Swimming with Sharks?

Since I pointed at Kris Rusch’s posts on freelancing and surviving the slings and arrows of jealousy, I should also speak a bit about her husband Dean Smith’s equally fascinating posts on agents. Click here to see post two, click here to see post three. Especially the comments. Laura Resnick has been dive-bombing the comments all throughout the week and it’s like getting fantastic wisdom from several professionals, all in one blog.

1) I’m much too much of a noob in the industry to have bothered with an agent. Yet.

2) Conventional wisdom implies that I must absolutely, positively, at all costs get an agent if I am to have any hope whatsoever of having a career as a novelist.

But is that the only path? Get an agent, or else?

Seems like a good deal. For agents. As the default gatekeepers, agents stand to come out on top if they’re the only aperture between writer and market. They will always claim a cut, and they will always claim they know more about what the publishers want than any writer working for them, because the agents have access to the publishers and editors that most writers do not.

Still, the power dynamic of the agent-writer relationship — as it currently exists — hasn’t sat well with me. From an entrant’s standpoint. Agent as boss? Agent as teller, not doer? Agent as editor-before-the-editor? Agent as payer?

Dean Smith is fond of pointing out that writers — not agents, not editors — are at the top of the money pyramid in publishing. Without authors to provide the material, neither agents nor editors have anything to work with, hence nothing to sell, and thus the business seizes up. So agents and editors depend on writers to supply product. So how come the people at the top of the pyramid are so often relegated to the bottom, in terms of power and authority? Authors, groveling for contracts, groveling to get an agent, just generally letting themselves be walked on and walked over because, “This is the way it’s done,” and most authors are too desperate to get published and keep publishing, that nobody stands up and calls bullshit.

Mind you, I am not an agent-hater. I am also not an editor-hater. I just hate how both agents and editors have allowed the submission process — the slush funnel, as it were — to deteriorate to the point it’s at right now.

Once upon a time, the editors did their own heavy lifting. The slush came to them, they parsed it, picked what they liked, made offers, and writers either cut their own deals, or brought in people to cut the deals for them, and that was how it worked. Now, the editors have erected the additional barrier that they won’t accept unagented novels, thus much of the slush has been pushed off onto agents, who are now acting as editors without pay, demanding re-writes or flat our refusing books — again, without pay.

Which basically defies Heinlein’s Rules, if you follow those, in that the writer must not re-write unless to editorial order. Note the emphasis on editorial. Not agentorial. Why spend time or waste effort re-writing something to the tastes and preferences of someone who cannot pay you? Especially when no agent can guarantee anything. All agentorial re-write requests are guesswork: they suspect a novel might do better if the author re-writes it the way the agent suggests. And for many cases, the agent(s) might be right. But I also suspect that, as in Hollywood with its producers, the agents are half wrong as much as they are half right. How can they be sure a given editor will or will not like something? Especially when editors so often don’t even know themselves what they will and will not like, until they see it first?

So, in a nutshell, the “system” is broken. Too many agents getting in the way of the writers, instead of doing what they ought to be doing: pushing the manuscripts forward to the editors, and letting the editors edit. Let them make the call, if they like it or not. The agent is there to work out the deal after the editor buys. Or so a logical model would seem to dictate. But the way it is now, agents seem to be doing all the unedumacated guessing and since most agents aren’t writers anyway — if they could write, they would write — how do they know how to “fix” a manuscript, especially if their suggestions are of the Aspirant Wank variety: suggestions based purely on personal taste and preference, not caring at all about the actual intended story goals or plotting of the writing who did the work.


WRITER: Here is my book, “Space Babes from Planet G-String.”
AGENT: I don’t like it, re-write it.
WRITER: How do you mean?
AGENT: This novel won’t sell unless it’s about Orcs and Wizards.
WRITER: But I didn’t write about Orcs and Wizards.
AGENT: Editors only want books about Orcs and Wizards.
WRITER: Maybe they’ll like a Space Babes book too?
AGENT: No, they won’t. Re-write it.
WRITER: What if I don’t want to?
AGENT: Do what I tell you to do or you won’t get in front of an editor.
WRITER: Look, I write about Space Babes!
AGENT: I don’t like Space Babes. Space Babes are sexist. Orcs and Wizards please.
WRITER: Isn’t your job to help me get the best deal, at time of signing, instead of telling me what you like?
AGENT: I like Orcs and Wizards. They are awesome. I’ve sold five clients’ novels to editors, all about Orcs and Wizards. That is what sells. Re-write the book!

Laura Resnick made a super-outstide-the-box suggestion: instead of letting the agent be the ‘aperture’ piece, go directly to editors yourself, and when it’s time to sign the deal, bring in a literary or intellectual property lawyer. Someone who will have no conflict of interest — relationships to editors and houses trumping relationships to authors, as is the case too often now — and will take a fraction of a percentage, compared to agents. And offer — quite possibly — far more sound advice, at time of signing, than an agent could. Because the lawyer is trained to understand contracting, and will know how to modify language or explain conflusing clauses, where agents have no training — indeed, there is no bar exam to be an agent — and you have no clue whether or not the advice you’re getting from the agent is good, bad, so-so, or pulled entirely from the agent’s ass.

I know, I know, I am hitting the agents pretty hard with this talk. I am borderline rude about it. But really, if I were a good agent — one who correctly understands the relationships between agent and publisher, editor and writer, agent and editor, etc, — I’d not be too thrilled with the many, many, many, many bad stories many pro writers can tell, about agents et al having their heads lodged in what we in the Army like to call, the Fourth Point of Contact. I would consider it a blemish on the profession. I would be doing all I could to distance myself from these kinds of things — these kinds of derelict agents — and I would be doing all I could to prove to writers — not editors, writers — that I was a professiona, I knew what I was doing, the writers’ business was valuable to me, and I had a professional interest in protecting and keeping that business.

As it stands, agents appear to be trying to do too much, and in the wrong ways, and acting not only contrary to the best interests of writers, but editors as well. Not sending material to editors that editors may want to buy, in spite of how the agent feels. Sometimes even refusing to send something even the editor and the writer have both agreed the editor wants to see, because the agent thinks he or she knows better. And so on, and so forth.

As a noob with two pro-level fiction sales, my opinion matters not a bit to the Players in the industry. But I just want to go on record and say that I’m not a fan of the “broken” aspects of the editor-agent-writer triangle. Yes I am sure many editors and agents have seen so much awful slush they are convinced that writers — as a group — are the worst people in the world to be making judgments about how things ought to work. I am sure when you’ve seen one poor manuscript too many, it’s a natural instinct to just assume that writers et al don’t deserve to be in the drivers seat. How could they? When they are so clearly inept??

But what about the agents’ ineptitude? Who holds the feet of agents to the fire when they’re lacking information, making bad calls, acting contrary to best business practice, or otherwise doing poorly by the very people they ought to be helping get ahead?

I think Dean — and Laura — are right. Agents are not the only way. I personally may request the services of one some day. But I am not going to treat agents as the Single Path to publication as a novelist. And I am certainly not going to allow an agent to think of him or herself as my boss. Any money the agent makes will be because of my writing, and my writing is what I am most interested in. Not the ego of the agent. Not the agent’s narcissism, nor kleptomania, nor overinflated sense of importance — indeed, vital necessity — to the industry. There was a time in publishing before agents. People still made wads of money. The books still got to the readers. As Dean and Laura have emphasized several times, the flowchart of publishing goes like this:

publishing flowchart

That’s how it’s been, going back to the bestsellers and commercial fiction writers of the 19th century. Nowhere in there has the job of AGENT every been vital to the business. And there is no reason that I, as the top person in that flowchart, should allow someone who isn’t even on the flowchart to stop, halt, hinder, manipulate, or deny my career. As Dean and Kris and Laura and others preach: every freelancer is their own boss and their own manager, nobody else should do it for them. In fact, any time writers let someone else manage their careers for them, it’s like playing with fire, and the examples of people getting burned are so numerous, it just seems like common sense — to me — that writers of the 21st century ought to do a little more to “take back” what is theirs, put down some business practice guidelines for themselves and how they operate, and basically not rely on the “broken” system to help them. Because it won’t. It hasn’t, if the horror stories are any indicator.


4 thoughts on “Swimming with Sharks?

  1. I agree with everything you said here Brad. Of course, I’ve been reading the Dean/Laura discussion on Dean’s site, so that shouldn’t be a suprise. 🙂

    I do want to point out that if you actually check the submission guidelines at the publishers, most of them actually don’t even say “no unagented submissions allowed.” I recently sent out my sci-fi novel to about twelve publishers. Only two of the ones I researched didn’t allow direct submissions without an agent. Granted they were two of the big six, but there are tons of smaller publishers that are happy to recieve your MS. without a pesky agent involved.

    I too plan on getting an agent or IP laywer for the negotiation phase, but I’m done sending to agents to get a publisher. Direct to the source!


  2. No question, agents should not be blocking books. If a writer writes a book that his/her agent can’t/won’t/doesn’t want to sell, the writer should be free to find a way to get the book in front of editors, either by him/herself or through another agent. When/if I get an agent, I intend to make that part of the representation agreement.

    Refusing to use an agent to find a place to publish your book is as dumb as insisting an agent has all the answers. If you find a publisher before you find an agent, great. If you find a (good) agent before you find a publisher, use the agent to find the publisher. If you aren’t happy with said agent’s work, dump him/her/it.

    It’s the same as real estate agents, really. Can you sell your house yourself? Sure. Can some realtors sell it faster or for a better price? Not every agent or every house, but yes, it’s possible. That doesn’t mean the same realtor can sell your next house or your oceanfront property in Kansas or that bridge in Brooklyn.

  3. Thomas, I’ve heard it said that even the houses who don’t take unagented sumbissions will still read manuscripts sent to them, because they’re worried about letting good projects walk out the door. It’s happening too often, in the current agent-as-aperture system.

    Oso, my general sense of it right now is that I personally don’t know enough about the agent pool to be able to pick someone competent, and I also don’t have enough name recognition or credits to attract a known-quantity agent, like Al Zuckerman and his agency, who doubtless get to be choosy even with Name authors. I could be wrong about that, but that’s my sense.

    So I see my submission priority as being primarily to the publishers, and if/when the offer rolls in, then I can try to phone up an agent, agency, or as suggested by Laura Resnick, an intellectual property lawyer who can help me understand the contract, make changes, etc.

    Right now, the entire agent ‘scheme’ scares the hell out of me because as Dean and Laura have pointed out, there are a hundred different ways an agent can totally screw with a writer, all kinds of conflicts of interest, etc. Seems like the blind leading the deaf leading the dumb.

    As long as no agent can guarantee me a sale, I don’t want to focus on agents and hope they “sell” for me. Especially when even the dummy agents get flooded with slush and I am liable to get all kinds of idiotic runaround, even with the nobodies and the scammers.

  4. I checked my notes and the two that I couldn’t find a way to send my MS were Eos (Harper Collins) and Pyr (Promethius).

    If anyone has found where to send the MS. to these two, I’d be forever grateful. I searched their sites, but an address was not found.

    And just curious Brad, do you have a novel that you’re currently sending out?

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