The Author-Agent Business Model

- by Laura Resnick

typewriter

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 Questions(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 aPhone 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 Notepad1agents’ 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.
DNFootFuscia

9 comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. I wish most other writers were one-fourth as honest as you are with your tales from the trenches.

  2. To survive without an agent, a writer needs to understand the business quite well, and she needs to write in markets where the non-agented can get their books to editors without an agent.

    Even with an agent, the writer needs to educate herself because no one cares as much about her career as she does.

  3. “…and she needs to write in markets where the non-agented can get their books to editors without an agent.”

    Which, as some of us were discussing on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog a few weeks ago, is essentially -every- market. There are a number of markets that have a “no unagented submissions” sign on the door, but unagented writers regularly get read by and sell to these houses, too.

  4. Hi, Laura. Excellent article. LAst year my first bovel sold to a small Canadian press and my collaborator and I ended up epresentingourselves. I utterly hated the process, especially the negotiating money and rights, but in theprocess I learned somuch.

  5. Thanks for the great post.

    I’m on my third agent, finding for the third time agents who are very interested initially lose interest when first book does not sale. His responses – initially within one day – are now taking longer and longer.

    I’m glad I’m transitioning to a genre where more houses seem open to direct submission, because I’ve found agents just as unreliable and ultimately useless as you have. I hate that so many publishers won’t see submissions unless they’re through agents nowadays.

  6. Laura, a lawyer sounds like the best way to go — but how do you manage foreign sales? That is, an agent with overseas contacts is the only way I know of to get your book sold in foreign markets, which obviously is an important revenue stream for any writer.

    Thanks!

  7. Craig, the same way you manage US sales. The foreign rights market has changed drastically, due to the electronic age. There’s no need to have a US agent anymore to make foreign rights sales.

  8. Groo wrote: “finding for the third time agents who are very interested initially lose interest when first book does not sale”

    YEP. This is a very, very, VERY typical experience of dealing with literary agents. I experienced myself with every agent I worked with, and I hear anecdotes exactly like this virtually every week–often from writers with active, busy careers who continue selling steadily after dropping literary agents from their business models.

  9. Thank you for confirming how crazy hard it is to find a decent agent. I get sick to my stomach at the thought of hiring an agent after the merry-go-round I’ve been on with the ones I’ve had communications with since 2009. (Another long horror story.)

    I just received a phone call from a movie producer that they are mailing me a contract to option two of my books to film. I will be looking at hiring an entertainment lawyer for a flat fee. Thanks for confirming this route will save me headaches.