Recently, I’ve been asked to comment on the role of literary agents, especially given the changes currently taking place in the modern book publishing world.
I’m happy to share my own experience with others, particularly budding authors, because I know where the minefields are scattered on the road to publication.
I get the sense that agents too are suffering. There was a time when a respected literary agent backing you for success was a major stepping stone towards publication. It still can be of course, but I’m not sure it holds quite the same sway it once did.
It has always been hard for writers to get good representation. I was flattered to have two highly respected agents supporting me, and it was deflating to find out that none of the commissioning editors in place at the time were willing to share their enthusiasm. It just might have been plain old bad luck…. wrong person, wrong time etc, but it may also be indicative of the changes taking place.
It is difficult to get precise facts and figures but I’m told that many less publishing deals were offered to new writers in the last five years than in the years between 2002 and 2007. The financial crisis started to hit hard from 2008 and is inevitably a key factor.
My own agent commented on how jittery some commissioning editors had become. ‘Woe betide those who back the wrong horse in increasingly precarious times,’ he said.
Rather like the banks being increasingly prudent over whom they offered loans to, publishing houses were setting more rigid parameters to writers. Those who largely remained unaffected were previously successful authors [though some did suffer] and the ubiquitous celebrities of the day. What is beyond dispute though is that new writers, as a group, suffered the most.
Of course ‘new writers’, almost by definition, possess a risk factor. Everyone by now knows the JK Rowling story… I think the last count was thirteen previous rejections, but it strikes me that something else has happened, something which goes beyond the ‘hit and miss’ culture.
So, what role do agents now have in the direct publishing and digital age? I know other writers are starting to question exactly what their role might, or should be.
When you decide to go down the direct publishing route, it’s difficult at first glance to see how they can help. Book promotion is vital, and if you have the support of a major publishing house it is taken care of. Many writers now have to do this themselves, which eats up precious ‘writing time’, but could agents end up filling this role?
In previous times an agent backed you because they saw a better than even chance of getting a decent percentage of your advance and sales. Of course it was nice to hear that they shared your passions and visions as a writer but let’s not pretend that isn’t the bottom line.
It may be that in the future, if direct publishing becomes the norm, they will have to adapt and offer writers a fresh role… we’ll see. Perhaps agents will, like before, back their own judgement as to who is likely to succeed with their books, but rather than invest their time in trying to convince editors that they have a great client and a great book etc they will spend time trying to convince the public to buy their client’s work direct?
What I have noticed is an increasing number of folk who are offering themselves as ‘book promoters’ on the internet, many via Twitter. They offer to publicise you and your book, for a fee of course. I’m sure there are good ones and bad ones out there. A good one could be a real asset, a bad one just a waste of money… It would be good to know what experiences other writers have had… In any event, might these people occupy the territory that agents could fight for themselves?
My own view is that their involvement would be most welcome. I think the buying public would benefit too. Readers would then know that a new writer who is publishing direct has good agency support, ie that their book has been read and reviewed by professionals in the industry. So when those writers and their agents market their books the readers have more of a clue as to its merits.
If we leave the field totally open to fee based promoters, many of whom may just be cashing in on a chance to earn a quick buck, readers will may remain unaware of the actual quality of their online purchase. A skilful marketeer can ship out a roll of paper before anyone realises there’s actually no writing on it…
…Of course, eventually, word of mouth will spread, and good quality novels will surface, but with agent interjection at an early stage the buying public would at least have a helpful guide.
At the moment, I guess technically, I am unrepresented. If a publisher was to approach me now I’d probably still feel the need to have an agent, as, like many writers I’m sure, I don’t feel particularly adept at negotiating, finance, contracts etc. I’m pretty sure that if I called my previous agent in these circumstances they’d be happy to represent me, but unless that approach is forthcoming there’s not much more they can do.
My own supporters in the agent world were Peter Straus and Broo Doherty. I have nothing but the highest regard for them and they did everything they could. I could tell quite clearly that they were just as deflated as I was, and unable to offer any rational explanation, certainly one that went beyond the subjective.
I only really had two choices, one was to wait for a better financial environment [2018 on the government’s latest forecast], and/or wait until some new commissioning editors took over at certain publishing houses [how long is a piece of string?]. The other option was to publish direct via Amazon etc… It was ‘Hobson’s choice’ really.
So, for Defending Elton, my next crime fiction offering, there seems little point in me securing representation, either old or new. I may as well get my work out there and let it be seen by one and all. If a publisher then becomes aware of it, and thinks it deserving of their backing, then no doubt they’d get in touch. In turn I’d get in touch with my agent… but it seems like an odd state of affairs, and a strange reversal… perhaps indicative of those shifting sands of change?
This is a dilemma that many writers must be currently considering. It would be good to have some feedback from you… any experiences from or about agents, publishers, book promoters etc are all welcome….