Agents – who’d have ’em?

John Barlow
John Barlow
Author John Barlow

There’s been some interesting discussion about literary agents recently, not least following the letter from the AAR to the DoP, which got a good old fashioned mauling from Joe Konrath.

For a decade I had a New York literary agent. I recently switched to a London-based agency, although having decided to give indie publishing a try I have yet to produce anything that she might actually sell, and clearly this puts us both in an awkward position.

The question for indie writers, given the current state of the literary market, is how exactly an agent might fit into your plans. Do you need an agent at all? Let’s be clear: Joe Konrath has not sacked his agent, and Barry Eisler is married to his. The role of agents might be changing, but I don’t think they’re going away any time soon.

We all know the basics: agents marshal the slush pile, acting as a buffer-filter between writers and editors. You need an agent if you want to get your MS onto the desk of even a junior editor at a trad publisher. [Actually, this is bullshit. Editors have emails and telephones. You can pitch directly to them. I’ve done so myself. If something sounds interesting, they’ll ask to see it.]

On the face of it, then, agents are the bête noires of indie publishing, more of a hindrance than anything else. However, agents do more than filter. But what?

First, they increasingly have an editorial role in the production of texts. Agencies these days are expected to submit work which is substantially done, not potentially good. A lot of former editors have switched to agenting, which gives them a built-in advantage; where this isn’t the case, agencies have taken on editorial assistants to help with texts before they are submitted.

So if you do have an agent, that’s a pretty big advantage for a start. Does your work need an editor? Can you afford to hire out? Well, that warrants a post of its own. But let it be said that agents have become increasingly active in the writing process. I had a cheeky free ride last year. I got all the (considerable) help from my agent, who is an ex-editor, then I decided to go indie with the book. Of course, I won’t be able to pull that stunt a second time, but regardless of the publishing path I take in the future, my intention is to keep this agent on my side as far as I can.

Why? Well, no one really knows what’s going to happen to the book industry. We’re in a state of flux, and different people are trying to negotiate their way through it in different ways. At the moment, many indies who hit big sales take on agents to help them move into print sales. Recent examples of this from the UK are Kerry Wilkinson and Rachel Abbot, both smart people who wouldn’t have gone through an agent unless they saw some benefit in doing so. Did Kerry Wilkinson do the right thing? Read this and this: what do you think?

Also, I know writers with agents who are currently having difficulties getting a trad contract, and have been advised by their agents to put the MS out as an indie ebook as a means of attracting attention. The author retains his/her rights and pays the agent nothing while the book is ‘indie’ published. This is a pretty good situation, I feel, because if things do take off, the author can decide which way to go, and with whom. The agency might also lend an expert hand with editorial assistance at this stage.

It’s not only about preparing for a big sales scenario, either. Let’s say your indie novel attracts the attention of a Portuguese or Turkish trad press. Do you want to deal with them? Really? Because I’m betting they don’t want to deal with you. Are foreign presses combing the English-language ebook market for interesting indies to snap up cheap? I dunno. I haven’t had any mails from Brazil or Azerbaijan, but perhaps you have. Are you happy dealing direct? Because I’m not; and I speak from experience.

Finally, agencies are beginning to think about their own digital imprints. So far it’s mainly to exploit out of print back catalogue of existing clients, but over here in the UK leading agent Ed Victor has established Bedford Square Books is beginning to publish original titles. The bad thing is that he is reportedly offering the author 50% of net. But another agency I know of is thinking about offering 60% of net (42% of gross on an Amazon ebook), leaving the author with a cut at a mid-point between a current trad deal and the 70% an indie can get from Amazon.

So, what to do? There is something weird about the idea of giving an agency 15% of all income from a book until the day you die, then another 70 after that. That situation wasn’t too bad in the days when books either failed or succeeded in the first year of their (print) life; if your agent got you a good deal and your book didn’t hit the best sellers, at least you’d been paid something. These days, ebooks never die, and the ‘15% forever’ stuff does begin to sounds a little disconcerting.

Personally, I’m just going to wait a bit and see how things pan out, blagging free edit notes from wherever I can in the meantime.

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John Barlow is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and the author of five books, most recently WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO JERRY PICCO? and HOPE ROAD. For more information, please see the IU Bio page or his website.

Author: John Barlow

John Barlow writes both fiction and non-fiction, publishes occasional food journalism and also works as a ghost-writer. In addition, he is a translator, and has a side-line in eBooks for language learning. His John Ray / LS9 crime thriller series is currently exclusive to Amazon. If you'd like a review copy of The Communion of Saints, please contact John through his website.

18 thoughts on “Agents – who’d have ’em?”

  1. I think it's prudent to have an agent on your side no matter what, Indie or not. Say the book does attract enough attention that a movie wants to be made out of it, I don't know about you, but I don't have the legal expertise to even begin to understand what that contract would entail or, how much they would take away from me. Obviously that's an extreme, an agent would be good for any contract, really. That's their job.

    I do think looking at them as "gatekeepers" is a bit unfair. If they're good, they work just as hard as the rest of us to get books sold. Yes, some of them are terrible, but I have a hard time believing all of them are. If anything, it's the publishing companies that are the jerks in this equation.

    Personally, I would love to be represented by an agent.

    But, I think I'll play the 'wait and see'game. It seems safer that way.

    1. You'll be able to get an agent with no problem if you have an offer. I think there is huge value when you are negotiating with a publisher or movie company.

    2. RJ, THEY are the ones who look at themselves as "gatekeepers". They make their living of tolls.

      Saying it's "prudent" to have an agent is like saying it's a smart move for a writer to marry a millionaire. Yeah, good, but uh….

      The idea of indie writers having agents is odd from the writer's standpoint (what would they be doing for you?) but insane from the agents' viewpoint (where's the money?)

      I hope your "wait and see" game involves publishing your own work now so you aren't waiting for Godot.

        1. I've been through a couple, myself.

          Trouble with firing agents is, could be "they couldn't sell my great books" or it could be "I couldn't sell this guy's lame books". And it's hard to tell the difference.

          (I kind of prefer the former interpretation)

  2. I, too, would love to be represented by an agent. Unfortunately the odds of that are about the same as of being picked up by a trad publisher. And I've never won a lottery, so …..

    Interesting, though, that agents are acting as editors, too. To me that says they are having a tougher time than they used to as well.

    1. No, what it is, the publishing industry has been "outhousing" their work for decades.

      They use agents as their "R&D" instead of paying their own acquisitions people to hunt up and screen prospects.

      Now they've shifted more of the editing and promotion work out of their own hands.

      And it rolls right past the agent, onto the writer.

      The house says they won't look at anything not already edited, so the agent says the same thing, or tells the author it's wonderful, but needs to be edited.

      Ironically, this starts to make editing (potentially the largest expense for a writer) something that they have to spring for whichever way they go.

  3. Just like for the authors and the readers, I believe that for the agents, also the publishers and the bricks and mortar booksellers, their part in the literary industry is being redefined. I also believe that, unlike the authors and the readers, their part is shrinking in the process and will continue to shrink even more into the future, and those agents who do not reinvent themselves will find themselves going the way of the dinosaurs.

    You are right, John, if you know someone to pitch to, or have a contact then it is possible to go direct; however, in general practice (and policy for the big six), the big name publishers stopped dealing directly with authors years ago; conducting most of their business through the literary agents, they have used them as gate keepers. Literary Agents have been the gatekeepers of the publishing industry, RJ, for many years; many of them employing readers with strict criteria, in regards to what they are looking for. I’m not tarring them all with the same brush, not at all, and a lot of them work very hard; however, I believe that it’s the literary agents and literary agencies that are suffering most in this eRevolution and, although there will be a niche for the literary agent, I believe they have a lot more suffering to come.

  4. As an indie I don't see the need for an agent unless I get "noticed" by a traditional publisher. I can access editors and proofreaders, for a flat fee, no % for my life and 70 years after.

    I don't need an agent to shop my book to me. I don't need one to negotiate a contract with any of my distributors.

    An agent is a role in the traditional system. I think they fit well there, but I'm not sure how they would fit into the new model.

    1. They don't.

      And it's freaking them out. Especially the younger ones.

      You look at what they're doing ("consulting", "self-publishing", "promoting") and it's all stuff that has nothing to do with the role of selling MS to publishers.

      Yes, if you get a sale to a house, you find it easier to get an agent. Thought not as much so as it might seem, oddly.

      I'd welcome an agent selling some of my work to a publisher, but if I had a house on the line I wouldn't go to an agent, I'd go to an attorney specializing in publishing contracts and pay them one-time fees for their work.

  5. BTW, the idea of an agent running a vanity press on the side has so many warning sirens and flashing red lights it could moonlight as a fire department.

  6. Hi everyone.

    Some interesting comments…

    One thing that struck me, when I started thinking about how 'nervous' agents are supposedly getting these days is that, given the fact that an agency earns most of its money from a few best selling writers, and given that these writers are probably doing just as well in ebooks as anyone else at the moment, the agencies are probably doing OK. And when an indie does hit the big sales, they do tend to get themselves an agent pretty quick.

    Best wishes, John

    1. Very true that most indies would take a publisher contract.

      Not necessarily agented though.. why?

      But something else to consider is the other side of the curve: best-sellers who're starting to dump contracts and go indie.

      I personally know three midlist authors who've done that. In addition to some of the celebrated ones like Konrath, et. al.

      Now look at what JK Rowling is doing, what Steven King has been experimenting with, and think "nervous" is a good term for it.

      That sort of thing would affect older agents with big clients. Younger agents are faced with more possible defections of midlisters and less desperate influx of new blood.

      And agent doesn't start up a vanity press for no reason. Lots of reasons he wouldn't want to. Peer humiliation, if nothing else. The fact that I've seen a dozen do that in the past year says something.

  7. Anecdote: my ex-agent just sorted out the reversion of e-rights on a book from Farrar, Straus & Giroux; not the sort of thing that would have been easy without an agent! JB

    1. Well, a complex situation in which few indie authors would find themselves.

      But, again, is it better to have an agent sorting this stuff out, or an attorney?

    2. John, I realized I've been kind of fencing or quibbling with you here, which wasn't really my intention.

      This is a really cool post, and obviously thought-provoking.

      Bottom line that I'm sure we all can agree on: ALL ways to get published are good for us and it's up to us to use whatever we can make work to get our work in front of eyeballs.

      1. Lin, quibble away! On the matter of attorneys, I prefer the free advice of agents, although of course you are paying for it indirectly; in this case, she was effectively stripping herself of potential income by getting the rights back for me alone. So, I can't complain…

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