As I said with the last series of Life After Returns, I am a fan of the History Channel series Life After People. So I thought it might be fun to take a look at some areas of the publishing industry in that format. All of what I am saying here is just my opinion of what might happen. Remember that. Comments are welcome.
To start off with, any writer at any moment can simply fire his agent and have a “life after agents.” But I’m going to pretend that agents suddenly didn’t exist in the entire industry. No reason why, just that the job is gone, vanished into thin air.
Now understand, I have some good friends that are agents and I am in no way saying they should vanish. Just saying they suddenly are looking for a new job is all.
So, in the same way the History Channel looks at things, I’ll start one minute after the job vanishes and go from there.
Life After Agents: 1 Minute
No one would really notice except the former agents suddenly realizing they are looking for a new job. Sort of silly to start at one minute, but it gives me a moment here to explain what agents actually are in this business.
Agents are employees of writers.
Now, let me say that again simply because many, many newer writers are confused at this moment in time about what an agent is. An agent is a writer’s employee. They are not a salvation, they are not a god to be worshiped, they can’t write you a check for your book, and they earn all their money from you. They are an employee. Nothing more. They work for you and do what you ask and if they don’t, like any employee, they should be fired. They do not run your business, you do.
Agents are not your editors. I know this part has really been confused lately, so let me say that again as well. Agents are not your editors. An editor works for a publisher, an agent works for you. An editor can fight for your book in editorial and sales meetings and put good covers on them and get your book published and write you checks. An agent can do none of that.
What does an agent do? They help you fight for a better contract with a publisher. Agents can say things on your behalf that are hard for you to say, so in essence, they are a negotiator. They do not sign the contract, you do. They just help you, but you need to understand the contract better than they do because you are signing it. Often an agency will have already negotiated the basic boilerplate with a big publishers, so you get that as well depending on where your agent works.
An agent fights for checks from the publisher when they are late. Agents can help at certain levels with dealing with the publicity departments and such. Agents get your books into Hollywood and to overseas agents. If you want them to, an agent will even will mail a book for you to an editor or editors that you tell them to.
A personal aside here. I have sold over 90 novels. No agent has ever sold one of them for me. I sold every one myself, but had good agents on the contracts and secondary rights and such.
A little history of agents in general. In the early part of the last century, they didn’t exist in the book publishing industry. They did exist in Hollywood and in theater in New York, but not in books. Editors and writers worked directly with each other.
Into the late 1930s and early 1940s, book and story agents started to drift over from the Hollywood and theater side, and a great deal from the early days of television. Authors had agents to deal with Hollywood or television and often the agent would just deal with the book contracts as well. And authors who lived outside of the New York area could get their books delivered by hand if they had an agent who lived in New York.
From the 1950s until about 1990, agents negotiated contracts and chased the money and didn’t do much else, maybe mailing books for clients who wanted them mailed. When I sold a book, I would tell the editor my agent’s name and then call my agent and tell the agent that the editor would be calling to negotiate the terms. A very simple system that most of us long-term writers still use just fine.
Life After Agents: 1 Hour
From the former agents side, they would be making calls, trying to find jobs as editors or in sales or maybe starting to think about writing that book they had never had the time to write before. Just as with factory workers in a shutdown car plant, they would be looking for work.
Long term professionals like me would just shrug and find the name of a good intellectual property lawyer to hire when we needed one to look over and negotiate some contracts.
Beginning writers would be in a complete panic. More on why later.
Publishers would start having meetings, as they tend to do just about all the time anyway. Why would publishers and editors care? Well, again I need to back up and give some history as to how we got into this position.
In the early part of the last century, writers would deliver their manuscripts by hand to editor’s officers in New York. When the editor’s door was closed, it meant they did not want to be disturbed or were not in the office, so the writer who had just hauled his manuscript across the city on the subway would toss the manuscript through the window over the top of the door. The bar over the top of a door is called a transom and thus the term “over the transom” was born. Writers tossed their books through windows to get editors to read them. Not kidding.
The door was closed. Writers found a way around that problem to get a manuscript into an editor’s hands. Keep that thought in mind.
When an editor pushed open his door after coming back from lunch, it would pile the manuscripts up into a white and black pile that looked a lot like the dirty slush off of the street, thus the term “slush pile” was born.
Into the 1960s, the publishing industry started to explode and often as editorial departments got bigger, they would combine the slush pile in rooms. These slush pile collections lasted through the boom of the 1970s and into the eighties when publishers starting putting on guidelines “no unsolicited submissions” to try to slow the wave of garbage headed to them.
If you have never read slush for a magazine or book publisher, you have no idea how much complete garbage is sent in. A manuscript done in manuscript format, with an exciting opening, jumps out of the piles. Hard to believe, but completely true.
Now, for anyone with a half a brain, this “closed door” was easy to go around. You met the editor at a conference and talked to them about your book, or you sent them a query letter and they said “Sure, send me the book” if they were interested and the book seemed to fit their line. (Today you can still meet editors at writers’ conferences and have this same system work just fine.)
But then into the late 1990s as houses merged and the distribution system collapsed, editors were forced to take on much more and they found that too many writers were figuring out ways around this “closed door” so they came up with a new one to keep the mass of junk out.
They simply put on their guidelines “No unagented submissions.”
To put it simply, the publishers simply shoved off their slush piles onto the agents, who work for the writers.
To put it in business terms, a publisher was forcing a supplier of a product to hire an employee before they would look at the product. Anyone in any normal business would look at this as head-shaking, and it is.
Of course this slammed the existing agents with a ton of work. When this happened, most of the existing agents already had a bunch of writers they were working for, so they mostly just shut down new writers coming in, and many of them went and hid. Finding some of the top agencies is a tough thing for a beginning writer to do because they just don’t want the mass of garbage coming at them that the publishers are forcing at them.
Back to the original concept. An agent is the employee of a writer. If I have an agent, I want that agent working for me and my books, not reading through some lazy publisher’s slush pile. I want my employee working for me.
Interesting isn’t it how this industry has gotten sort of screwed up? Bookstore owners take no responsibility for their own inventory with the return system and publishers take no responsibility for their own slush piles.
So this change and other factors in the business forced a ton of editors to quit and move over to agenting (more money was the major factor), and when editors became agents, they brought along what had been their right as editors with publishers, to make writers rewrite books. They forgot that when they left editing and crossed to the other side of that contract line, they worked for the writer, not the publisher, and thus was born the nasty habit of having an agent tell a writer to rewrite.
And for almost ten years, younger writers have let their employees do this to them, all because of that stupid closed door and younger writers inability to think their way around or over it.
During this time, some agents started to think of themselves as a lot more than just an employee of the writer, they started thinking that they were in charge of the writer. And everyone knows when you start letting an employee run a business what happens: Nothing pretty, and that’s where we sit now.
At this point in history, the system has become so warped, it’s almost funny if it wasn’t killing so many writer’s dreams. An employee who works for an employer is telling the employer they can’t sell their product. Imagine that happening in any other business? You work at a production factory (which is what a writer is) and you tell your boss that you won’t sell their product. What would happen? You would be fired, of course.
Yet beginning writers let agents do this exact same thing to them at the moment and even some writers with a few books under their belt fall into this pit, writing and rewriting over and over for an audience of one. And the audience works for them. Let me simply say that’s impossible to do. Not even my wife loves everything I have written and have sold to major houses. And she’s won a Hugo Award for her editing.
One side note that most don’t know. Agents need nothing to become an agent. No training, no license, nothing. Anyone who says they are an agent and can get a card printed can go to writers’ conferences and get new writers to sign on. Scams are everywhere.
Now at this point in time, not surprisingly, editors and publishers on the other side are finding it difficult to find books that are new, that are different, that have a new voice. I wonder why?? Duh. The agents aren’t mailing them, or having their writer rewrite all the newness and excitement right out of it. In other words, the publishers have set up a road block, a closed door, that is just a little too good. I even heard of a few agents who had decided lately to not send out anything for six months because they didn’t think they could get enough money for the projects right now.
I would fire an agent like that so quickly, they wouldn’t even have time to know what happened. After all, I need to make a living as well.
Right now let me state a few real basic principles of book publishing.
1) There is no perfect book.
2) Editors can’t buy books they don’t see.
3) Agents work for writers.
Writers have to do their best with every book, then get it on editor’s desks. It is not the agent’s responsibility to get a book to a publisher, it is the writers. History is full of stories of books being rejected 50 or 60 or more times before finding the right editor and going on to become a bestseller. Books that are different and really new face a lot of rejection before they are bought. When your agent refuses to send out a book, you are letting one opinion, one rejection stop you. Silly, just flat silly.
One more fact right here. Agents in this business gain their power to have their calls returned because of who they represent. The writers are the power base and if an agent represents a major bestseller, that agent gets his phone calls returned by publishers and editors and vice presidents of companies. If an agent lives in the boondocks and represents only writers who sell at 5,000 copy levels, that agent gets no phone calls returned and has to mail books exactly as a writer would mail them to editors. The power is always in the writers.
So today we find ourselves with two different kinds of agents. There are still some old-fashioned agents who understand who they work for, and the new must-rewrite agents who think they are in control of the writer. Both exist, but let’s go on pretending they have all just lost their jobs.
So at one hour after agents have vanished, publishers would be working to set up systems to allow the slush back in the door. Actually, this is being done in experiments in a couple publishers right now, where authors post on a web site part or all of their books and readers read them and if the book gets some good positive reviews from readers, the editors ask the author to see it. Interesting way to get readers to read slush which makes a lot more sense than agents reading it.
Other new systems of online submissions would be set up. I doubt highly if any of the publishers would go back to the big rooms full of submissions. Too expensive with New York prices. I can see a publisher setting up a couple assistant editors in a place a hundred miles outside of New York in a cheap warehouse to do nothing but read slush. That would be possible and worth the occasional good book they would find. At one hour, discussions would be starting about all of this.
More than likely, in one office or another, an editor thinking ahead will be suggesting they start sponsoring contract workshops for writers to learn contracts through different writer’s organizations. Romance Writers already does this, and this summer Kris and I are teaching a contracts/copyright workshop. But at the moment, most writers do not understand copyright and contracts until faced with that 12 page novel contract for the first time. And by that point, it’s too late without good help.
More contract lawyers would be thinking of shifting to publishing law as word got out.
Without overseas agents, writers would be going directly to those publishers as well. The Hollywood system would break down completely and I honestly have no idea how it would rebuild, so not talking about that area.
Life After Agents: 1 Day
Many, many beginning writers will be giving up at this point because they just don’t understand how the business could function without agents. These are the type of writers you hear say, “I don’t understand business, that’s why I want to be a writer.” This statement shows a vast lack of understanding about publishing and writing, and if these writers do end up selling a novel, they always end up sitting in a bar, not being able to sell their next book, and complaining they got screwed.
Nope. In all our workshops, Kris and I put a sign up. It says simply: YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN CAREER.
No one else. You sign the contracts, you write the books, you make the decisions. It’s your career and if you expect others to take care of you, you are lost. It won’t happen and like any employee, your agent won’t really care beyond the next paycheck. Nature of employees. We all know that.
So after one day the writers who are giving up because there now are no agents to “take care of them” are better off staying in their day jobs anyway. Blunt but true.
Publishers will be getting ready to handle books flowing at them. You see, the ugly truth about publishing is that it is a machine. Every book line must fill its list every month, and if there are four books on that list, the editor’s jobs are on the line to fill those spots every month with books that will sell.
Writers must get their books to those editors, so with agents suddenly being gone, this temporary roadblock that publishers have made up will allow books to start flowing back at them. With e-mail and online submissions, the process can become much, much easier, and after one day publishers would be scrambling to set up the new systems and get out the new guidelines.
Will the vanishing of agents effect anything else in publishing? Nope.
Again, agents are employees of writers. Books flow from writers to publishers to distributors to bookstores and then into customer hands. Notice that nowhere in that traditional model does a book have to go through an agent. Having them vanish will make no difference to the system in general or readers who buy books.
In a few minor ways, some writers are already trying to go around publishers and distributors and bookstores and go direct to readers, and this might get even more of a push from some writers who think their one hope of getting into a regular publisher has vanished with the agents. It might be a good thing in some ways, bad in others. It’s a huge topic I might cover later in another article.
Next up, Part Two of Life After Agents. Stay tuned. Comments welcome.