I had an amusing thought tonight while I was rereading HOMEGUARD (because I’d forgotten a few details between writing SONS OF THE LION and some short stories). Memories, really, of when I was first breaking into the writing scene.
I’ve never been a huge fan of literary agents. As technology brings publishers and authors closer together, I feel that the literary agent is a thing that is slowly being pushed aside. Granted, there are different scenarios where an agent can be handy (if your name is Stephen King, for example) but the relatively inexpensive costs of a contract lawyer reviewing your contract for you versus the long-term monetary compensation your royalties will pay to keep your agent working for you should show just how unnecessary an agent is for the majority of new authors.
Like I said, agents have a purpose, albeit a rapidly declining importance as their shift of representing authors has changed to become more of a gatekeeper in publishing. To amuse myself tonight, I went around to various agencies to see what agents are looking for. The majority seem to be seeking disenfranchised and underrepresented authors, which confused me a bit. I mean, I understand that they are all seeking for that unique voice that will make them J.K. Rowling money, but when 95% of agents are seeking the same small sliver of authors, everyone else gets left behind. This shifts the purpose of the agent to not represent books they think will sell but weeding out authors who don’t meet a criteria that does not include quality of book.
Which is a shame, really. Quite a few agents have forgotten that the author does not work for them, but they for the author. The only way an agent gets paid is if the author gets paid., after all. I know quite a few authors who have hit the NYT bestseller list without an agent because they did not fit the stringent authorial guidelines set by aforementioned agencies. I wonder if the agents who shot them down without reading their works second guess themselves? I know I would. I second guess myself for not investing in Amazon when it went public a long time ago (stupid, Jason… very stupid).
What drives this push towards exclusivity and elitism exhibited by some agents, though? Frankly, I have no idea. A lot of this is supposition on my part, but sometimes I believe it is because us writers and agents alike were oftentimes ostracized when they were younger by cliquish popular kids. They grew up on the outside looking in, so to speak, and later in life, when they hold even the slightest bit of power, they form their own groups as a subconscious retaliation to being excluded long ago. I’m just winging this idea, but I feel as if I am on to something (not “on something”, sheesh. Thank God I caught that one before it went up). Multiple studies seem to suggest that social exclusion as a child by peers leads to more anti-social behaviors later in life.
Can this lead to the sort of exclusion we’re seeing in literary agents today? I don’t know. To be fair, a lot of my dealings with agents has been fairly positive, even though the one I briefly had couldn’t sell a novel that I sold within two weeks of “firing” said agent. The deeper I go into the publishing world, the more I see that writers can be highly successful without having an agent to represent them.
When I say “highly successful”, I don’t mean the authors who have TV series and movie deals. I’m talking about the mid-listers, the authors who have quit their day jobs and write full time as a living. These are the highly successful authors. They don’t care as much about being regarded as the next great American author, but they are very concerned about getting paid for what they do. An agent might help you transition from highly successful to megastar (having a theme park made for your novels, for one example), but it takes hard work and dedication for an author to succeed. Not to mention more than a little luck, because in the end, even the vaunted agents who represent the bigwigs like Rowling, King, and Patterson don’t know who the next breakout star will be.
Now me, personally, I know what I like to read. I sometimes think about what type of book I would look for if I were an agent. Not what the author is, but how good the book is. Note that distinction between what I talked about earlier (with regards to what agents seem to be looking for) and what I would look for. I could care less what orientation, race, sex, non-sex, whatever the author wants to be. I want the story to blow me away. If I’m stripping away 90% of the field because I have preconceived notions of what I want out of the author, then the odds of me finding that novel which will get the blood pumping drastically diminishes. You might even suggest that this will lead to diminishing returns in both quality and royalties, and since agents get paid off of royalties earned by their client, the writer…
You see where I’m going with this. Modern agents, young agents fresh out of college and upon completing their internship, have pigeonholed themselves into believing that the average book reader cares more about the author than the story. Now, I will add here that it is important to have a “brand” as an author, this isn’t the first thing an agent should look for. It’s like the people who are “influencers” on Instagram. Exposure gets you notoriety, but hard work gets you paid.
Historically, more people have died from exposure than from getting paid well.
But really, when was the last time you were told to read a book by someone because of who they were? I know when I was, and I went ahead and read the book (borrowed it from the library). The book was a hot mess, and I couldn’t finish it. If I had paid for it, I would have asked for my money back. I then was recommended a book by a friend who was gushing about this story and how amazing it was. I asked him who it was by and he’d forgotten the name of the author but (fortunately for me) not the title of the book.
You can excite fans by the quality of your book, not by the fact that you once made a hashtag trend. Remind your agents this. Readers, the ones who will stick by you as you go through your dry spells (looks pointedly at David Gerrold and George R.R. Martin), like you not because of who you are or what your politics are, but how good your books are.
One thought on “The Agent Myth”
I don’t think the question of “what readers want” enters into agents minds at all. Agents work for publishers. Not for authors, and certainly not for readers. The publisher signs the check that puts food on the agent’s table.
And publishers have increasingly gotten the idea that they don’t cater to customers, they dictate to them. Because they operate in a very insular bubble where bookstores stock what they are told to stock and reviewers are told what to review (and how to rate it) and they sales figures are based on a very narrow slice of what actually sells, they think that they create bestsellers, not discover them.
And agent is looking for the book that will get a six figure advance from Random Penguin. They could care less if anyone ever reads the damned thing.