pay a reasonable sum monthly, up front and he is efficient and friendly. Would I ever, in a million years, be afraid of upsetting him by making a suggestion about the way our business might go in the future? Why should I? We're both acknowledged professionals and he has a set of skills for which I'm very happy indeed to pay. The only time I'm afraid of my accountant is when he phones up and asks me if I can remember what I paid £53.47p for, a year ago and what was this sum of £28.73p which I lodged eleven months ago.
Unfortunately, the relationship between writer and agent is clouded with all kinds of other emotions, and I think - like so much to do with writing - there is a certain unsatisfactory imbalance about it that prevents it from being truly professional.
One of the most interesting observations made by Dean Wesley Smith was about the way in which agents started to demand rewrites, to become - in effect - our editors. He linked this with a seismic shift in publishing which threw a number of young editors onto the market - editors who then became agents, because they thought they knew 'what the market wanted'.
I can distinctly remember that shift myself - my old agent for plays, back in the seventies and eighties, would buy me the occasional lunch, chat to me about how my writing was going, make suggestions for industry openings, negotiate contracts skilfully and ruthlessly - but would never have dreamed of offering detailed script re-writing suggestions. That was not his job.
Move forward some years and when I finally secured an agent for my prose, she asked for (and got) rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. Publishers, she said, 'demanded an oven-ready product'. She was a good editor, and I learned a lot from her, for which I'm very grateful - but I was and still am a natural 'mid-lister'. I spent (wasted) a lot of time blaming myself for not being able to give her what she wanted, when in fact she wasn't looking at what she could do with what I so clearly was. There was, I now realise, an imbalance in the relationship. But when we parted company - with the triumph of hope over experience - I still looked for another agent.
I don't know what the solution is, but it strikes me that it might be healthier all round if we paid our agents a fee, just as we pay our accountants or website developers - without giving them any 'equity' in our product. But I can't see that working, can you? And we writers are curiously reluctant to pay professional fees for a professional job. Instead, we are content to relinquish equity in our intellectual property in the innocent belief that some day - with the help of our magician/agent, we will strike it very very rich. This is unfair in all kinds of ways - not least to agents themselves who, whatever else they may be, are not magicians, but it's probably because so many of us are poverty stricken and don't have much confidence in the value of our own work. We'll believe practically anyone who tells us that if we do this, this or this, all manner of things will be well.
It ain't necessarily so.
Don't get me wrong. A good editor is a pearl of great price. If he or she asks the right difficult and searching questions (rather than attempting to rewrite for you, always a crime, in my book) you - in answering them - will become an infinitely better writer. If your editor is a friend or colleague who loves your work, and has your best interests at heart, there is no relationship quite like it! I've known it once or twice with radio producers, and theatre directors.
For fiction, there are excellent professional editors who - for a flat fee - will analyse your work, and put you on the right track. As usual, the trick is in identifying the genuine pearls. I don't have any easy answers, but it's something we should certainly be discussing. Before embarking on the long and frustrating search for an agent, we should certainly pause and ask ourselves why, these days, that generally means any agent at all, not the right agent for us - and that being the case, why is our opinion of ourselves so low while our expectations of them remain so unrealistically high?