Do you really need an agent? Six things for writers to think about before writing a hundred query letters.


The Society of Authors will NOT do this to you! 

I’ve blogged about agents before, but it seems worth revisiting, since things seem to have moved on in the intervening period. I’ve had good agents and not so good agents but now I’m not looking for one. To be fair, my ex-agency – the one that actually did a lot of good work for me - still remits my share of royalties and residual payments for past work with great promptness and efficiency. But for some time now, I think that the relationship between writers and agents has been skewed. For a start, there are too many potential clients chasing too few agents and this is partly because of the myth still being perpetuated by most creative writing courses, that you need an agent to find a publisher. The other fiction is that if you get an agent, you will find a publisher. Neither is strictly true.

So here are some things to think about.

1 What, realistically, are you expecting your agent to do for you? Do you want somebody to nurture you, or do you want a productive business partnership? If the former, consider that you will always be a humble supplicant, sending in your latest manuscript and nervously waiting for the response. Bit like Scheherezade, really, and that’s an unenviable, not to say unnecessary position to find yourself in. If the latter – and your putative agent agrees – you might have the basis of a decent working relationship. But really, nurturing is for babies.

2 Your agent is meant to be working for you. Too many agents have lists of requirements for submissions that sound like job specifications. I’ve even seen people advising writers to ‘treat your query letter like any other job application’. But it isn’t, is it? Nobody is going to be paying you a regular salary. This is, of course, a result of the imbalance in the market: too many writers with too little experience, chasing too few agents. But it’s worth bearing in mind that you’re looking at a partnership, and that you have every right to expect a modicum of efficiency, courtesy and commitment. Just as your agent has every right to expect the same from you. Do I have some sympathy with agents? Sure I do. They have to cope with a lot of submissions, including the bottom drawer manuscripts typed in single spacing on both sides of sheets of vibrant pink paper. But this is their job and they're volunteers. Actually, some of them really are volunteers. I just saw an ad for an unpaid graduate internship with a big literary agency and found myself wondering how many of those hopeful aspiring novelists know that they are being summarily rejected by a 21 year old recent graduate with almost no experience of what mature readers might want.

3 Whose side will the agent really be on? They’re meant to be fighting for you, the client. But the reality is that corporate publishers wield a vast amount of power, and an agent will be cultivating good relationships with a certain number of ‘acquisitions’ editors. These editors will, in turn, have to answer to ‘the team’ and a lot of decisions will be dictated by buyers at the big chains. It used to be the case that if one of these major editors loved a book, the company would take a chance with a new writer. Now, an editor may love a book but if it doesn’t have the potential to be mega successful that may be as far as it goes. Everyone is afraid of getting it wrong, and in their shoes, you would probably feel the same. The agent will almost never want to damage the relationship with the editor. So you’ll be told to try again, write something else. But you may also be warned that an informal ‘three strikes and you’re out’ situation exists. By the time you get to your third novel, the editor may decide that she doesn't even want to look at anything from you again. This doesn’t happen so much with small-to-medium independent publishers, which is why so many popular mid-list novels of recent years – and the occasional bestseller - have emerged from micro publishers. But the sad truth is that many agents don’t much like submitting to small publishers. Advances are not high enough to make it worthwhile even though the resulting deal may be worthwhile for you as an author.

4 Who is telling you that you need an agent? You can’t believe everything you’re told. Are agents telling you that you need them? Well, they would, wouldn’t they? If you’re studying for a creative writing degree, have a good look at your lecturers’ back stories. They may be very fine writers, and they may be truly excellent teachers, but do they know anything about the business side of writing? Have they been happily and successfully agented for years, in which case, do they know anything about the downside? Are they bringing in agents to ‘cherry pick’ the top students in any one year, leaving you struggling with a multitude of query letters? And if they are lecturing full time in creative writing, consider that they may well be employed rather than mainly self employed, and may be reiterating the conventional wisdom of writing and publishing as it was twenty years ago. If your creative writing course doesn’t include a sizeable module or part module on the changing business of writing, taught by people who are brought in from the world outside, ask yourself and your university why not.

5 What are the benefits? There are some valid reasons to have an agent, among which might be: access to Big Publishing, (but as we’ve already seen, publication doesn’t always follow) better deals, (maybe) vetting of contracts, (but a good IP lawyer or the Society of Authors will do that for you, and sometimes they will do it more efficiently) and foreign sales. This last is important, and might well be a good enough reason for seeking an agent. But in all my years of being agented, nobody did anything for me with foreign sales. Now that could be entirely down to me. Maybe my books don't appeal to foreign buyers. But I'm unconvinced and if I could find an agent to sell books and plays to foreign countries for me, I might consider signing with them – but for that purpose only. Or perhaps an agent to capitalise on a particular book – a flexible project-by-project arrangement. Do such agents exist? Possibly, but I suspect this is an area that is ripe for expansion. And yes, that would be an interesting development and one I’d be happy to consider. I'm all for a 'horses for courses' approach to writing and publishing. It works in other areas of creativity so why not writing? But I also suspect there would be resistance to it in some quarters.

6 What other options do you have? That question used to be simple to answer, if depressing. None, except for spending a small fortune on some vanity publisher. Now, there are lots of options, but all of them demand a certain amount of application on your part.
You can submit to the many and varied small and micro publishers that accept unagented submissions. You have to be careful. You must have contracts vetted by somebody who knows what to look for before you sign them. The Society of Authors will do this for you in the UK if you are prepared to join, but you can also pay an Intellectual Property lawyer. You may think this is expensive, but it’s not half as expensive as signing away all kinds of rights you never thought about. The truth is that there are a great many good small publishers out there, and many of their contracts are much simpler and far less onerous than those imposed by Big Publishing – so making sure you’ve got it right shouldn’t cost a fortune.
You can self publish with Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon and elsewhere, onto various other worldwide platforms, via Smashwords or D2D. You can publish Print on Demand paperbacks. You can even go the whole hog and set up your own small publishing business and make a deal with a local printer for short runs of books and pamphlets. You will have to deal with covers and editing and formatting but it isn’t as difficult as you think and there are lots of freelancers out there so you can do what other businesses do and outsource the work you don't want to do yourself. You will have to do some publicity and promotion, but you’ll have to do a lot of that anyway, whoever you publish with. The big campaigns are reserved for the very big names these days.
Or you can do a mixture of both self and traditional publishing. Or you can publish with several small publishers at once.  Even though, in order to do this, you will need what my Canadian friend calls 'inventory'. So you need to get your head down and get writing. But since you might spend two or three years writing query letters to agents, or rewriting your single finely wrought novel to the demands of various agents and editors - you could instead decide to spend those years honing your craft, working on a couple of novels, a small collection of stories, a series of novellas ...and give yourself some options. 

Decisions, decisions.
If you are wildly successful, you will have agents beating a path to your door. If you are moderately successful, you will get a small but steady income and will realise that a book nowadays has a much longer shelf life online than you have been led to believe. A book that might have quietly fallen out of print after a year in the old system can go on selling for many years in the new. You may well realise that you enjoy this whole process and that you don’t want an agent at all. If you are not successful, what have you lost? Nothing is forever. You can take a book off line, rewrite it, republish it. You can work on something else, instead of wasting years of good writing time on rewrites to somebody else’s requirements. You can self publish your first two ‘competent’ novels (as opposed to the novels that should probably never see the light of day) and then you can write something quite new and submit it to an agent if you decide that’s what you want to do.

But the interesting truth is that many people who reach that point are often so comfortable with running their own affairs that they think twice before relinquishing control. Some writers may decide otherwise, and that’s fine too. I'm not here to dictate to anyone. What suits one may not suit another. The point is that the power is in your hands. Think about what you want.

Your choice, your business.

And finally – one other thing you might like to consider, if you’re female: you might want to think about changing your name!

If you've found this remotely helpful, have a look at my Amazon Author Page because the books there reflect my own experience pretty accurately. I'm the same writer that I ever was - perhaps a bit more competent and confident - but I'm both traditionally and self published and very happy to continue trimming my sails to the prevailing wind.

Comments

Chris Longmuir said…
Excellent article, Catherine, and I agree with every word. All writers seeking publication should read this.
Victoria Owens said…
Totally agree with Chris. It's a great article, and full of wisdom. There is something worrying about the power which we writers tend to give to agents and publishers. Thanks, Catherine, for the shrewdness with which you suggest that things don't have to work out in such an unbalanced way.
Victoria Owens said…
Totally agree with Chris. It's a great article, and full of wisdom. There is something worrying about the power which we writers tend to give to agents and publishers. Thanks, Catherine, for the shrewdness with which you suggest that things don't have to work out in such an unbalanced way.
Thanks, Victoria and Chris. Glad you found it helpful.
Russell James said…
You're right, the world of books has changed. And although it can be alarming to feel the rug move beneath your feet, at least we now know what the floor looks like. Some of the old comforts have gone, but have been replaced by a raft of new opportunities - like your always-readable blog (and, I hope, my own weekly writer's online diary). This is the world now. Let's enjoy it.
Thanks for a wise and helpful post. I tried a few agents, got asked for the full MS a couple of times with request for 'exclusivity' and waited a long time before being disappointed. I have found an independent publisher now. I would add that I have found the publishers more courteous than agents in that they acknowledge submissions and send rejection messages- some agents do neither.
Glad you find it helpful, Barbara. The Society of Authors, I think, warns against the 'exclusivity' request because it can take so long for agents to make up their minds - by which time people may have lost other opportunities. I agree with you about independent publishers, too.