Does having an agent make you traditionally published?

AgentryThe world of agentry is changing. And, before you start on me, I scored 78 points in Facebook Scrabble with AGENTRY so it’s a word, ok? Time was, you got an agent, you were on your way. They loved your book, reckoned it would sell and worked hard to pitch it to publishers for you. They did that because it was how they got paid. And some still do.

Any agent worthy of your consideration will tell you that their belief in your writing is the thing that will lift it above the slush pile, but then they would, wouldn’t they? They may be right, but many agents who aren’t worthy of your consideration will tell you the same thing.

Before you sign on the dotted line and start telling your friends that you are traditionally published because you have an agent, and that’s just better, listen up. Here are three stories to add to the less-than-ideal experience Melissa Bowersock described for us last month. I will present them as ‘a friend’s neighbour told me’ just in case the person concerned is reading IU but off the record, only one of them is friend of a friend, the others I watched unfold…with my mouth zipped shut.

Story 1: A chap wrote a children’s book. He pitched it to many agents, most of whom told him that children’s books are a tough genre to break in to, the book needed some work and he’d stand a better chance with a series. Then one agent told him he loved the book. For a not inconsiderable sum of money, he would represent it to publishers. Did you spot the red flag? What do you suppose happened next?

Yes, the agent banked the money, sat about for six months and then advised the author to self-publish, because these days publishers like to see whether you get any sales on your own.

Story 2: A great piece of crime fiction, beta readers love it. The author wants the recognition of trad, so there was much joy when an agent took to the book and agreed to represent it. No money changed hands, this is a pukka agent. But first, the book had to be cut down to a specified word count. That was agony. Then more had to change. The story is no longer the one our writer wanted to tell but that’s okay because she will be traditionally published. She has just celebrated her first anniversary of having an agent…

Story 3: A writer whose agented Trad Pub credentials inspire her to look down on mere indies. But here’s the thing. Her ‘agent’ placed the book with a publisher he had ‘connections’ with. The publisher then charged a fee. That’s vanity publishing, right? Even if the pimp put ‘Agent’ on the office door.

I know that a few anecdotes don’t make a trend but last month The Bookseller published an article on a growing trend for agents to recommend vanity publishing. It quotes the Society of Authors advising writers to “find out ‘exactly what interest’ an agent has in any company he or she recommends.” The president of the Association of Authors’ Agents then opines somewhat obliquely (if you read between the lines) that maybe it’s ok to start taking money from authors instead of publishers. Agents have to eat, I suppose, but it’s hardly traditional.

I’d love to be trad pubbed, (don’t tell the EM though, I might get left out of the next gruel round) and I’d love to be able to drop the phrase ‘my agent’ into conversations. But I’ve actually got something better than that. I’ve got readers nagging me to write the next book for them.

By all means look for an agent, the real ones do great stuff. They know about contracts and royalties and copyright. They are invaluable, if not essential, if you are lucky enough to have something optioned for a movie, or if you have complex international rights issues going on. If you do get snapped up by a traditional publisher and want to go for it, an agent will protect your interests and make sure you get the best deal going.


If they want your money they are not a traditional agent. If they recommend a publisher who wants your money, this is not a traditional publisher. Do your due diligence, find out who is in bed with whom and follow the money before you sign.

And only look down your nose at Indies if you haven’t been conned.

Author: Carolyn Steele

Carolyn writes websites, copy and nonsense about emigrating. She also occasionally ambles off to do something daft in case it’s interesting enough to write about. Her latest book grew from the blog Trucking in English, and you can learn more at her blog and her Amazon author page.

13 thoughts on “Does having an agent make you traditionally published?”

  1. As usual, apply the easy Occam Razor of the money flows. If it goes from the writer’s wallet to the agent/publisher, RUN, you’re being scammed. If it goes from the publisher/agent to the writer’s pocket read the fine print of whatever contract before signing: you might better of remaining Indie and self-publish.

    It’s so easy it baffles me so many writers fall into those traps.

    FOLLOW THE MONEY, and in our case the money has to follow you 🙂

  2. Great post, Carolyn. It’s so disingenuous, isn’t it? There is no way on Earth a traditionally published author should pay anything up front either to the agent or publisher. After all, it’s painful enough taking the trad’s lousy royalty rates, then losing ten percent to the agent, and then having to cut your book down/push it up to a certain word count, etc.

    It’s a very cynical trick for an “agent” to recommend a “publisher” who suggests self-publishing “because, you know, you’ve got to ‘prove’ your book is any good before we’ll take you on.”

    I believe that we’re rapidly approaching a point where the only time and unknown author will be able to get a traditional publisher, is when the author has become successful enough that they don’t need one.

  3. Carolyn, you nailed it. Here’s the bottom line: Everybody from agent to publisher to promoter wants a piece of the author’s intellectual property. I once had an agent. I was traditionally published by Harlequin. Now, I learn that Harlequin under another business name is into vanity publishing. That takes the shine off, I’ll tell you. To me, submitting one’s work to an agent is just putting it into another slush pile. The nice bit about trad pubbing is the advance–but that is against royalties the title has to earn. A first book with a trad publisher very often does not have a sizable print run and unless the book takes off, the author may never see more than the advance–and those have shrunk. I love indie publishing for all of it headaches. Many of my fav authors are traditionally published–but the trad publishers have priced the books out of my purse so now I look for those indie gems to satisfy my reading habits. Agents take 20% right off the top. An advance/ royalty check goes first to the agent, the agent takes his/her cut–the author gets the remainder very often days and weeks after the checks have been cut. I would not pursue an agent just for the feel good comment, “My agent said…” Pffft.

  4. There are good agents out there. Mine got me a $4000 cash advance for my book, Bountiful Bonsai, to be released by Tuttle in December. My first book was published in print with no agent and I negotiated a $2000 advance. It sold more than 10,000 copies before going out of print. I asked my agent about finding a publisher to issue a new edition of that and she advised me to self-publish online as that would probably make me more money. I have a collection of nonfiction philosophical essays based around the title of my Facebook author page/platform, Hillbilly Savant, and she also advised me to self publish that. She gets no revenue if I self publish. She is anxiously awaiting a new book proposal I have nearly finished that she is sure will sell and get an advance, I consider myself trad pubbed and soon to also be indie pubbed. The best of both worlds. This group and site has taught me a lot on my road to self publishing and I thank everyone involved.

    1. Thanks for your insight. One of the issues I have with the current shenanigans is that if it makes us wary of the good guys, we risk losing out on a useful source of assistance when we really need it. Nice to hear a good agent experience.

  5. I believe it. I have a friend who was looking for an agent in 2009 during the same time I was looking. She found one, who, while new to agenting, had an impressive resume with publisher connections–I know because I researched him and submitted my book. I was rejected.

    So, she did a ton of editing per his advice, but after over a year with not publishing contract in sight, they parted ways. She then found a new and very ambitious publisher. They took on a lot of books and publish an incredible number a month. At the moment, I believe they are ebook only, but with an aim towards print. They are not a vanity publisher as they don’t ask for money and they did provide editing and covers.

    After an impressive push to publishing, with at least three rounds of editing, her book was published in less than five months. (I don’t think there was an advance involved, but there might have been a small one.) I hadn’t seen her online for several months, but she just sent me an IM a month ago asking me how my sales have been. I was a little bummed and embarrassed that my sales were down to about 200-300/month. (I hadn’t put out a book for a year) She told me that her book, that had been out over a year at that point sold just 50 copies. She hadn’t even looked at her Amazon ranking for months because it was too depressing. She said she wouldn’t sign with them again.

    Keep in mind, this was a legit publisher and they do have some books that do well, however, with so many, it’s easy to see how some (many?) will fall through the marketing cracks. (Also, I thought her cover stunk! It looked like something from the front of a ob/gyn pamphlet) She’s thinking of self-publishing her next book and wanted to know if she could ask me for advice when the time came.

  6. Yikes! Just the thought of a “pimp agent” makes me cringe, but obviously they’re out there. All excellent points, Carolyn. Whenever a writer teams up with an agent, they should both be working toward the betterment of the book, not just for the almighty dollar. And if the agent (or publisher, for that matter) thinks the book is good enough to publish, why or why would they then change it all around? Page count be damned. More great reasons to self-pub.

  7. I parted ways with my American agent after two years of empty emails. (I live in Canada). She would never read the subsequent books I wrote during this time, and eventually, I got fed up mentioning perhaps it was one of those that might be better to pitch.

    It’s hollow satisfaction being able to start a sentence with ‘my agent………….’ and although I was not scammed financially, I learned that the odds of having a stranger in my court as some form of literary fire power, was really less than zero.

  8. I was so lucky to discover our country’s most respected agent back in my days as a children’s author. He was not only a literary colossus but a hero of the second world war, a fighter pilot no less. He took me on, and under his care I was published internationally for years. By the time I wrote my novel Ripple, he was very very frail and advanced in years. I think I may have been the last author he represented, but that representation has come to fruition since his death, in the form of translation rights and acceptance by a film company. I just with he could have lived to see the end of the path he walked with me, but we haven’t arrived there yet.

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