- by Laura Resnick
Like many writers, I started my career without a literary agent, because I couldn’t find a legitimate agent willing to represent me when I was an aspiring writer. Then, after I sold eight books on my own, I went agent-hunting again. And now that I had demonstrated on my own that I could sell books steadily, there was a lot more interest in me among literary agents.
In retrospect, that was my first real-world lesson about literary agents: They don’t like heavy lifting.
The agent whom I wound up hiring, a very successful one who is still quoted often in publishing trade journals, sent my new book proposal to five publishers. They all rejected it. He immediately dumped me. I had been a client for all of four months.
My next agent, who was a very reputable professional, was als0, it turned out, very volatile. Unable and unwilling to deal with this as a client, I ended the association after about a year, gulping down antacids while enduring the hostile response to my decision. I subsequently heard from many people for the next two years about the vicious gossip the agent was spreading about me.
My next agent was successful and highly respected. There were ways in which this association was very fruitful, and ways in which it was very stressful and frustrating. Our differences increased until I eventually decided to leave. I then sold five books on my own that the agent had not liked or wanted to represent (hence, some of my frustration as a client).
I hired my next agent, someone with an impressive client list, to negotiate three of those book sales. Here was another real-world lesson: An agent’s initial enthusiasm for you is unreliable if you’ve queried that agent while you’ve got a good book offer already on the table. Collecting the commission on that deal wound up being the most interest this agent ever showed in my work; and when things started to go south in my career and I needed an engaged and involved literary agent, I could scarcely even find this person. So I left.
I queried a number of agents after that… but the publishing market was by then (and still is) depressed and in turmoil, and I was a writer having career problems. So—surprise!—no one was interested in representing me. So I did what I had done many times before: I researched the market and sent out submissions to editors myself.
Within a month, I received (and subsequently accepted) a good offer from a major house. Later on, another major house also offered me a contract. By the time yet another major house expressed interest in getting me under contract, I had to say, sorry, I was very interested, but I was just too heavily-contracted to commit to an additional publisher at that time (and, indeed, that is currently still the case).
Keep in mind, I was dealing with all the above business myself because I was a writer who couldn’t get an agent!
All these various experiences, as you may imagine, convinced me that, for whatever reason, the agent-author paradigm is not a business model that works well for my career, and so I decided not to seek another agent. And that has so far (two years on) continued to be a good decision for me.
Since I can’t see into the future, I won’t say that I will “never again” work with an agent; but I can’t currently imagine the scenario in which I would choose to hire another literary agent. This is because my own individual experience (not the universal experience, I know; but my experience) is that when things are going well, I’m fine without an agent, and when things are going badly, I can’t count on an agent. Overall, those two consistent and recurrent experiences ensure that the agent-author partnership is a business model that I’m no longer interested in for my own career.
I now have a literary lawyer who negotiates the clauses of my contracts for me, for an hourly fee (which, as it happens, costs me drastically less money than my agents’ commissions did), and the result is that I’m now getting the best-negotiated contracts of my career. She is also available to assist with me any professional issues or problems that arise for which I feel I need legal advice.
I don’t preach a philosophy wherein no one should work with an agent. Indeed, many writers loathe business the way I loathe mechanics, and so they should have a literary agent, just the way I have to have a professional mechanic who deals with even the most superficial maintenance tasks on my car.
Instead, my position is that—despite the conventional wisdom of our industry which says that a serious career novelist must have a literary agent, and that any writer who doesn’t have one is making a huge mistake—in fact, self-representation is sometimes the right choice for some writers. Moreover, since it’s so hard to get an agent in the current market—for established career novelists, as well as for aspiring writers!—I think it’s really important to get this message out there to all the writers who may be feeling that they can’t start or continue their careers because they don’t have that one supposedly “essential” ingredient, a literary agent.
In any case, whether you’re actively looking for an agent, or thinking about handling your own business (at least for now) because you can’t get an agent yet, or (like me) have decided that the author-agent business model just doesn’t work well for you, I recommend that you visit The Writers Resources Page of my website. It’s full of personally recommended books, blogs, websites, workshops, and services that are useful to writers, whether they’re mid-career professionals or newcomers.