Why writers need agents: 4 pros weigh in

Literary agents are still the gatekeepers for authors seeking traditional book deals.

That’s the bottom line, despite all the big changes in publishing, says Candice Fuhrman, an agent with many New York Times bestselling authors in her corner.

“As long as publishers are buying books and paying advances, agents have a role.”

It’s still true

Most traditional publishers will only consider a submission that comes from an agent they know and trust. That’s the way it’s worked for decades and it’s still true.

But the downturn in big advances and the explosion of self-publishing has challenged and shaken up the role of agents. As with everything else in the turbulent book business today, smart agents have had to adjust, experiment, and evolve to keep up with the times.

A special breed

Literary agents are a special breed: they love books and they know how to sell them. Sure, it’s not easy to get an agent. Who said writing a great book or getting published was easy? Agents are always on the prowl, however, to find the next big thing, especially that spectacular debut author who comes out of nowhere and makes a big splash.

But that doesn’t mean all agents agree about the changing marketplace and how their roles are changing with it. No no. I found quite a range in points of view from these four veteran VIPs in the business, whose opinions and insights you’ll find below.  First, their credentials:

Candice Fuhrman has had many #1 New York Times bestsellers ranging from nonfiction to quality literary fiction, including the series YOU: Staying Young, YOU: On a Diet and YOU: The Owner’s Manual, an Insider’s Guide to the Body, by Drs. Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz, all #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Also The Rapture of Canaan, a novel by Sheri Reynolds, a selection of the Oprah book club and #1 on The New York Times paperback fiction list, and many others which you can see at the link.

Andrea Brown was an editor at Knopf, Random and Dell before opening her own agency in 1981. She has sold more than 2,000 titles, from toddler board books to serious, award-winning young adult works, including the bestselling titles Mama Do You Love Me, The Beanie Baby Handbook, Fire on Ice, Dark Fusion, Everlost and Unwind.

Andrea Hurst is a 25 year veteran of the book business whose authors include emerging new writers as well as New York Times bestselling authors. As a literary agent she handles high profile fiction and nonfiction. Her consulting division offers skilled developmental and copy-editing. A frequent keynote speaker and educator, she has written several books herself, including The Lazy Dog’s Guide to Enlightenment and Everybody’s Natural Food Cookbook.

Bonnie Solow was a journalist and film and publishing executive before establishing her own agency in 1997. Since then her agency has celebrated 22 New York Times bestsellers, including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire by Rafe Esquith, Happy For No Reason by Marci Shimoff, and many others.

Are you finding that acquiring editors and their management are more risk averse than in the past?

Candice Fuhrman: Most definitely.  Since the economic crisis began in 2008 we’ve seen a decline in advances.   This is true even for the “high-platform” authors.

Andrea Brown: We don’t see our end of the business (children and YA) as risk-averse. Maybe some of the advances have been lower in 2011, but publishers still want books and are willing to pay for them.

Andrea Hurst: They absolutely seem to be. What used to be a sure deal for us is often rejected.  A writer can have a great platform, polished manuscript, a compelling story, and still not receive an offer.  It can be hard to judge just what publishers want now.

Bonnie Solow: In our experience, if you represent books that promise powerful content along with strong marketing platforms, publishers and editors will compete to acquire them.

Given this climate, how has business been for you?

Candice Fuhrman: We’ve been fortunate to have a string of very good years. But I would say that our clients’ backlist sales were lower in 2011.  The collapse of Borders certainly contributed to that.

Andrea Brown: We had our best year ever in 2011, selling to all the publishers we have in previous years but now also selling to places like Amazon—both ebook and print deals. Perhaps because we specialize in children’s books, have many New York Times bestsellers and award winners, we are slightly immune to many of the upheavals my adult book colleagues are facing.

Andrea Hurst: In 2010, we did see far more sales with higher advances than in 2011. The changes happening at the publishing houses are affecting our productivity as well.  Publishers appear to be taking fewer risks, offering lower advances, and taking longer to payout on a deal.

Bonnie Solow: Last year was a stellar year for our agency. After the financial contraction of 2009 and 2010, in 2011 we found publishers to be highly receptive toward new projects and aggressive in their acquisition strategies. The majority of our projects were acquired via preemptive bids and competitive multi-house auctions.

What’s your prognosis for the future of agents?

Candice Fuhrman: It is closely tied to the future of the major publishers.  As long as they are buying books and paying advances, agents have a role.   We will have to fight harder, however, for a bigger share of electronic rights for our clients.

Andrea Brown: I have been an agent for 30 years and expect to be one representing the best in children’s literature for the next 30 years. Most writers we know still want their book published by the big houses and want those advances. They also still prefer the traditional book deals and paper. Ask me these questions again in 2 years and the answers may be different! But for now, nothing much has changed except we have some new doors that have opened, see increases in royalties now that e-books sales are increasing and have more options for our clients.

Andrea Hurst: Agents have always been the gatekeepers and in many ways will probably continue to be in one form or another.  Those that resist the current changes will miss out on the wonderful opportunities that are available.  Change is happening so fast in this industry, as I see it, you can be a part of creating this new world of publishing or ultimately be left behind.

Bonnie Solow: I wish I had a crystal ball. I certainly believe that certain agents will thrive with the evolution of the book industry. To do so requires staying current on digital developments, expanding one’s network of contacts in the digital publishing arena, and continuing to provide indispensable editorial, legal and marketing support to clients. Authors will need guidance in navigating their writing futures, and experienced, forward-thinking, savvy agents are in the best position to provide that direction.

What’s the most important thing an unpublished writer should do to get an agent?

Candice Fuhrman: Write well! Then seek referrals to agents from other writers who are pleased with their representation.   I would submit to a number of agents simultaneously (even though many agents say they don’t “allow” this).  If you’re good, you’ll have several agents to choose from and you can decide who is the best fit for you.

Andrea Brown: Above all, writers must write fabulous books that are also commercial.

Andrea Hurst: Research the publishing business and present a polished and professional query package.  Also, make sure you are pitching an agent that represents what you write and follow directions on the agent’s website.

Bonnie Solow: Unpublished writers should thoroughly do their homework. Identify agents who represent books that are kindred spirits to yours. Writers should present compelling reasons to a prospective agent why you think he or she would be right for your project. Also, a query should be lean and persuasive and succinctly answer three questions: 1. what is the book about, 2. why does it have to be written, and 3. why are you the perfect person to write this book.

What do you say to writers who are considering self-publishing?

Candice Fuhrman: In many cases I say GO FOR IT!   It’s never been a better time for self- publishing; there are so many options for sell your own e-book.  With most major publishers still only paying 25 percent of net for e-book sales, most writers can do better on their own.  Of course they have to be marketing demons — but that’s the case no matter who publishes you. Although many agents are becoming “jacks of all trades” with self-publishing authors, we could be called something else — such as a publisher or a production person or a marketer.

Andrea Brown: Some authors we’ve worked with have also done indie self-published e-books but don’t seem to make any money with them. The market is overwhelmed with titles — many badly written or edited — and writers find it’s tough to market. We do tell writers that if their book will be difficult to sell the traditional way (or we do not think we can place it), to go ahead and self-publish — but they must do it well and plan to spend lots of time to market.

Andrea Hurst: For many authors, this is a very viable option today.  Indie publishing, especially with e-books, offers a way to get your book directly in the reader’s hands.  It is still important to have a high quality product and market your work. Many agents I know are diversifying what services they offer and how they will work with authors seeking nontraditional publishing options.  Our agency consults with self-publishing authors through the whole process, offering professional editorial, design and evaluation services.

Bonnie Solow: Self-publishing is a viable option for many writers. There is no barrier to entry and authors can enjoy the satisfaction of maintaining full creative control with an accelerated release schedule. For authors who are entrepreneurial and who can access their readers through online marketing, speaking engagements, and so on, self-publishing can be the right route to take. In the long-term I do think agents will be more and more involved in helping clients self-publish… At this stage, however, authors who come to me are not interested in self-publishing. Instead, they want to enjoy the myriad benefits that come with being published by a major house.

____________

What about you?

Are you represented by an agent?  Can you share something about how you found your agent, and the impact representation has had on your writing career?

If you’re an author seeking representation now, how is that going?  Any advice for fellow writers?

And if you’re an author who’s decided to go forward without an agent, we’d love to hear about that decision too.

I’ll watch for your questions here in comments.

47 Responses to Why writers need agents: 4 pros weigh in

  1. John Stanton

    Excellent post…

    One challenge that wasn’t directly addressed was determining an agent’s legitimacy. Most writers can research a number of high profile agents that are the ‘real deal’ (and have produced results) but once you get passed over by the top dogs, you enter the realm of charlatans and wannabes.
    As mentioned in the post, an ideal scenario is a recommendation from another writer. But without that, you just have to really dig into an agent’s work to find out if he will sell your book or go bankrupt and tangle your representational rights in a mess.

    Any hints on separating the freaks from the pros?

  2. Monica Shaughnessy

    I’m a children’s / YA writer represented by Erzsi Deak of Hen & Ink. I initially found my agent when a fellow writer mentioned the brand new agency and told me Erzsi was looking for clients. It wasn’t, however, a personal referral. I sent her my manuscript and, after several months, Erzsi and I finally connected. She signed me after looking at a second novel.

    On my own, I managed to rise above the slush pile with a picture book manuscript and signed a deal with the now-shuttered Tricycle Press / Random House. But this took YEARS of submissions (and it was a real fairy tale). Even though Erzsi’s only been my agent for nine months, she’s gotten my projects read by the biggest names in publishing, some who are, at this moment, seriously considering my work. I second what the ladies above said: if you want a traditional deal, you have to have an agent. Otherwise, you could grow old and die waiting for “your moment.”

    Even with an agent, though, it’s not all rainbows and kittens. Publishers–yes, even in children’s and YA–are becoming more and more risk averse, needing to acquire “sure things” and relying, oftentimes, on their stable of established authors to provide them. You have only to read through the Publishers Weekly Fall ’12 Sneak Preview (children’s / YA list) to see that debut authors represent a smaller portion of the business.

    Have I considered self-publishing? You bet. Have I taken the plunge? Not yet. However, it’s a great alternative to shelving a manuscript that doesn’t sell for one reason or another. I think DIY should be in any successful author’s toolkit (first aid kit?), should the need/desire arise. The hybrid approach, if you can make it work contractually, is relatively appealing. Actually, what’s *most* appealing is being able to make this choice in the first place.

  3. Lisa Tener

    I am a big fan of literary agents and encourage my clients to be represented by an agent. I had two different clients with the same acquisitions editor and when that acquisitions editor left, the one without the agent was told they might never publish his book, but reserved the right to do so at some point (unless he wanted to buy back rights). The other watched her agent negotiate an even better deal with VP who took over negotiations when the editor left. Just one example of many that demonstrate the importance of quality representation.

  4. Amber Lin

    I’m represented by an agent though it’s too soon to say how it will work out or affect my career. Although I did some deliberation (it’s a big commitment!) ultimately it was a no-brainer. I am a do-it-yourselfer in a lot of respects, but not ones with big financial/legal ramifications. Then I still like to be informed, but I can also fall back on an expert.

  5. Alan Rinzler

    John

    I agree that a recommendation from another writer or the agent’s track record are the best ways to evaluate an agent’s legitimacy and potential for success. And whereas I haven’t come across very many charlatans or freaks, there are, as you say, less experienced agents. They may be just starting out or entering the profession as former editors, publicists, marketers, refugees from the music or film business or even lawyers with experience handling intellectual property. These individuals may actually have more time to spend, may be hungrier and eager to sell.

    Ways to judge whether or not to take a chance with them: See if they’re easily accessible, and respond to email or phone calls. Meet in person or via Skype or on the phone, and give them a clear schedule of your expectations. Structure a deal that requires documentation that your book has been sent to acquisitions editors within 30 days. If you haven’t received any offers to publish within six months, part company and seek elsewhere.

  6. SR

    After spending more than a year pitching to agents and editors, I’ve started my own publishing company. Published a few books already (not written by me) and now seriously considering publishing my first novel. I feel I have a bit of a control over the design and printing side of things and am continuing to work on the editing part. However, I am seriously looking for a publicist. By that I mean someone who can help me market the book by reaching out reviewers on the web and in print. Alan, do you have any advice or know of anyone who can provide this marketing service? Thanks!

    SR

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  8. Ren Cummins

    I still believe it truly depends on the goals and resolve and business acumen of the individual author as to whether their objectives can be most effectively achieved by outsourcing their work to others; including reliance upon an agent.

    With all the changes in book accessibility – even the presence of a more intuitive tool such as an effective keyword search in an online bookstore – there is FAR less need for new authors (even less for established authors with their own audiences) to wait until they find an agent who can best serve their goals.

    Most of the most effective and enduring books of our world’s literary history were written, published and sold without the use of a literary agent. Thanks to the new changes to the industry made available by technology, I see a return to that classic process of personal industry.

    They key to it, I believe, is for an author to decide how much of their personal entrepreneurial endeavors they want to farm out to other individuals. Learn the business, know the business, work the business… or pay someone else to do it for you.

    Just my two cents.

    PS – Heard you at last December’s Amazon “Pitch 2.0″ – - – EXCELLENT evening, thank you!

  9. Wray

    Great post!

    A movie producer read a draft of my book and is interested in acquiring the rights to it; though I would still like to have it published. I am currently in the process of querying agents. At the same time I am researching all aspects of self-publishing. I feel it is an exciting time for writers to excel.

  10. Silke Juppenlatz

    I don’t have an agent, but I have two books out (one in paperback), one in edits, one contracted and still being written. (It was kind of exciting to get a contract on proposal)
    I’m toying with self publishing, but I wouldn’t do it without hiring an editor first. There is enough tripe out there which could have benefited from a solid red pen, I don’t need to add to it. :)
    However, I don’t feel the need for an agent. I used to think it’s the be-all and end-all, but not anymore. I’ve submitted and had a few nibbles, but nothing came of it. “Market is wrong” “Not the right time” etc.
    To my mind, those are not valid answers. No one knows what the next big thing is, much as we’d like to. We know what the trends are, but who knows what’ll explode in our faces in three months time?
    There is no risk taking as such anymore. At least not that I can see.
    What I do see is established authors “branching out” (or being made to) into a completely different market and sometimes I wonder what the people behind those decisions are thinking. When I see established authors jumping on bandwagons (like many are doing with YA at the moment) then I have to wonder whose idea it really was. It also tells me that, rather than taking a risk with a new author writing in the “hot” genre already, publishers seem to prefer their big names change their style completely and write the “hot” genre instead / alongside their established one — to benefit from the name recognition.
    One or two jumping on the “hot” genre — fine. Could be coincidence.
    Six at the same time? I don’t think so. That smells too suspicious.
    Nope, I don’t think agents or publishers take many risks on new authors these days. However, part of that could be that the good stuff doesn’t come through the door as much now, because those who write well enough to hit bestseller status on a self published book…probably don’t bother with agents or publishers.
    The industry is moving along at a rapid pace, and I see some traditional publishers struggle to keep up. And keep up they must, or the authors worth publishing will have gone elsewhere — because they can.

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  12. Charley Pearson

    John, et al. — There’s a ton of advice on the web about writing query letters and finding agents, but it can take a long time to seek it out. I pulled together a bunch of links for my local writers group, and you might find them useful in your search. Click my name above and go to the “queries and writer aids” page if you like, to check them out.

  13. Passive Guy

    As an attorney who represents authors, I have had several clients who self-published and generated good sales, then were contacted by well-known agents who monitor Amazon’s best seller lists.

    The agents need to work quickly, however, because I’ve also had clients to took the same path and were contacted by various imprints of Amazon Publishing and received offers that they accepted without an agent.

  14. Barbara David

    I just started the querying process for my YA. It’s the third manuscript I’ve completed–the other 2 got some requests for the full manuscript, but alas, were rejected. Years later, I understand why, and hope I’ve overcome those problems in this work.

    In the meantime, a small independent press published a non-fiction book of mine. The problems with getting it placed in stores, publicizing it, etcetera were enough to convince me never to self-publish.

    So now, I query, and I wait. And I find the waiting miserable.

  15. Alan Rinzler

    Wray

    You’ll definitely need an agent to negotiate with a movie producer interested in acquiring rights to your book. The producer’s interest, moreover, should help you get an agent’s attention, so be sure to mention it.

    Entering the film world requires great care and caution for authors, in my experience. An agent will also be happy to use this film interest as leverage in acquiring a contract with a traditional book publishers, if that’s an option you’d now like to consider.

  16. Taylor Napolsky

    I want an agent so much. I’m almost finished polishing my manuscript and then I’ll start looking. This blog post was very helpful. Thanks!

  17. Jenny Milchman

    This is a wonderful feature–much more than a post, and I thank thriller author Prem Rao for leading me to it.

    I am a soon-to-debut author whose novel recently sold to Ballantine/Random House after 11 years spent trying to break in. Through the years I was repped by three wonderful agents–my third finally sold me. It was a combination of luck, improving my craft, reaching out to people in the community, and the faith and dedication of my agent.

    I hope to be with my agent over a lifetime. In my experience so far, traditional publishing offers thrills and the dreams of a lifetime. I agree that there are many advantages to the self-published route and definitely don’t think mine is the only or best path. There is what is right for A particular book by A particular author at A particular time–and figuring that out is a matter of opportunity and knowing yourself.

    Thanks again for the piece!

  18. Jenny Milchman

    I also just wanted to say to John very quickly that the #1 way to spot an illegitimate agent is if any fees are charged. And some good ways to find legitimates ones are to look in the acknowledgments sections of books by authors you like (avoid bestsellers for the most part) and/or to attend a conference with an agents panel. If you query an agent you meet at a conference, the query won’t be cold, and will likely get a more thorough look.

    And for Barbara–I was either waiting to hear from agents or editors for 11 years. The waiting is miserable just as you say. Author Joshilyn Jackson called it a “special kind of hell”. But it can turn on a dime–on a day–and I will be very much hoping it does for you.

  19. Pete Morin

    Hello Alan. Great post.

    I snagged my agent in a practice pitch session at the first writers conference I attended, Crime Bake in Boston, 2010. Consequently, I argue that the best way to get an agent is to (a) attend conferences that offer an agent pitch session (most of them do), and (b) PERFECT YOUR PITCH.

    A lot of folks can’t afford to do conferences. That doesn’t mean you’re confined to the query process, which for most people seems slightly more promising than a lottery. A lot of agents run competitions and contests. There are dozens of sites that operate as a form of “workshop,” such as Author Salon or Zeotrope.

    Or, you can compose a funny video, sprinkle the link around the internet, and maybe a big time editor will come calling.

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  21. Patrice Fitzgerald

    Why wait? Writing a query letter, emailing the query letter, waiting for the agent to respond, sending in a partial, waiting for the agent to respond, sending in a full, waiting for the agent to respond. Getting representation, waiting for the agent to send out your work, waiting for the publishing house to respond. Getting a contract offer, waiting for the agent to respond. Making the deal, waiting for the first third of your advance, waiting for the editing of your ms., waiting for the second third of your advance, waiting for the book to be published, waiting for the final third of your advance. Waiting for royalty statements 6 months after the money is earned, waiting for your agent to take her/his 15% cut, waiting for the check.

    Or — write a book, get it edited, create a cover, format it yourself or through a paid service, and put it up next week. Get the word out, watch the sales figures in real-time — updated every 60 seconds — get your 70% royalties 60 days after the end of the month.

    Of course, it takes a good book and lots of work to market it, plus luck. I got lucky in December and my political thriller, RUNNING, has now been downloaded more than 27,000 times since December 23. Of course, many of those were free! But I’m at just about five figures in profit after three months of significant sales, and I’m getting my first check by the end of this month.

    Don’t wait. Write and publish. This new world is expanding every day, and there’s plenty of room in the pool. Pay no attention to my mixed metaphors — they’re all wet — just jump in!

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  23. Alan Rinzler

    SR,

    Stay tuned for a future post about book publicists which will address your questions and more…

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  25. Claude Nougat

    Very interesting post, Alan, thanks for sharing the results of your investigation with 4 major agents.At last, we poor struggling writers get to hear their side of the story! And I’m very encouraged to hear that they still view themselves (and act) as “gatekeepers” for authors seeking “traditional deals”. The comments are also interesting and show a wide range of experiences, from the indie who struck success immediately to the hesitant emerging writer still at the query stage.

    My own take on the situation is this: newbies beware! Self-publishing is not all roses and the learning curve is very, very steep. I think (but perhaps I delude myself) that I’m an entrepreneurial, risk-taking individual. So after a couple of years of queries leading me nowhere – it sure looks like a lottery! – I decided to take the big jump into digital self-publishing. I went to BookBaby for file conversion and putting the titles on my book (just the title because I’m a pinter and did the illustration), figuring they were the professionals and I wasn’t. That was my first mistake. It meant I put someone between me and Amazon (to the extent that I can’t get my sales number directly!) so I lost right there a big piece of control.

    More traps opened up under my feet as I tried to market my book. I figured I should (1) write a trilogy because that’s what was selling (vide Amanda Hocking’s Trylle Trilogy) and (2) classify my book in a “hot” genre, and of course like everyone and his uncle I picked YA.

    Nine months later (meaning now) I realized the mistakes I’d made. My book, sure, is a coming of age story but it doesn’t fit the YA audience strictly defined (meaning the 14 to 18 age range). People likely to enjoy my book are adults, mature types, not young adults unless you define them as being between the age of 18 and 25. Then I compounded the mistakes by coming out with the three books at three months’ intervals! I should have waited to finish all three and then uploaded them on that virtual shelf within maximum a month’s time between each – just like Dickens came out with his Pickwick Papers a chapter at a time, yes, but on a monthly basis (since he published them in a monthly magazine).

    Lesson in all this? The learning curve is so steep that one can make very serious book packaging/marketing mistakes and that’s where the experience of a good agent could be really helpful…I know that I now regret I never had the ear of a friendly, experienced agent. She could have helped me and prevented me from mis-marketing my book (it’s not YA strictly speaking: it’s literary – yes, I am humbled having to admit this, but bottom line, being cross genre and highly experimental in form, it doesn’t fit into the classic YA category). Because even those who dare to self-publish need advice!I took note of those agents who are willing to work with self-publishers, thanks for sharing the information, Alan.

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  27. douglas clark

    Thanks for the article. I am curious to know if agents and publishers view self published work with a stigma. Is it better to sit on a book for a long time in the hope that it may get picked up by a large publishing house? Would self publishing a book preclude it from getting picked up? Thanks for any and all thoughts or comments.

  28. Alan Rinzler

    Douglas,

    Many authors self-publish their books in the hope that they can sell enough copies to get the attention and commercial interest of a traditional publisher. Anywhere from 5-10K copies sold will impress them.

    Consequently, very few agents these days consider self-published books as having any kind of stigma. On the contrary, they’re willing and often able to sell a successful self-published book to a traditional publisher.

    This isn’t quick or easy, however, since it still requires that you write a good book with professional editing, and understand the necessity for vigorous self-marketing. But I wouldn’t recommend sitting on a book or suffering through more than six months of rejections by agents and publishers before taking this route.

  29. Kristy Lahoda

    I have a full manuscript and have written in a very unique genre: Christian forensic mystery/suspense. This genre has very few authors and I thought that this would be a great benefit for me breaking into publishing. I went to one of the premiere Christian conferences in the country last year and had agents very excited. One very popular agent even used me as an example in one of his classes–he was telling his students that it helps your platform when you do professionally, what you write about. I have not had an agent take the final plunge, but I do see this as being a huge untapped genre with the potential to be very successful. People LOVE forensics right now. “Bones” is very highly rated as well as “CSI”, etc.

  30. Tim Vandehey

    Regarding self-publishing, I respectfully disagree with the agents that it’s a great option for writers. I’m a nonfiction ghostwriter and many of my authors choose to self-publish, either because they don’t have the marketing platform to get a traditional deal or they have an established sales channel (speaking, for instance) and don’t want to surrender 85% of their royalties. But many are finding out that when you self-publish, no one will take your book seriously. You won’t be reviewed other than on blogs. You won’t get distribution into the major bookstores, especially Barnes & Noble. You won’t get media coverage.

    Self-publishing is indeed more accessible than ever, but for someone who needs distribution and coverage to create the credibility that a book should confer, especially in the nonfiction world, it’s not a great option. Partner publishing is a better choice.

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  32. Bob Mayer

    Not sure of the point– it’s like asking fish if they need water. Agents need traditional publishing, traditional publishing needs agents. The real question is: do readers need the traditional publishing establishment?

    As far as self-publishing, it’s not an issue of distribution for eBooks. In fact, as we see with IPG and Amazon rift, going it with a publisher can be more dangerous than doing KDP yourself. The issue is discoverability, not distribution.

    It is as hard to succeed in self-publishing as it is to get an agent and get a book deal. The difference is that in self-publishing, the author has the burden placed squarely on their own shoulders. In traditional publishing the author must rely on the agent and publisher to do their job. The quality of how they do that job helps determine the fate of the book. The determines of success in self-publishing are the author and the reader. In traditional publishing, the agent and the editor and entire publishing house have a big say. I place no value judgement on that other than to say they are as often wrong as they are right.

    Having been on both sides of the issue, having hit all the bestseller lists in trad publishing with over 45 titles, I much prefer being on my own where I earn, in paychecks, a “very nice deal” every month in Publishers Lunch parlance rather than be at the vagaries of what an agent or editor or publishers thinks might sell this season and getting four checks spread over two years.

    There are many roads to Oz and Oz means different things to many people. My bottom line is authors create the product, readers consume the product. Everyone in between must prove their worth in a rapidly changing marketplace. The fundamental base of power in publishing has shifted, and I’m not sure many are really aware of it. I actually think we will look back on Feb 2012 as the point at which traditional publishing died. It’s just that very few are aware of it.

  33. Alan Rinzler

    Bob,

    As a strong advocate of self-publishing, I totally agree that the balance of power in book publishing is shifting to authors so that with hard work and a strong sense of responsibility, as you point out, they can in fact now do it themselves.

    And yes, the book industry as we always knew it is dying fast. But is February 2012 really the moment it finally expired? Today is Feb. 29th and …let me see… during this month, I personally bought eight books, both e-books and print and, guess what, none of them were self-published.

    I’d also like to add something about the people, many of them friends of mine, who work in traditional book publishing — the editors, publicists, sales reps. Most are hard-working, underpaid former English majors who love books. They read. They believe in the best authors they can find. They’ve been doing the best they could for many years but new technology and the intrinsic dysfunction of an old and tired business finally caught up with them. R.I.P.

  34. Kellie Murphy

    Great interview but there’s one area I’m still curious about. I’ve heard recently of some agencies who are helping guide writers through the self-publishing process. I believe The Knight Agency may have some experience here. I’m wondering if this is a trend we could see more of in the future? Any thoughts?

  35. justin locke

    if i may be so bold, I often encountered the phrases “write well” and “write fabulous books,” but i never really understood what that meant. i slowly learned that good grammar by itself has little market value. so i would add, “write a book that someone would want to read.” there are many fabulous well-written and professionally edited books that virtually no one wants. desire for the content will override even bad writing and editing. desire for the content is what makes people buy books. grammar and style are nice but they are not the primary force driving sales. no amount of editing made my first 3 lousy book attempts saleable. just my 2 cents.

  36. Tara Lazar

    I am a children’s author represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Before being referred to Joan, I had been submitting my work for two years with no success. Within a month of signing with her, I had a deal with the Aladdin imprint of Simon & Schuster, a publisher I couldn’t even submit to as an unagented writer. Joan knows which editors like my style of writing and what editors are looking for. She often gives me feedback after meetings telling me what publishers have asked for so I can think in that direction. She is also an editorial agent, so she offers constructive feedback on my manuscripts and we revise several times before sending them out. She’s an invaluable partner. I know I would not have two deals (with a few more pending) without her guidance and expertise.

  37. Tara Lazar

    As for self-publishing, I’m not considering it at the moment. Most self-published picture books I’ve seen are poorly written and illustrated and just cannot compete with the big publishers at this time. Will that change? Time will tell. E-book applications should be big for picture books, but the traditional publishers are still trying to figure them out. This gives start-ups the chance to really make an impact. But I know I’d be very willing to buy enhanced versions of traditionally published books rather than applications by unknown authors. It’s just a difference in the storytelling quality. Although, I suspect some new talents will break into the market via e-book apps, so I’m on the lookout!

  38. Alan Rinzler

    Kellie,

    You’re right. There is a definite trend. Several agents are now helping to package authors who are self-publishing. Major agencies like Dystel and Goderich, Levine Greenburg, and most recently April Eberhardt and Stephany Evans are all working with authors who want to do it themselves but work with professionals at all levels of representation, editing, design, production, marketing and sales.

    It’s safe to say that more and more agents will be doing this in the near future.

  39. Industry News-March 4 » RWA-WF

    [...] The Book Deal, consulting editor Alan Rinzler’s blog, four agents say they’re essential for authors who want to publish traditionally.  (Read the comments, especially the one by Bob Mayer with a response by Alan [...]

  40. Jill Bonnar

    I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to gather such valuable perspectives. I’m a relatively new author and now that I’ve finished my first book, deciding what to do next is quite scary. I continue to write every day, even if it’s not for as long as I’d like to or if it takes me into the early morning hours. My hope is to find an agent, and I’m happy to see there are still dedicated agents who continue to look for the best.

  41. Shona Patel

    Hi Alan,
    Many thanks for a terrific post. It’s full of useful information. I am surprised to see more and more agents opening up to self publishing. I am one of those authors sitting on the fence wondering whether to take the plunge- it’s like jumping off into a landfill! My agent April Eberhardt (who really believes in my novel) is very keen to get my book out to readers and let them judge for themselves. She says she will do whatever it takes to promote my book, but I am still so squeamish. I hear so many conflicting reports and there is so much controversy about self publishing, so for now, I am just keeping my radar finely tuned to this trend to see which way the wind is blowing. At some point I will have to make a decision because I am beginning to beleive traditional publishing is a very slim hope for debut authors like me. Besides, it is hardly THAT attractive any more, except for the snob value.

  42. Diana Wilder

    I have a question that has been troubling me. I had an entanglement with a notorious, unethical agent. It took me several years to get things straightened out. (I could have saved myself the trouble if I had done my homework in the first place.) I sent two finished manuscripts to a vanity press, which produced a terrible product from the typesetting standpoint. There they sat while other things happened to me. After some years I terminated the relationship, re-edited the books and, thinking to look into marketing them through traditional publishing channels, parked them on Kindle. They aren’t setting any worlds afire because I have not tried to market them. I don’t have the time, and I wanted to see about submitting them to agents and publishers. Should I pull the books? (they have been up six months) Scrap any notion of finding representation? I had understood that there should not be a problem; I’m beginning to wonder if I was wrong.
    (and thank you for a thought-provoking blog and post)

  43. Alan Rinzler

    Diana,

    Yes, you can submit the Kindle editions to agents and publishers, no problem, but they may not be interested unless you’ve sold a substantial number (five to ten thousand each) on your own. That’s why self-marketing is a must.

    Or you can pull the books and get them to a new level with more professional developmental editing, then put them back on Kindle.

    Another option is to write a new book, which may be better and have more chance of success. Then you can either keep the book independent for more control and profit, or try again for an agent and traditional publisher.

    So many options these days! Good luck.

  44. Ashley Zacharias

    The important question is: What value do agents add to the publishing process? The most valuable job that they do is to triage their slush piles. The collection of works found on a self-publishing site like Smashwords does not have the quality of a traditional publisher’s catalog. It has the quality of an agent’s slush pile. When no agent has sorted through that pile of dreck looking for the rare gem, then the reader has to do that job herself. And it’s not much fun. If agents don’t do it, then readers may have to find a way to crowdsource the task:
    http://ashleyzacharias.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/the-crowdsourced-literary-agent/

  45. Julie

    Is self-publishing a death knell for ever being picked up traditionally — a scarlet letter A for Amazon aka “amateur”? In other words, will traditional agents represent writers who’ve self-pubbed and later want to go the traditional route or will they avoid them like the plague, especially if they haven’t done well previously? :-(

  46. Judyth

    As a longtime freelance editor, I’ve been somewhat distressed by the falling editorial standards and rising barriers for authors within conventional publishing. Openings for literary works have always been few and far between but it seems odd that an industry so dependent on sales of popular fiction is so reluctant to spend any money on finding potential bestsellers, investing in editing and marketing, and retaining authors whose books are at least moderately profitable. It seems to me it is this trend that increased the importance of literary agents, perhaps aided by the degree to which publishers have been “converged” into large corporate structures to which books are just one more consumer product.
    (I take no credit for spotting the trend: Norman Mailer famously pointed it out years back, when a panel on book publishing discussed “product” and “sales” without using the word “book.”)

    Having recently become co-author of what may some day be a popular novel, I began looking closely at agents and publishers in that realm for the first time in a couple of decades and have been rather horrified at what I find these days. Though there are many reputable agents still filling their traditional role, it seems many more are entering conflict-of-interest territory. It is understandable that agents, like publishers, are looking for new revenue in the face of shrinking profits from the traditional model. The question is, can an agent still be an ethical agent if he or she is now in the business of selling services to writers, and especially if that includes holding out the carrot of eventual traditional publishing to authors whose work will not be actively sold?

    More and more agents seem to be headed in that direction and, as one can see from Pearson’s purchase of ASI, more publishers are also looking to turn the “slush pile” from a cost centre to a source of new profits by charging would-be authors. In business terms, I dare say it makes sense: there are millions of naive people willing to pay to “self-publish” and this is just one more step in profiting from their submissions. It can even be rationalized by saying these authors are already paying for their (somewhat remote) chance at fame and fortune, often to companies with less expertise in the publishing business.

    I can’t help thinking it’s an agent’s job to help the author connect with the right publisher(s) and negotiate the best possible contract terms. It seems to me there is an inherent conflicr between that role and the one in which the agent sells the author editorial, design and/or marketing services. Should there not be a “Chinese wall” between the two roles? Should the agent who operates on both sides of it (whether as two companies or only one) not be explicit about the fact that buying the services does not necessarily mean the agent will actively advocate for the book?

    As for Pearson’s “we’ll read the stuff you pay our vanity operation to publish” implying that this will somehow give the newbie author a chance at a traditional contract–well, without straying into the unprintable, people need to know the odds against them are astronomical unless their personal efforts lead to sales in the tens of thousands. What gets attention from Big Publishing these days is not quality but dollar signs. Acquisitions editors may fight tooth and nail for the books they believe in but the decisions are ultimately in the hands of the bean-counters. Hence book publishing’s imitation of the model which already fails the movie business: ignoring new work in favour of trying to copy somebody else’s breakout success over and over until the market for it collapses, then trying to replicate something else. It breaks my heart to say this but the only good commercial advice I’ve seen lately for authors is “look at what’s selling millions now and knock off your copy really quickly.”

    The market for your original, carefully polished novel is quite small (unless it can win a major literary award). Sales of five to ten thousand are perfectly respectable even if not enough to interest commercial publishing or keep a literary agent in paperclips. If your book happens to fit within a narrowly-defined commercial genre (or can be adjusted to it), you have a much better chance at attracting an agent and the agent will have a better chance of placing the book.

    Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who polishes your work to professional quality as long as it’s done. Ultimately, the crucial factor is connecting the author to the readers so they can buy the book. Hiring others to do these things will most likely cost more than the author will earn but, if suppliers are carefully chosen, it may be worth the money to build a readership for the next book or a market for courses, workshops, etc. Not all publishers require submission through an agent but all legitimate ones these days expect a fiction submission to be publishable pretty much as is, or a non-fiction work to be well outlined and by an author with demonstrated expertise and a following. Going through a “publish on demand” operation is unlikely to contribute to an author’s success, regardless of whose revenue it provides.

  47. Leigh-Ann Cooper

    I am a new writer and i have completed four books in less than a year. The ideas have flew from my mind to the paper yes i have hand wrote all my books then typed them up. I am currently working on my fifth and the possibility of writing a part two for it. I am looking for an agent as i would like to take the forth book i wrote and have it turned into a movie but i am having trouble with finding the information that i need in order to do that. Being a single income house and mother of three and wife plus working night security and trying to finding a agent willing to take on a new writer is hard.
    I have my first book being published which i took care of myself with no agent but all movie contracts need to be handled by an agent as they won’t look at them.
    Any help or ideas on finding a movie agent possibly in Canada would be of great help.
    Please email with any help that could be offered i would be greatly appreciated leigh200614@yahoo.com

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