This series of posts is taking the wonderful series on The History Chanel called Life After People and using the format to take a look at different areas of publishing. So far I’ve done two on Life After Returns and one on Life After Agents. This is the second part of Life After Agents, taking up where the first one left off. Please read the first post right below this one or this one will make no sense.
Again, I am not suggesting that agents as people should go away. I have many friends who are agents and I like them all. I’m just talking about what would happen if their job suddenly vanished from the face of publishing.
Life After Agents: 1 Week.
Writers would still be in a panic, at least all the newer writers and writers who believed the myth that once they got an agent, that person would “take care of them.” Of course, taking care of a writer is not an agent’s job, but after one week, the writers who believed the myth would still be in a panic or giving up.
Established long-term professionals (meaning writers with more than ten or twenty novels published) would be just going on, more than likely trying to calm down their younger writer friends. The vanishing of someone doing an agent’s job to these long term writers would be nothing more than an annoyance. Most of them had been without an agent at one point or another in the past, this would be nothing different.
Book publishers and imprints would be going along with getting out their lists, bookstores and readers wouldn’t even have noticed.
After one week, one focus would be inside the publishing houses concerning the slush pile. Publishers had suddenly been forced back into doing their own searching for books and dealing with the mass of slush manuscripts. Of course, this will end up being a good thing for the entire industry, but after one week, the struggle of setting up new systems will be a focus of many meetings.
What kind of slush systems might fill the gap?
1) Slush piles, more than likely situated out of New York, with hired assistant editors to go through the piles. More than likely these assistant editors would be hired by the editors in New York and would work directly with assistants. Of course, the only way the assistant is going to escape the warehouse outside of New York and get into the main office is to find good manuscripts. Sort of a training system for all the Vassar grads going into editing. This would be a return to an old system and I doubt many publishers would use it except for a temporary solution.
2) E-mail/web-based systems of forms. The writer fills out a form exactly, meaning there is a certain number of manuscript pages included, a certain length synopsis of the book, a certain length of bio material. This form would be done online in some fashion. This form would then be slotted to an editorial area where the assistant editors would spend a percentage of their days weeding through the e-mail submissions and sending form rejections. More than likely this system of exact forms will soon replace the agent system anyway, since agents are blocking far too much these days from editor’s eyes. (See my last post as to why this is happening.) This form system is already in place in a number of publishers.
3) Editorial contests where other readers read what a writer has posted on a site and vote and if there are enough votes, editors take a look. This system is already in place in a number of houses and more than likely will fail as an overall system.
4) Closed system completely. Many houses without the agent block would just shut their doors to any new work coming in. Of course, to fill their lists, they have to see new work. Sounds like one excludes the other, but it doesn’t. The new system would be for the editors to find the writers in any way they want. More writer’s conferences, talking with their existing writers for names of new writers, following the short fiction for new writers publishing in the magazines, buying writers away from other houses. Again, this system is in place already in a few houses and is a throw-back to an older system. I was asked for my first novel because an editor had seen some of my short fiction in magazines.
So, after one week, what other issues would be starting to crop up without the writers having an agent as employee?
The main job an agent does is negotiate contracts. Writers, for numbers of reasons, don’t want to learn business and publishing contracts before stepping onto a national stage. This is like saying a surgeon doesn’t want to go to school before doing an operation on your brain. Yet writers fire out manuscripts all the time and don’t understand a book publishing contract when it is offered. They will sign it, often with a beginning agent saying it is all right, and then complain when the term of the contract screwed them.
I can’t begin to say how many times I have read contracts for friends who had younger agents who actually made contracts worse for the writer. Having an agent negotiate a contract is critical, but having the wrong agent do it can make things worse. Most beginning writers don’t understand that they need to learn contracts and business, not leave it up to their agent. Of course, with agents being gone, they would be forced into learning or leaving.
A side note: Agents are not regulated in any fashion and are not required in any way to take any training, including learning publishing contracts or money management. Yet young writers who want someone to “take care of them” put all their faith and complete income into agents’ hands. As we all discovered recently in the financial world, having an unregulated group of people control money is always a route to disaster. Agents are unregulated and have no required training. Just keep that in mind.
Agents have played the roll of protecting the baby writers who don’t have a clue, even though experienced agents don’t like to do it. Somewhere around the fifth contract, new writers start gaining some knowledge about what they are signing. This learning curve is backwards from what it should be and leads to disaster more often than not, especially when there are young and inexperienced agents helping them. As credit card companies have discovered, the stupidity of the consumer in not reading or understanding contracts can make a lot of money for a company.
Publishing companies will be no different than credit card companies at this point without any agents in the picture. Long term writers won’t be hurt at all because we all understand contracts, otherwise we would have been gone long ago. But newer writers who hoped someone would “take care of them” would have no clue, and not even know where to go learn publishing contracts, and even worse, not even think they had to. Publishers would have a field day, a feeding frenzy, until this knowledge gap found a new way to get closed.
Life After Agents: 1 Month
Writer’s organizations, at least the powerful ones, would be trying to step in to fill the education gap on contracts. Standard contracts for each house would be circulating and lists of intellectual property lawyers would be forming. Lawyers who understand publishing contracts (your local attorney wouldn’t have a clue) will be able to help on the negotiating the contract, but writers would have to learn how to stand up for themselves. After one month, this might not be clear yet, but many writers with contracts in the pipelines would be discovering the problem.
A personal aside here. As I said last post, I have sold over 90 novels. My agents never sold a one of them. I sold them all. But I had a top agent on almost every one of the contracts to negotiate it for me. This is the area that agents will be missed the most. In the current climate of thinking that agents are needed to sell books and take care of writers and help them rewrite books, this true job of negotiating contracts with writers has been lost in the noise.
Now understand, a long term professional writer like me would have the same problems of spending more time on things we used to let our employee do. Unlike the beginning writers who expect agents to take care of them, I use an agent to not only negotiate the contract, but do some of the work I don’t feel like doing on a book. If agents suddenly vanished, I think I would miss that employee side the most.
On the slush side, at one month, the publishers would all have new systems up and running and in various stages of testing. Younger pros and beginning writers would still be in a state of panic that their myth-like crutch has been taken away. Older pros would mostly just be searching to make sure channels were open to their overseas publishers and that they liked their new lawyer.
A side point here. Agents take 15% and 20% overseas. Writers using intellectual lawyers tend to pay far less for the negotiating and contracts side, thus this would be a raise for writers, which would make up for the extra time we would have to spend.
After a month, another aspect that would be shoving hard would be the writers going directly to print in one form or another. POD publishing would be increasing. Kindle and other e-book forms of writer-as-publisher would be increasing as well. It would be a small push, but it would get a lot of press among the writers feeling lost without their caretaker agent.
A huge positive side of all agents suddenly vanishing is that the low level scam agents would also be gone. The “book doctors” and other scam fee agents would no longer be around to feed on a young writer’s dreams. A very positive thing.
Life After Agents: Six Months.
Publishing houses would have completely leveled out and got their slush under control in one way or another. The lists of books have to be put out every month. Having agented submissions or regular submissions will mean nothing to publishers after a short adjustment and a few new systems.
Writer’s organizations would have gained in power and would be doing their best to step in and start new educational programs very focused on contracts, negotiating and other aspects. Romance Writers of America already does much of this, but after six months, most of the writers organizations would have lists of lawyers, would have standard contracts, and would be having more experienced professionals running contract and negotiating workshops.
But there is no getting around it, during the transition, some publishers would take advantage of writers in contracts and subrights. But after six months, this would be starting to level out.
At the moment, agents block many books from getting to editors, and make writers who let them rewrite a book into sameness. Without this blockage, editors after six months would be discovering some fine new talent flowing at them, some new and very different voices. This can only be good for publishing and readers.
At six months, the publishing industry would be chugging right on without agents as if they had never existed.
At the moment, agents and their relationship with publishers is one area of publishing that is seriously flawed. Agents work for writers, yet they have relationships with publishers and are forced on writers by the publishers. I want an agent who understands clearly that they stand on my side of the contract in negotiations.
Some agents act like they are in charge of their writers, that they know more about writing fiction than their writers do, that they can hire and fire writers, or make them rewrite books. Silly, just plain silly. They are an employee, nothing more.
And this belief that agents are the only people who can mail books to publishers is also silly, just flat silly. And the growth of that belief is hurting publishers in so many ways that are just starting to show. For example, I heard of many, many agents over the past four months who were deciding to not mail out their client’s work because this was a “slow time” in publishing. Think of that in business terms, in employee terms. You are running a production plant and your employee says “I’m not sending any product to our customers because I have a feeling things are bad right now.” As the boss, you would laugh and fire the employee and get an employee who would send out the product you produced to your customers. Yet many writers are letting agents get away with such things. See how fantastically silly things have become.
This is a new problem to publishing, growing over the last ten plus years. It is a problem that writers organizations, publishers, and the writers have to fix. I don’t want agents to vanish from publishing. But I do believe that writers need to get back in charge of their own employees.
Coming next: Life After Publishers. And yes, I will do Life After Writers at some point, just for kicks.