Friday, February 11, 2011

Are Literary Agents Required Anymore!

"Hey, don't be fooled by them there used cars. That's just my hobby. My day job is lit agenting for the William Morris Agency!"

Every year a new surprise breakout author rises up from the ashes of literary despair.

In the past we've seen JK Rowling and James Frey fill the bill. But this year’s breakout author is different in some pretty remarkable aspects. Not only is she self-published, yet she works with an established literary agent. Her name is Amanda Hocking and she's a 26 year paranormal YA author who not only has one book listed on the USA Today Top 150 bestseller's List, she's got half a dozen.

Her kick assness on Kindle alone led the Chief Amazon honcho to officially declare "The fall of the paper curtain!" But it leads me to ponder something else. We all know that big publishers are no longer needed in order for an author to succeed in this business. In fact, we now know that authors like Aaron Patterson, LJ Sellers, Scott Nicholson, JA Konrath, and many others have proven that not only do you not need NYC to make money, you don't need a publisher, big or small, in order to make a very good, potential millionaire kind of living. All you need is Amazon and the world's ever growing population of Kindle Kats.

So then, if the world of publishing is indeed witnessing a coup that will have Mr. Simon and Mr. Schuster bunking alongside Hosni Mubarak, what is to be done with the world's literary agents? Are they a necessary ingredient in the overall American literary pie breakout success story? Or has their role become obsolete in the wake of digital publishing, much like the brick and mortar store?

I've had lots of agents in the past. Slick ones, young ones, mature ones, honest ones, and a couple of liars who'd make even the sleaziest Used Car Salesman rock hard. But I had those agents back in the day when you wrote a novel, and the agent took months or even years to shop it around to the Big Six. On occasion I’ve been lucky to nail a sale, but mostly I've been unlucky.

Now, my publishers, StoneHouse Ink and StoneGate Ink, are indie houses reliant predominantly on Kindle and E-Book sales, even though our titles are also published in trade paperback. Since signing with this new publisher, my sales have skyrocketed, and I've hit something like 8 different Amazon bestseller lists. Last week alone, I had three different titles in the Amazon Top 100 Hard-Boiled Bestsellers: THE REMAINS, THE INNOCENT, and my special edition combo with No. 1 Bestselling Amazon Kindle author (and my publisher) Aaron Patterson, “SWEET DREAMS/THE REMAINS.” You might think with this kind of success fueling my career, I might skip the agent altogether and pocket my well-earned 15% on top of a hefty 50% which I earn from every Kindle and E-Book sold.

But, like Amanda Hocking, I choose not to.

Like Amanda, I choose instead to be represented by a literary agent. And a very good one at that.

Why hang onto an agent when the argument for not having one is a strong one (think about what you might do with an additional 15% in your pocket)?

Unlike Amanda, I don't self publish. Not yet anyway. My deals, like the one’s I made with Delacorte Press and Bantam/Dell years ago, are all agented, even if they are with an indie house. All except for one title, that is, which I entered into collaboratively with my publisher, thus saving me the agenting fee on at least one of my re-released books. But besides that one book, I feel more comfortable having my work represented by an industry insider who not only knows contracts, but who can take care of the business end of the publishing life, which then frees me up to write more.

But I’m sure Amanda would agree that today's agent provides more than just contract negotiation and business expediting. Agents are still necessary because:
-they provide manuscript critiques.
-they can place your manuscript not only with your domestic publisher, but they can seek out foreign rights.
-they seek out audio rights.
-they seek out film and TV rights.
-they can get you ghosting gigs if you're into that kind of thing.
-they can play the roll of the 'bad cop' when I require something from my publisher (like a payment), and I don't feel comfortable jeopardizing my friendship with him by having to hound him for it.

Of course there are other reasons why agents remain necessary in this day and age of indie breakout authors and self-published millionaires. Another reason is that you need someone with industry knowledge who is on your side, more than your own mother is. You also need someone to give you a kick in the glutes now and again when you're screwing up.

I'm lucky in that both my agent, Chip MacGregor and my friend and publisher, Aaron Patterson, can provide both of those things for me. Hopefully I reciprocate the relationships with some damn good books. After all, their efforts are allowing me the time and freedom to write. I have an obligation to do it and do it well.

Congratulations Amanda. You will now require a secretary to field all the calls you're going to get from many slick agents who will want to steal you away from your present agent. I suspect you’ll get a call or two from William Morris (been there, done that, hang up on the bastards!) But you seem like an entirely cool woman, not only because of your talent and success, but you also play guitar in a punk band. Is there anything cooler than girl guitar player????

And as for you dear would-be author or established author: If you decide to go with an agent, choose wisely and choose well. And once you choose make certain you sign a contract which will free you from their grips after only 30 days if they end up crapping out on you. Remember, a bad agent is worse than not having one at all. But if you choose one you like…a reputable one signed to all the right agent organizations like AAR…make certain they earn their 15%. After all, it’s quite possible you are going to make that agent very, very, very rich.


  1. From what I can gather, literary agents rose up when large publishers were inundated with MS's that they didn't possibly have the time or patience to go through. They had the grand idea of shuffling the job over to agents whom they promised to pay a fee to IF that wonderful "diamond in the rough" was found.

    Garbage taken out, publishers RARELY if EVER get their "best-selling" authors through agents AND they never have to take the trash out again.

  2. I had an agent, the company "reorganized"...
    I would like to find the right match for me and my work...
    Great article I will look for the guy without the lavender jacket, bedazzzled ring and cigar.

  3. Thanks the comments. I also received quite a few comments on Goodreads, Linked In, FB, etc, regarding this piece. The agent thing is close to our hearts as writers who still pub traditionally, even if it's with new indies...I made the wrong decisions some years ago, bad agents quite literally cost me years...and some of them just looked down upon the writer as that little puppy lapping at their feet. Well, the situation is not reversed and I couldn't be happier. Authors now have leverage again through Indie pubs...

  4. That's supposed to read, the situation is NOW reversed...ha!

  5. Interesting post. I would see a good agent as an asset, the problem (imo) is finding one who will take you on.

    For now my only choice will be to self-publish, and to do that will require me to work (in an unrelated field) to support my writing. I don't mind that, although I wish it were otherwise. I think it might make be a better writer in the long run though.

    As always an insightful post, thanks :)