- by Laura Resnick
It was five years ago this month that I decided to quit the author-agent business model. Since then, I have managed my own writing career without a literary agent, submitted and sold my books to publishers myself, and retained the services of a literary lawyer to negotiate my publishing contracts and to assist me with business problems if/when needed. (As it happens, the only business matters for which I have needed my lawyer’s assistance in the past five years were all for problems either created by or exacerbated by my former literary agents.)
In autumn 2006, after four failed agency relationships over the years, I really didn’t want another literary agent. But the conventional “wisdom” of my profession was that a writer “has to” have a literary agent and that any writer who does not have one is making a huge and very foolish mistake.
I was not as unhappy about this as you might think, partly because my heart wasn’t really in this query process, but mostly because I had passed the time, since sending out my initial queries, by doing some math that proved to be very eye-opening.
Over the course of my career, up until then, I’d made 32 advance-paying book sales. I had made 25 of those sales myself, only relying on agents to make 7 sales for me over the years. (Although I had queried agents early on, the first time I got one was after I had already sold 8 books on my own.)
This certainly suggested that, conventional “wisdom” notwithstanding, I really didn’t need an agent to sell my books.
Moreover, of the 25 sales I had made myself, I wound up paying an agency commission on 7 of those sales, too—because on some occasions, I was an agency client while selling my books myself. Agents often expect to be cut into a client’s deal for a full commission at that point (this can occur even in instances where the agent previously refused to represent or submit the project). And rather than earning 15% of my income with savvy negotiation by stepping in at that point on those 7 deals, actually, the agents made few (or no) changes to the opening $ offer and the boilerplate contracts.
The most eye-opening math of all, though, was that I had made 9 of those 25 book sales on my own specifically with books which various literary agents (those whom I queried over the years, as well as those whom I hired) had declined to represent. Moreover, additional book sales arose for me out of those “unmarketable” projects, since those sales often established ongoing professional relationships with publishers or editors and also built my professional profile.
So the inescapable conclusion, I realized in December of 2006, as I received more agency rejections, was that… if I had ever listened to literary agents… I would not have writing a career at all, let alone having the full-time, self-supporting writing career I’ve had all these years.
At that time, I stopped querying my shortlist and quit looking for another agent. And things have been going so well since then, my only regret is that I didn’t come to this decision at least five years earlier. I’ve been writing and selling books since then (including the project that those various agents in 2006 declined to represent). I have also been enjoying my career far more, too, since I shed literary agents from my business model—as well as earning better and getting better-negotiated contracts since then, too.
Finally, although I had thoroughly researched the agents who were on my shortlist in 2006 (not all of whom I wound up querying, since I came to my senses before getting through them all)… It’s apparent to me that I would just have wound up hitting still more shoals if I had stayed in the agent-author business model. One of the agents on that shortlist, for example, has since then entered into such blatantly egregious professional practices that I would definitely have had to fire this agent within a couple of years if I had become a client back then.
Another of those agents has since then behaved so unprofessionally that this agent’s submissions are no longer accepted or read by at least one major house in my genre. In another instance, the agent has been agency-hopping ever since then (currently an employee at agency #4) and has developed a terrible reputation. Two of the agents on my list have since lost the same clients who originally recommended them to me, because the agents were so busy promoting themselves that they weren’t doing their clients’ business anymore. And so on and so forth.
Yes, there are several agents on that old shortlist who are still respected and doing a good job… But, overall, I feel I really dodged a bullet when I collected only rejections rather than acceptances on my final literary-agent-hunt five years ago.
Happy Holidays to all!