Dodging the Agent Bullet

- 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.

So I researched agents once again, put together a shortlist, and started sending out queries. During the next couple of months, every agent whom I queried rejected me.

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.

So I realized that, in addition to being mostly unnecessary in my career, agents had also proved to be very expensive for me.

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!

 

9 comments

  1. I appreciate your stance, Laura, but you are arguing from a place of power. You’re well-known. You’ve sold beaucoup books. You can call an editor at a house that doesn’t look at unagented authors and expect to be listened to.

    I may have sold a number of books (six this year alone) to e-, small and mid-list houses that accept unagented authors, but I’m not well known. Even now when I contact an ‘agent-only’ house I’m given the party line of ‘We don’t look at unagented authors. Period.’

    I’ve queried over 100 agents and no one wants me. So – agents don’t want me, the big houses won’t even talk to me, but apparently the readers like me, because my sales are more than decent at the e-, small and mid-list houses that accept unagented authors. It doesn’t make sense. I can’t figure out how to make that last big step into the bigger, well-distributed houses.

    I don’t want this to sound like a pity-party, or a bad case of the PLOMs, but it is a terrible frustration – Catch 22 at its worst. And, I suspect, there are a lot of other writers just like me – selling, but unable to make that last step.

  2. Janis, you’re reitering a common myth here: “It’s different for YOU, because of x, y, z!” Nope.

    As stated in the first paragraph, I sold 8 books on my own before I hired my first agent. I was a newcomer with no contacts, no name recognition, no experience, etc.

    I also sold my 9th book on my own, because my first agent, who took me on when I supposedly had “power” you speak of, dumped me after 4 months.

    Okay, fine I was a “category romance” writer back then, where havingg an agent was not “essential.” People back then nonetheless told me that you got better deals even at Harlequin if you had an agent. I got agent #2… and immediately discovered this wasn’t true. And my income went DOWN then, because my agent didn’t get me any more money (or any better terms) than I’d been getting on my own–but now I was paying her 15% of my income.

    I fired her and subsequently moved on to agent #3, because EVERYONE said I HAD TO have an agent if I wanted to sell “single title” books (IOW, in the regular market, out of the Harlequin/Silhouette conglomerate). Well… actually, since #3 wasn’t interested, -I- sold my 13th book to a regular publisher . At a time when, according to everyone I knew in the biz, I certainly did NOT have a position of power. But I had persistence. (Then #3 agent insisted I pay a full 15% commission on that deal just for #3 to accept the opening offer and boilerplate terms after I’d done all the legwork.)

    I’ll skip over the next few years, which were a mixture of agent sales and my own sales, and cut to the months I hired #4. I was most certainly not in a position of “power” then. My only new novel in the stands in the past 3-4 years had been badly-published and had dismal, career-killing sales figures; the publisher who had done this to my career promptly canceled my contract and dumped me; and then I lost my agent #4. (Technically, I fired her. But that’s a lot like sayin, “I filed for divorce after discovering my spouse had moved out.”) And in my hunt for agent #5, everyhone I queried turned me down. I was in a terrible career position, not in this position of “power” you’re assuming.

    If I’ve got a “position of power” now, it’s preciserly because I turned my career around then. As I had on other occasions.

    While it’s not the universal experience, my experience with agents is nonetheless depressingly common: I found time and time again that I couldn’t count on them–and I hear all the time from writers who are discovering the same thing and, like me, finally quitting the agent-author business model (or at least thinking seriously about it).

    In fact, never mind COUNT on them–I usually couldn’t even get agents to submit my books to publishers. That’s a big part of the reason I made most of my book sales myself even BEFORE I finally quit the agent-author paradigm.

  3. Thank you for clarifying. I can only speak definitively from my own experience – which is dismal. I’ve had four agents myself, all in the years before I had to quit writing for over ten years due to an illness in the family. One died, one quit the business and one – if I remember correctly – is now in federal prison on fraud charges. The fourth never sent out my books. The majority of my sales I’ve made myself.

    Which still leaves my main question unanswered. How does a writer, with good books and decent sales, break through that ‘we don’t look at unagented authors’ wall? I’m not being belligerent or argumentative – I just want to know.

    Thank you for being so open – I appreciate your insight.

  4. Janis, that’s a subject that could fill several more blog posts–and often hsa! For starters, I suggest you check out the “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing” series on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, specfically the set of blogs about agents and working without an agent. (Easy to find. Go to this link, then scroll down to “Part Three,” where you’ll see about a dozen posts with “Agent” in the title. Read the discussions there, too, not just the blogs: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?page_id=860 )

    I’d also suggest you check out my Writers Resources Page:
    http://sff.net/people/laresnick/About%20Writing/Writers%20Resource.htm

  5. At the heart of this excellent column is a superb piece of advice:

    Do the math.

    There’s nothing better for an artist (of any persuasion) than hard-headed empiricism. What did I do? What was the result? Never mind conventional wisdom, look at what’s actually happening.

    I second the recommendation of Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, because he gets into the dirty details: intellectual rights (your real source of money), royalties (and how they’ve traditionally been obfuscated), and the frantic pace of change just now.

  6. Fascinating and a very informative post, Laura, I really appreciate this! I have also had the frustrating experience of trying to get agented and getting nowhere…for a full year! Now I’ve given up and self-published on the Kindle etc but it’s not really what I wanted. I’m old-fashioned enough to want to get published by a traditional publisher because I still believe in their gatekeeper role (even if Konrath does not!)

    I’ve never tried contacting editors directly and shall certainly look up that possibility now (shall do sofor my recently completed novels – not the one I published on Kindle which was in any case an adaptation in English of a book I published in Italian in 2007)

    So many thanks for the advice!

  7. Hmm..this is very interesting. I’m brand new at this. I’ve had short pieces published and had my own newspaper column for seven years, but have never tackled writing a book.

    This is the second article I’ve read that tells me I don’t need an agent. I think I do since I know NOTHING about book publishing. I’m feeling a bit vulnerable, though, for the same reason. Not sure what to do.

  8. Caryl,

    Your instincts are right, in the sense that self-education is crucial for anyone who wants to work in this field. I recommend you start by exploring my Writers Resources Page, which has links to dozens of good websites, blogs, etc. I think if you set a goal of thoroughly exploring one link per day on that site for the next few months, you’d feel a LOT more informed at the end of that project.

  9. Here’s that link again, btw. My Writers Resources Page:

    http://sff.net/people/laresnick/About%20Writing/Writers%20Resource.htm